In 1563, a year before his son was born, John Shakespeare was given an unpleasant job. As chamberlain of the Corporation of Stratford, he was tasked with erasing the popish murals in the local Guild Chapel. We assume he found it unpleasant because rather than destroying the art, he covered it up with limewash, to be stripped away by some future generation.
After John’s son William retired to Stratford, he lived opposite the Guild Chapel until his death in 1616. Four hundred years later, those covered murals are being revealed in their fullness. A major restoration project, titled Death Reawakened, finishes this month. The faith of Catholic England will be shown in the images which lived in our ancestors’ imaginations: depictions of the Last Judgment, the Crucifixion, the lives of St George and St Thomas Becket.
Shakespeare may or may not have been Catholic. His father appears to have been. But more certain than these biographical details is the history of a people – a history which, despite the best efforts of the Reformers, is coming back to life.
There is “great enthusiasm” for the restoration work, says project manager Cate Statham. And it’s not just Stratford. The V&A’s exhibition of medieval embroidery has drawn crowds and earned breathless reviews. This month, the British Museum announced it would be displaying a statue of Our Lady and the Child Jesus, which left the country before anyone could destroy it and had spent 600 years in Europe. It is, the historian Tom Holland has commented, “a haunting glimpse of what we lost in the Reformation”.
Statham points out that the public have been “horrified” by the destruction of ancient sites in the Middle East. “It gives us a greater appreciation for the things that do survive to tell the tale.”
The historian Dominic Selwood observes: “The wholesale destruction of English art during the Reformation was on an unprecedented scale, obliterating over 90 per cent of existing artefacts.” That some of the remaining 10 per cent are now attracting so much interest “demonstrates tangibly”, he says, “the deep yearning we have for our lost heritage”.
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