The Medieval Frescoes in St. Peter & St. Paul’s Church in Pickering
With an hour to kill before my guests were to board the North York Railway in Pickering for a trip to Whitby on the heritage railway I decided to take my clients to the local church in Pickering.
What makes St Peter & St Paul’s Church in Pickering unique is the fact it houses one of the most complete sets of medieval wall paintings in Britain and really is a hidden gem.
The remarkable paintings are believed to have been painted in the 1450’s but were not on show for long. The Protestant reformation led to changes in the interior décor of churches with anything deemed too fancy such as statues of saints, stained glass and wall decorations removed or destroyed and churches becoming more conservative, plain and sombre.
So less than 100 years later the impressive frescoes were covered by a thick layer of plaster.
They were lost for many centuries, only being discovered in 1852 during restoration work in the church when the plaster was removed and the wonderful paintings exposed. Many people came to view the paintings, but again they were not on show for long.
The vicar at the time – a Rev. Ponsonby disapproved of the imagery as he felt it distracted people from his sermons and he complained to the archbishop saying they were “full of popish superstition”. He soon covered the images with whitewash.
Fortunately, 24 years later the Rev. Lightfoot in 1876 decided to remove the whitewash and restore the frescoes to their former glory.
Why were the frescoes there in the first place?
What you need to remember is that in the middle ages most churches were completely painted inside. This painting was not primarily for decoration but more as an educational aid!
During the 1400’s most of the population would have been illiterate and very few understood Latin, so the paintings helped to tell stories and were an aid to worship. Wall paintings were often referred to as the “Biblia Pauperum” roughly translated as “the poor man’s bible”.
Some of my favourite frescoes are the two next to each other facing you when you enter the church. First we have St George. Now our English patron saint, but George was actually a Roman soldier in the late 200’s who converted to Christianity, was persecuted, killed and eventually martyred in 303. The later legend of St George and the dragon symbolises the struggle between good and evil.
Opposite St George is St Christopher. His image usually faces an entrance door and he is now recognised as the patron saint of travellers. The Story of Christopher was that of a man called Offero who set off to devote himself to the greatest king. having travelled the world he ended up at a monastery and the abbot gave him the task of carrying pilgrims across the river to the monastery. Upon carrying a small child across he noticed the child was heavier than all the adults he had carried. The child explained "Your load is heavy because you are carrying someone who carries all the sins of the world'. Thereafter he was known as the Christ bearer, which later became Christopher. the fresco shows Christopher carrying the Christ child.
Other frescoes include St Edmund’s martyrdom. He was a Saxon king of East Anglia. He was defeated by the Vikings and was offered the position of puppet king if he renounced Christianity. He refused and was tied to a tree, shot with arrows and then beheaded but became a key Christian martyr at the time.
The macabre frescoes also include the beheading of St John the Baptist by King Herod at his dinner table after he told Herod he should not have taken his brother’s wife as his own. His head literally served on a plate!
Plus the Descent into Hell with a dragons mouth depicting the jaws of hell. The fresco shows Jesus after dying going to hell to minister to the lost souls - the first person he meets in Adam holding an apple, the second figure is Eve.
It is now great that having been hidden for so long since their inititation, that the frescoes are now on show again. It is truly a privilege to see such magnificent artworks which were first produced over 570 years ago.
To find out more about the church and the frescoes – visit https://www.pickeringchurch.com