When we lived in Northamptonshire we stumbled on the medieval wall paintings in the parish church at Slapton which was a short walk across the fields from where we lived. Although I took a few photos I did not really know what I was looking at and I had no knowledge of the tradition of medieval wall paintings. This all changed recently when I joined a group visit to the church at Breage.
Breage is a village between Penzance and Helston. The church is Gothic and was built in the fifteenth century. It is dedicated to St Breage or Breaca who was an Irish nun who came to Cornwall in the fifth century. There are 144 Celtic patron saints in Cornwall with more churches being dedicated to them than to more commonly known saints.
Although Breage is only a few miles from here I had never been there. There are four saints depicted in paintings on the North wall. This is St Christopher and is situated next to the door. I believe that is the traditional place for him. Here he represents 'sudden death' rather than his usual association of travel. There are three other saints on this wall: Ambrose, Corentine and Hilary.
There is also a 'Sunday Christ'. This is a large figure of Christ designed to discourage Sabbath breaking and blasphemy, i.e. it is a warning to those people who work on Sundays. The tools of the trades of Sunday workers are used as illustrations.
Local occupations are represented which means in Cornwall there are often fishermen. I am afraid the quality of these photos is poor but here you can see the tools of the tailors whom I imagine just worked away at home and there are fishing tools including a fishing reel between the saint's legs. It was common to put locally specific things at the bottom of the painting.
Fish and other things to do with the sea are popular in Cornwall and this painting has a mermaid with a mirror and a large plaice.
I was interested to see that my photos of Slapton also have a mermaid and that is miles from the sea so I am wondering if it is also telling another story.
The churches also had paintings of 'international saints' which in Breage includes St Thomas a Becket. International saints generally appear on the South wall. The subject matter of the paintings is always the lives of saints and not bible topics which only appeared at the reformation. I expect that helps to date them.
We were told that there are also paintings in St Just which I must have seen years ago and need to revisit. I would also like to revisit St Keverne at the tip of the Lizard peninsula which is where my great-great grandmother was born and brought up. It apparently has some good paintings but the day we visited they were installing a new heating system and it was not really possible to study the church. All I remember is the large numbers of graves from shipwrecks on the Manacles rocks below the village.
Apparently the Breage paintings are quite late as the church was very new at the Reformation. The aisles were probably decorated when they were built. After the Reformation plaster was introduced and all the paintings covered up. We were told the Victorians had removed the plaster but this cannot always have been the case because I remember the Slapton paintings were only uncovered in the mid-twentieth century.