In medieval Cornwall, as in the rest of Britain, the majority of ordinary folk were unable to read and write. Bible stories and Christian teachings were learnt and understood through oral repetition in church services, watching religious plays such as the Ordinalia and through colourful, attention-grabbing wall paintings. While most of these ancient murals have long since vanished a few rare examples do survive and some of the finest can be found in St Breaca church in Breage.
“The Breage frescoes and St Neot windows . . . show how the old men of Cornwall were taught by eye as well as ear.”western Morning News, 14th September 1944.
In the late 19th century there was a spate of church restorations in Cornwall. Some of these were kinder than others, sadly many ancient buildings fell victim to over-enthusiastic renovations. It was during one such remodelling in the summer of 1890 that Rev. Jocelyn Barnes uncovered much more than he had bargained for – and what he found began a life’s work for the vicar.
In a letter to the editor of The Cornishman newspaper, dated 17th July 1890, Rev. Barnes described his discovery.
Note: many documents and reports record the discovery of the murals as being in 1891 but this letter proves that they were found a year earlier.
Like so many Cornish churches the history of Breage Church takes us back into the mists of time. Saint Breaca was said to have been an Irish nun who arrived in Cornwall in the 5th century, some 600 or so years ago. In the 15th century the small Norman chapel at Breage was demolished to make way for a new larger church which was completed around 1450. The colourful ‘frescoes’ were probably painted around that time making them now more than 500 years old.
It is thought that the paintings were probably whitewashed over during turbulent period of King Henry VIII’s Reformation about 100 years later perhaps around 1540. Over the years layer upon layer of white paint coated the bright colours, ultimately protecting them until they were revealed by the building work in 1890.
As well as the two most striking images of St Christopher and Christ who tower over you, you can also find St Hilary, St Corentin, St Giles, St Michael and the dragon, King Henry VI and Thomas a Becket, as well as gothic text, sailing ships and fish. (The image of the King helps to date the murals as Henry reigned from 1422 to 1471.)
St Christopher is of course known to this day as the patron saint of travellers, and he may have been painted here because of the large number of pilgrims that passed through Breage before the Reformation on their way to St Michael’s Mount.
Beside St Christopher is the Christ figure strangely surrounding by all kinds of tools. There are axes, shears, rakes, saws, mallets, even a farm cart, and also objects more usually associated with drinking and gambling, such as playing cards and a lute. These items crowd around the sorrowful figure, some touching him, perhaps piercing his skin, and his body is covered in droplets of blood. This part of the mural is a not so subtle symbolic display, a warning to Sabbath-breakers, those who dared to work on the day of rest – or worse still partook of frivolous activities!
But undoubtedly my favourite image languishes in the water at the feet of St Christopher.
It is the mermaid. She is holding up a mirror which reflects her face in one hand and a large fish in the other. Mermaids were symbols of the sins of vanity, lust and temptation at this time but there is an alternative interpretation. Apparently there was once a legend that a mermaid lured all the fishermen of Breage out to sea, as naughty mermaids often seemed to do, and it was St Christopher who came to their rescue.
Another lesson on the wall for the congregation perhaps – don’t be led astray by watery nymphs!
Revealing Breage’s Frescoes
“The Breage frescoes ought to be seen be every tourist and cultured Cornishman.”Royal Cornwall Gazette, 17th May 1900
Most articles, and Rev Barnes, referred to the wall paintings in Breage as ‘frescoes’. But my understanding is that the definition of a fresco is a painting that is produced on wet plaster, and some accounts appear to suggest that this was probably not the case here. Therefore the paintings should probably be called murals or wall paintings . . .
Whatever we call them the paintings were a fabulous discovery and Rev. Barnes set about the delicate task of uncovering them inch by inch himself. He dedicated the next two years of his life to the task, gradually peeling back the layers to reveal the treasures beneath.
The church reopened on Boxing Day 1891 but Barnes continued with his efforts with some help from his wife, Mary Anna Barnes, for years after.
After his death Mary Barnes described the painstaking process:
“I think many of your readers must recollect the discovery of the frescoes in St Breage Church by the vicar, Rev. Jocelyn Barnes, when he restored the church in the year 1890.
With his own hands he uncovered them and infinite patience and care he bestowed upon his labour to prevent any chipping or mutilation is largely responsible for the long preservation of their beauty. Under many coats of whitewash we found a thin layer coat of glaze immediately over the pictures, which we were told was some preparation made with white of egg used by the painters of the wall pictures to preserve them.”The Cornishman, 6th December 1922
The murals drew crowds to see them in those early days and were said to be in “perfect condition” when they were first revealed, a fact backed up by some photographs in a book by Berylcan Jones.
This little work of fiction published privately in 1899 is a strangely romantic imagining of how the murals came to be there but the few pictures included, though black and white, show just how wonderful the paintings looked when first uncovered – fresh, crisp and bright.
Sadly however the passing years have not been kind. By 1913 it was already being reported that the colours were fading “due to the dampness of the Cornish climate” and by 1935 they were said to be “seriously faded”. Some preservation work was carried out in the 1930s but by 1980 the murals were in desperate need of repair again.
According to an article in the West Briton it was going to cost an estimated £20,000 to preserve these “nationally important medieval wall paintings.” This work, which apparently corrected some earlier unsympathetic repairs, was completed in the 1990s (I believe) by a company called McNeilage Conservation, who specialise in the preservation of these kind of murals.
Let’s hope that these beautiful extraordinary pieces of Cornish medieval history are stable now and will last another 500 years.
When you first open the door into Breage church you are confronted by the enormous larger than life figures of Saint Christopher and Christ. They were intentionally positioned on the north wall of the church so that they would be immediately visible to those entering the building. The door they surround was known as the ‘Corpse Door’, perhaps because this was the door through which coffins were brought into the church. It was considered bad luck by the villagers to enter the church that way.
Treasures like these murals in Breage are another window into the past for us. A glimpse into and a connection with a world that at times feels as if it could have been on another planet not just another time. The symbolism of these murals, the stories connected to them, all gives us insight into our ancestors lives. What they valued, what they feared and what they must have stared at while listening to the vicar on a Sunday morning.