Church Wall Paintings: Axmouth, Devon
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A Study of the
Medieval Wall Paintings in Axmouth Church, Devon

by Roger Johnson

A Medieval Painted Church in Devon

The two piers nearest the chancel of Axmouth Church are adorned with thirteenth century wall paintings, uncovered in the restoration of 1889. Of a rare, Italianate style, Pevsner, in his "Buildings of Devon," baldly states these to be representations of St Peter, and Christ showing his wounds, respectively. The church guide is less certain, suggesting St Michael, St Peter, Christ, a saint connected with the Benedictines, or the Virgin Mary. All these attributions bear scrutiny, as indeed do a number of others that I propose to moot.

Figure on the Forward Pier: St. Michael?The image on the forward pier is of a male figure, clothed in a green habit and bearing what may well be a staff, or spear, the dilapidation of the paint work obscuring much of the detail. At his foot is just discernible what appears to be a set-square. This is the picture that Pevsner regards as being one of St. Peter. This is possible. St Peter is often depicted in mediaeval art wearing a blue or a green robe. The staff might just be a crosier of primitive design. Unfortunately the evidence ends there. There is a conspicuous absence of keys, an inverted cross, a cock, a fish, or a ship. The figure is clean-shaven, youthful and wears a monk's hood hiding his hair. St Peter is almost universally depicted as being a balding old man with curly hair and beard. This seems to cast some doubt on the attribution.

An alternative theory suggests St Michael. This might well have sprung from the dedication of the church if it were not for the fact that no reference is made to a dedication to St Michael earlier than the 19th century. The figure itself offers scant support for such a hypothesis. The putative spear would further his candidature, but the absence of wings and dragon and the pacifist nature of his garb make him a rank outsider. Indeed, a better case might be made out for the figure on the second pier.

This second figure is in even worse repair than its fellow but shows a figure wearing a grey cowl and habit pulled back to reveal the naked torso and a loin cloth preserving its decency. It is standing with arms outstretched and might well be the striking the stance of one displaying the stigmata. The detail is too vague to be sure, but there is a distinct suggestion of blood on one of the hands and down the side of the rib cage. With the exercise of a measure of imagination, the garment worn could be interpreted as wings. All the other characteristics negate the attribution however. Nevertheless it is just possible that the latter day dedication of the church was inspired by the nebulously winged figure on the second pier.

Figure on the Rear Pier: Christ?To return to the first subject, two other possible attributions commend themselves. Both provide a link between the two paintings. The first is that it represents St Benedict. The presentation of the church and manor of Axmouth was owned by the Priory of Loders. The effigy in the chancel is of similar antiquity to the pictures and is thought to be that of Roger Hariet, instituted as Prior in 1320/21 and who resigned fours years later. He was prior of Loders and may have been responsible for rebuilding part of the church during his incumbency. This would make the representation of the Benedictine's founding saint a very apposite subject for ecclesiastical decoration. The presence of a pastoral staff or an aspergillum (a rod used for sprinkling holy water during exorcisms) adds encouragement as does the cowl. Against this, however, is the youth of the subject and the colour of the habit. St Benedict is nearly always represented as an old man, often bearded, but not always so. Although colour is not a reliable guide for identification purposes it is usual for the habit to be either black, as in the original order, or white, as in the reformed order. St Benedict's suit is arguably advanced by a possible attribution to the figure on the second pier of St. Francis of Assisi. He is widely represented as displaying the stigmata and wearing a loincloth secured by a girdle containing the three knots representing poverty, chastity, and obedience. The figure displays all of these characteristics, given a modicum of goodwill, and its grey cowl is of a colour associated with the order. It is possible that the four piers might have suggested the sub ect of the four founders of the monastic orders as a suitable topic for the pictorial edification of the untutored congregation, with only two surviving.

The final suggestion that I should like to make is that the second figure. is indeed the figure of Christ displaying his wounds, but that the first is that of St Thomas famous for his insistence on an intimate examination of the same after the resurrection. St Thomas is depicted as a clean-shaven young man. His attributes include a spear - the instrument of his martyrdom - and a builder's set square or a ruler in his role as patron saint of builders and architects. This last was common in Gothic times but become rare later. This fits in well with the details that can be made out on the first pillar. Ironically, if this attribution were to be correct it could add weight to the last of the listed attributions - that the second figure is that of a somewhat immodest Virgin Mary.

There is a feminine quality to the set of this figure's head, and the drapery does preserve the modesty of the upper torso, but the loin cloth, the abdomen exposed above it, and the girdle securing it all have a distinctly masculine cast to them. If St Thomas is indeed adjacent to the figure it could be argued that it is a very butch Madonna on the grounds that St. Thomas was supposed to have turned up late to her assumption, as he did Christs resurrection, and she was supposed to have thrown him her girdle as a proof of the matter. The exposed lower torso might be the Virgin about to release her girdle, but the surrender position of the arms and the presence of the stigmata render it most unlikely!

On the south wall of the aisle is an almost invisible remnant of a painting depicting a man in agony. The face can be made out, with its tortured expression. Its height from the ground, and some horizontal marks make it possible that the unfortunate gentleman, for it is definitely a male face, was in a recumbent position. In the guide mounted on a board and designed to be used in situ, an attribution to St Erasmus is suggested. In the light of the very limited evidence this must be taken as speculative in the extreme, but attractive withal. St Erasmus suffered martyrdom by having his main intestine drawn out by a capstan. This followed a lengthy session of torture which was reputed to have included the insertion of ships' nails beneath those on his hands and feet. Both capstan and nails subsequently became a distinguishing feature of his in religious art. It is perhaps of interest that he is the patron saint of Mediterranean sailors and, more practically, sufferers from intestinal disorders. This link with the sea, and more specifically the Mediterranean, may be a facet of the life of what was once a thriving mediaeval sea port.

As is so often the case in these matters, no more than an airing of conflicting theories has here been possible; but, whatever the merits of each, I hope they will provide some fuel for further debate.

Axmouth Church Architecture
Axmouth Church History


Bio: Roger Johnson is a retired School Master who lives in Lympstone in Devon. He has studied several areas of Devon's fascinating past, and is particularly captivated by the more contraversial areas of British History.

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