By Eleanor Elizabeth Pridgeon
PhD Dissertation, University of Leicester, 2010
Abstract: This thesis is a comprehensive reassessment of the role of Saint Christopher wall paintings in English (and Welsh) churches. Although the study focuses primarily on parish churches (where the majority of mural paintings survive), it also considers cathedrals, abbeys and other medieval buildings where such imagery is extant or documented. Welsh churches are also examined where appropriate, though there are only a few surviving Saint Christopher images in this geographical area. The investigation spans the period from the emergence of Saint Christopher representations in illumination (c.1250), to the beginning of the sixteenth century, when wall painting depictions of the saint were at their zenith (c.1500 for sake of convenience).
The thesis begins with an examination and assessment of universal image function and reception in medieval church and society. This is a central issue to the study of churches, and it is therefore necessary to dedicate a whole chapter to the subject. Through the examination of individual paintings and documents relating to specific churches, the thesis then goes on to focus on three main themes related to Saint Christopher and his cult. First, it considers the role of Saint Christopher wall paintings (and other types of images where appropriate), secondly, the location of Saint Christopher murals within church buildings, and thirdly, the different methods of patronage associated with the wall paintings. The survey also establishes a long-overdue and revised chronology of the entire corpus of Saint Christopher wall paintings based on an examination of architectural, documentary and visual evidence, and on comparisons with other types of media from England and the Continent (such as sculpture, illumination and woodcuts). Most murals can be dated to within the nearest quarter or third of a century (and to the nearest century if the date of execution is uncertain).
Introduction: The English (and Welsh) parish church is still an under-researched area of study, despite rich survivals from the late medieval period. Modern academics have tended to focus upon the larger churches and cathedrals for which documentary evidence is often more readily available. Some (including Duffy) have drawn illustrative examples from specific and arguably unrepresentative geographical areas such as East Anglia. Others have examined artistically superior and lavish images such as the wall paintings at Brent Eleigh and the Thornham Parva retable (Suffolk), thus implying that they are representative of the medieval church image as a whole. Yet it should be considered that the majority of buildings in medieval England did not attract such extravagant patronage. Although many of the smaller, rural edifices were impressive and had major additions in the later medieval period, the wall painting did not generally achieve the high artistic standards of the more illustrious schemes. Binski dismisses their style as “haphazard and average in quality”, but has to concede that they are interesting from the point of view of function and perception. Yet they are also remarkable from an iconographical perspective.