Exposing hidden sinners in a rural Welsh church

 Deep in the Vale of Glamorgan, the interior of the 13th-century church of St Cadoc in Llancarfan was once a riot of colour. Dramatic images of saints and allegorical scenes competed for space while vivid depictions of the Seven Deadly Sins cavorted around the arch of a south-west window. But during the reign of Edward VI these pictures offended the religious sensibilities of Protestant reformers who promptly whitewashed the church’s Catholic past out of existence. Llancarfan’s saints and sinners lay forgotten for the next 500 years, but now conservation work has brought them to light once more.

St George and the Dragon, with Death and the Gallant bottom left (photo: Ian Fell/Media for Heritage)

The first clue to the existence of the lost paintings emerged three years ago when architects noticed a thin red line of ochre on the south wall of the church. Hours of painstaking work removing over 20 layers of limewash, modern paint and bat droppings revealed the line to be part of a painted frame surrounding a spectacular mural of St George. Dressed in full armour, England’s patron saint attacks a coiled dragon from the back of his white charger. Nearby stands the grateful damsel in distress (accompanied by a lamb emphasising the Christian tone of the painting), while her royal parents look on from the safety of their castle. The princess’ clothes and George’s armour date the image to the 15th century. Only two other St George murals are known from Welsh churches, and Llancarfan’s is thought to be the largest and best preserved.

Subsequent initiatives funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and Cadw have uncovered further paintings, including a sinister ‘Death and the Gallant’, a variation on the popular Medieval Danse Macabre motif, emphasising the futility of earthly vanity. In the version at St Cadoc’s, a young man — dressed in the height of 15th-century fashion with his knitted Monmouth cap — is shown being dragged to his doom by a shroud-wrapped skeleton.

The Venerable Peggy Jackson, Priest-in-Charge of Llancarfan, counts the church's sins. Clockwise from bottom left: Lust, Sloth and Pride (photo: Ian Fell/Media for Heritage)

Now the latest project, which included repairing damage around a window caused by resident bats, has discovered lively depictions of the Seven Deadly Sins hidden under 27 layers of paint.  Each shows a human being tempted into wrongdoing by gloating devils. The first to emerge was Gula (Gluttony), but others soon followed. Luxuria (Lust) portrays two lovers kissing rather chastely — though a nearby devil urges them on to more amorous acts. Accedia (Sloth) has a devil encouraging a man to escape his meaningless life by falling on his sword, and the regal figure of Superbia (Pride) smiles smugly as two demons place a crown on his head. Meanwhile Avaritia  (Avarice) is plied with bags of gold coins.  Wrath and Envy are still lurking unseen beneath the limewash, though as the Heritage Lottery Fund granted the church’s Conservation Committee a further £541,900 only this week, it is hoped that these too will soon be exposed to view.

Conservation Committee member Ian Fell said he expected another 18 months were needed to uncover, preserve and interpret the rest of the paintings in the church.

He said: ‘The questions to be unpacked from these discoveries are legion. Not least, what is St George doing on a church wall in Wales? We will have to watch this limewashed space.’

For more information on St Cadoc’s church and its wall paintings, visit  www.stcadocs.org.uk

Article by Carly Hilts