Roughly 18 miles from Gloucester lies the church of St. Mary Kempley. Separated from the road by an avenue of trees and part of the churchyard, you will be greeted with a standard grey stone building – just for it to turn pink on you the moment you turn the corner. It’s not often I’m surprised by the exterior of a building but at 9 am on a very cold and wet day I did have to pause for just a second, but it’s not the outside of the building I’ve come to look at.
The church of St. Mary Kempley is currently owned by English Heritage and maintained and run by a lovely group called Kempley Tardis – that’s right – like Dr. Who. The building is Norman and was built in the 12C, likely by Baron Hugh de Lacey – the owner of Kempley Manor at the time. The tower is 13C and was purportedly built to defend against potential attacks from the Welsh. The porch was added in the 14C.
If you think of it, looking up as you enter the church you will encounter a Norman tympanum with a ‘tree of life motif’ obscured by some of the timbers. Once inside you’ll be under a hidden away 12C roof – one of if not the oldest in England- which is above the currently visible ceiling. Upon entering there are several wall paintings in various conditions all around the nave. The paintings here in the nave are done with tempera, and are classified as secco – where the painting is done after the plaster dries. They are all thought to be from the 14C, though some of the paintings on the south wall appear to be palimpsests – where there are layers of paintings over each other.
The palimpsest paintings can be seen on the south wall – dark plumes contrast with the white wall and the very end of a crozier can be spotted to the left. This is the murder scene of Thomas Becket, who can be just barely made out kneeling in prayer. Above the plumed attackers is another figure – likely St. George slaying the dragon – with other small fragments peeking through. At present, apart from St. George, we are not sure what the other painting depicts.
On the north wall of the building is arguably the most spectacular part of the nave. The finer details are now gone but the wheel of life painting commands the presence of the room – with each of the several circles representing a stage of life – likely with Christ being in the center as this is how many are found in comparable manuscripts. In these motifs, life starts at infancy, peaks about halfway through, and then for the rest of the wheel there is a greater and greater decline until death. On good days with good lighting sometimes figures can be made out through the damaged layers of paint. Also present on the north wall are images of St. Anthony of Egypt, St. Michael, and the Virgin. Closer attention to St. Michael reveals he is carrying a sword, a sign of the last judgment. Meanwhile, the Virgin has her hand up in a gesture of intercession. These scenes and reminders of death and the potential for damnation were common in medieval churches, and encouraged congregations to stay faithful.
There are some paintings on the chancel arch, the three Mary’s at the sepulchre are in the upper south corner, and patterns cover the arch and portions of the doorway. But stepping into the chancel makes the rest of the building feel almost irrelevant.
Upon entering the chancel it’s almost hard to know where to look first – the ceiling and walls are covered with 12C frescoes. To be fair, after a little bit of digging through reports and papers it appears there is a layer of fresco painting with secco techniques applied for the details over it – but all the same the presence of fresco painting in England is extraordinarily rare. It’s hard to imagine what the church looked like when the paintings were whitewashed over in the 16C, and harder to imagine the surprise of their discovery in the late 19C after they had been forgotten for a few centuries! The set of paintings in the chancel is the most complete set of 12C wall paintings in England and are considered to be of international importance. Their colours, style, and technique are all similar to Romanesque wall paintings in France from the same time period. The traditional reds and yellows, as well as the highlights of blue azurite and green malachite cover the walls and ceiling in a scene from Revelation showing the apocalypse.
On the chancel ceiling Christ sits with his feet on the globe surrounded by the sun, moon, the four evangelists, and seraphim. The north and south walls contain the twelve disciples all looking up to Christ in adoration, the occasional faded set of eyes still stare up and out of the plaster. It is impossible to determine which disciple is which, but close inspection will reveal that they were indeed all painted to look different from each other. But my personal favourite part of the chancel are the entryways into the holy city painted above the windows. Towers and arches crown the curve of the window while the surrounding stone is painted in a red checkerboard pattern – making the distance between wall and window feel even further than it is.
It’s easy to spend a good chunk of time here if you really allow yourself to notice and appreciate the small details of the paintings and the stonework. However, given the nature of this blog by now you must be asking ‘But is there any graffiti?!’ Sadly there appear to be no grand designs like we get in some of the cathedrals or other parish churches. A few odd lines here and there and almost random looking scratches hint at possible inscriptions from long ago. The only discernible find I had was a shield shape faintly inscribed in one of the windows. A large and difficult to photograph compass drawn design also lends its apotropaic power on the outside of the door. Apart from those two items I found very little in the way of graffiti. Despite this, St Mary Kempley is certainly worth a visit – even just for a look at the rare and amazing 12C paintings in the chancel. Besides, it’s one of the only places left you can get a feel for what many of the parish churches looked like long ago.
I chose to visit St. Mary Kempley on a freezing wet February morning, but the church is open regularly- once the weather warms up – from April to October. Or you can contact English Heritage and make an appointment if you prefer to venture out in the cold like I do!
English Heritage’s page on St. Mary Kempley
British History Online with a Summary all about Kempley itself
Wall Painting Condition Audit from 1997 in the Archaeology Data Service database