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24 September 2014
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Wall paintings in Pickering Parish Church
Pickering wall paintings

The Pickering Frescoes

Most old churches have a fairly staid interior, but it wasn't always that way. David Callow reveals the history and purpose of the wall paintings that have survived in Pickering Parish Church, and the work being done to preserve and restore them.

How to find Pickering Church

Upon arriving in Pickering, you'll see the church spire atop a small hill in the town centre. The main body of the church is hidden by a cluster of cottages and shops. You can access the church grounds by one of three flights of stone steps that cut through the surrounding buildings.

In the Middle Ages virtually all churches had paintings on their walls serving two objectives. The first was devotional and the second was to teach.

During the Puritan Reformation the churches, and the worship that went on inside them, became plainer.  Statues, candles, and all colourful decoration disappeared. In Pickering Church the 15th century wall paintings were hidden by limewash and over the centuries forgotten, until 1852, when work on the interior revealed these treasures and for three weeks many people came to view them. 

The vicar, Revd. Ponsoby, had them covered over again and it was not until a major refurbishment of the church in 1876-78 that the vicar at that time, Revd. Lightfoot, took the decision to uncover and restore them.

The dragon defeated by St George.
The dragon defeated by St George.

The paintings on the north wall are mainly of saints including St. George, St. Christopher, John the Baptist, St. Edmund and St. Thomas of Canterbury.  The images on the south wall seem to serve a teaching purpose especially with the telling of the legend of St Catherine of Alexandria and the depiction of the Corporal Acts of Mercy and the Passion of Christ.

The most striking is the giant figure of St. Christopher seen immediately on entering the church.  This is the place, opposite the entrance, where medieval travellers and pilgrims would have expected to have found him, and by the 15th century he was popular amongst those who undertook difficult and often dangerous journeys. 

In the painting he is crossing a river using a staff which is a young sprouting tree. On his left shoulder sits the Christ child and round his legs there are serpents, probably representing the adversity that the saint had to struggle against. The size of the figure is in keeping with the tradition which states that the saint stood twelve cubits high. 

On the bank waiting for him with a lantern is a figure in a habit, possibly the abbot of the monastery that the saint was serving or perhaps the hermit who is said to have baptised him. 

"The wall paintings were hidden by limewash and over the centuries forgotten, until 1852, when work on the interior revealed these treasures"

Equally large next to St Christopher is St George on horseback, forcing his lance into the defeated dragon’s mouth.

These two and the other paintings were described by Nicholas Pevsner in Buildings of England, Yorkshire, The North Riding as “one of the most complete series of wall paintings in English churches and they give one a vivid idea of what ecclesiastical interiors were really like”. 

A detailed survey was made in 1995 by a conservator and the conclusion was that although deterioration was occurring the rate was slow. However, the environmental conditions need monitoring before any conservation work takes place. 

The Church has plans to carry out improvements so that it can serve the parish and its visitors, many of whom come to see the wall paintings, better in the 21st century. These consist of a number of major changes – establishing disabled access, changing the south transept into a Memorial Chapel, developing a Parish Office in the vestry area, and improving the lighting in the church so that the paintings can be seen more clearly after they have been cleaned and restoring the organ. 

For almost 900 years the church has stood in the centre of Pickering. Changes have occurred throughout these centuries to meet the spiritual needs of the community and with the successful conclusion of the current fund raising efforts the church will be equipped to serve fully present and future generations.  

David Callow

last updated: 16/10/06
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