St Mary the Virgin Part 2 – Save Our Stories Series: A Reflection

By Micah Mackay


In my last blog post, where I took a look at St Mary the Virgin, Tarrant Crawford, I promised another post examining its fourteenth-century wall paintings. I initially thought this post would be more of an academic study of the paintings found in this church. However, it has turned into something different — something more personal. I believe The Wandering Academic should be more than just an account of visits, places, and the things found in them though. It should be a space to share reactions to these places and the thoughts and emotions they provoke.

Medieval wall painting of the Crucifixion

I want to focus on one image in particular: a painting of the Crucifixion. Although not the most striking wall painting within St Mary’s, this image is, nevertheless, the one to which I am most drawn. Like most of the wall paintings, this image has been weathered by time. Yet, it is Christ’s body, stretched out on a now mostly-invisible cross, that stands in sharp relief to the blurred and faded faces at the foot of the cross. Even without the cross visible, one’s eyes are drawn to the shape of Christ’s body— the raised arms, the head which has fallen to one side. The image, faded as it is, remains recognisable purely from the body’s position. Many would be able to mentally ‘fill in’ what has been lost to time: how the crown of thorns might have looked or perhaps the shape of the cross supporting Christ. The real beauty in this image though is the lack of these things. How little of the picture is needed to tell a story. It is the simplicity of the human form, arms outstretched, that bring to mind the Crucifixion. Without the cross, this image seems somewhat more powerful. Christ’s arms speak of sacrifice and redemption but also reach out to the viewer— to welcome, to accept and to almost embrace them. It is even more clear than usual that this is an image not only of suffering but of profound love. 

It is all the more beautiful that this part of the image, Christ’s body, is the element which has survived the passing of ages. It has survived the reformation, wars, and plagues. For many years it lay unseen before being ‘re-discovered’ during restoration works from 1910-1911.¹ Whilst flicking through my phone and thinking of all the places I have been lucky enough to visit, this one image served as a powerful reminder of the fact that beauty, whatever its form, will find a way to survive in the most difficult of circumstances. It may not be apparent or totally obvious at times but it is there. The survival of Christ’s body within this image brings to mind what is really important: what will stay with other people, long after we have gone, is the love we are able to share, the selfless acts, and the bits of beauty, we, ourselves, are able to give to others. 

In the middle of Dorset, hundreds of years ago, an artist produced these wonderful paintings and they have survived, bringing both beauty and joy to those who see them today. It is an act of love and devotion that has been passed down through the centuries from the artist’s hand to our eyes. Even though the artist remains nameless, this love, this beauty, is what is left of them. 

This time of lockdown is an uncertain and challenging time for us all. There will be moments when everything feels impossible, when tempers flare, when things are said that ought not to be said, or when we just feel like it is all too much. None of us are perfect though. All we can do is continue to try our best for those around us and, also, for ourselves. We can find solace in little bits of beauty and in small acts of kindness and understanding. After all, to keep in mind the words of Philip Larkin’s ‘An Arundel Tomb’, “what will survive of us is love.”²

Some of the wall paintings in St Mary the Virgin. The top row tells the tale of St Margaret of Antioch. The Crucifixion can be seen on the bottom right.

Footnotes
1. Jenny C. Bledsoe, The Cult of St Margaret of Antioch at Tarrant Crawford: The Saint’s Didactic Body and Its Resonance for Religious Women, Journal of Medieval Religious Cultures 39.2, (2013): pp.173-206 (p.178), JSTOR, DOI: 10.5325/jmedirelicult.39.2.0173, Accessed: 21st April 2020.

2. Philip Larkin, An Arundel Tomb, Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47594/an-arundel-tomb, Accessed: 21st April 2020.


This is part of our ‘Save Our Stories’ series. This series highlights the work of English Heritage, who are trying to preserve wall paintings across the country. For more information please click here.

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