In medieval times, most people couldn’t read or write, so things were communicated in pictures or in speech.
Most medieval churches in England were covered in colourful wall paintings or tapestries telling stories from the Bible. A common painting in churches, was a ‘doom’ painting. Doom in old Anglo-Saxon means ‘Judgement’. Doom paintings were very graphic and depicted the Last Judgment where Christ judges’ souls, and then sends them either to Heaven or Hell.
Dooms were used to remind medieval Christians of the afterlife and Judgment Day, and to help keep them mindful of sinning by showing in detail the dramatic difference between Heaven and Hell. The first cited doom painting is dated to 1200 and they were in most churches by the 16th century.
One of the best examples of a doom painting is in St Thomas’s Church in Salisbury. The painting sits over the chancel arch and dates from between 1450-75. It is without doubt, the largest and best-preserved doom painting in England today.
In the centre of the painting it shows Christ in Majesty sitting on a rainbow with his feet resting on a smaller one below. His hands are raised, while behind him angels hold up a cross on his right side in the shape of a T, with the crown of thorns hung upon it. Beneath his feet in a long line are seated the Twelve Apostles. On the left of the painting, is a burial ground with number of open graves from which the dead in shrouds are emerging and ascending to heaven, helped by Angels with trumpets in their hands. On the other side the picture it is very different.
Flames are rising from the ground and devils are in charge of proceedings. Here stands the Prince of Darkness with the head and feet of a beast. A small group of the damned chained together are being dragged down to the mouth of Hell, represented by the mouth of a monstrous gaping dragon.
The whole scene on the right hand side of the painting is clearly designed to emphasise the terrors of Hell and to point the awful moral to medieval minds that God in his final judgement is no respecter of rank or position and that people will be judged equally according to our sins.
At the bottom of the picture is a scroll which reads “Nulla est Redemptio” which means “There is no escape for the wicked”
In the Reformation of the 16th century, all wall paintings in English churches were whitewashed with Lyme. The painting was rediscovered in 1881.