St John the Baptist’s in Inglesham, Wilts., is a Saxon church that boasts a stunning gallery of artwork spanning seven centuries. Images and text compete for space on its walls, in some places overlapping up to 21 layers thick.

The earliest paintings are simple 13th-century patterns of flowers and red-and-white stripes, but in the 14th century these were joined by brightly-coloured saints and angels. St Catherine is shown holding her wheel, St Michael weighs souls on Judgement Day and St Christopher can be seen peering out from the 18th-century text that partially obscures him. The images also include one of the earliest examples of the Mater Misericordiae motif: a golden-haired Virgin Mary sheltering souls within the folds of her cloak. In the 16th and 17th centuries Biblical extracts were painted in distinctive ‘black letter’ text, and in the 18th century these were supplemented with creeds, the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments, all in elegant script enclosed by decorative frames.

This remarkable range of paintings caught the eye of William Morris, who was based at nearby Kelmscott Manor in the 19th century. An initial conservation initiative took place between 1886-90, with subsequent projects in 1933 and the 1970s. Since 1989 the Church Conservation Trust has managed the site, carrying out crucial preservation work and, for the last two years, hosting internships for the next generation of conservators.

Dr Neil Rushton of the Church Conservation Trust said: ‘The wall paintings at Inglesham are very unusual in having examples over such a long time span and the intricacy of the layers of painted designs means that their conservation is an extremely complex process. The wall paintings project has been one of the longest running of its type in the country and what is particularly pleasing is how we have managed to incorporate a student training element into the conservation work over the past two years.’

Of the 341 churches cared for by the Church Conservation Trust, over 80 have wall paintings, dating from the 12th-19th centuries. To explore these historic treasures, click here.

For more information on what we can learn from church wall paintings, see Lakenheath: Politics and painting in the Medieval church (CA 265).

Text by Carly Hilts

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