During the Reformation, countless works of art within churches were destroyed or obscured. At St Albans Cathedral they use light projection to restore four medieval paintings.
St Albans Cathedral, located north of London, is recognized as the oldest site of continuous Christian worship in Britain. The large cathedral dates back to the 11th century and during the Middle Ages it featured several paintings throughout the building. However, during the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, many of these images were limewashed and covered up, as church authorities rejected their display as promoting idolatry.
In 1862 several paintings were rediscovered on the nave pillars of the cathedral, but were heavily damaged. It was not until 2019 that people could see what they would have looked like, as a special project using light projection helped to recreate the images. In the video below, you can see how an image of Thomas Becket is restored:
@medievalists.net Amazing project at St Albans Cathedral to show us how #medieval paintings looked like #stalbans #cathedral #art #arthistory #medievaltiktok ♬ Pange lingua (Gregorian chant) – Choir of St. Ignatius Loyola
Along with the painting of Becket, the light projection also displays recreations of three other images: a scene showing St Alban and St Amphibalus, St Christopher, and what is believed to be St Sitha, a 13th-century Italian saint. To ensure accuracy, measurements and high-resolution photographs were taken of the artworks to help discover their original colours. During this process, they learned that while many of the paintings’ colours came from plant sources, the artists also used more precious materials, including gold leaf, malachite and lapis lazuli.
It took 18 months to create the light projections, which are beamed from special cameras mounted high up along the walls of the nave. The images can now be seen during daily tours of the cathedral.
These paintings would have held special significance for the parishioner who came to church during the Middle Ages. In his book, St Albans Cathedral Wall Paintings, M. A. Michael notes that parishioners even financially supported the upkeep of these artworks:
Inscriptions and donor figures can be made out below or near the grand figures of St Christopher, St Thomas Becket and St Sitha, which would once have greeted those entering the parochial chapel or attending mass in the nave. The narrative image of Sts Alban and Amphibalus on the fourth painted pier was probably placed there in the late thirteenth century because the shrine of St Amphilabus was once housed behind a protective iron railing near the altar of the Holy Cross.
This church was part of the Benedictine abbey of St Albans, one of the wealthiest and most influential monasteries in medieval England. These particular paintings have survived much since the Middle Ages – they were nearly destroyed when two pillars in the nave collapsed on October 10, 1323, which left the building heavily damaged. The church itself was mostly abandoned during the Dissolution of the Monasteries (1536-41) and could have suffered the same fate that many other monastic properties faced – falling into ruin – but was purchased by the townspeople of St Albans for £400 in 1553 so it could serve as the local parish church. It would not be until the 19th century that the church (which subsequently became a cathedral) was restored. It is now a major English landmark.
This light projection was part of a £7 million project to help restore and transform St Albans Cathedral. Over a thousand donors helped fundraise £3 million, while the Heritage Lottery Fund contributed another £3.9 million, towards the project that included a new visitors’ centre.
“We have long wanted to lift the veil of time to see how these paintings might have appeared,” said The Very Rev’d Dr Jeffrey John, Dean of St Albans Cathedral. “Thanks to the generosity of the (Heritage Lottery Fund) we have been able to do this and seeing them helps us understand why pilgrims of the Middle Ages are said to have fallen to their knees in wonder.”
Learn more about St Albans Cathedral on their website