An introduction to The South Newington “Doom”
The scattered scraps of paint above the Chancel arch are the remains of a medieval Doom. This was probably painted in the 14th or 15th Century covered over with lime wash at the Reformation and uncovered in the early 20th Century. Doom is the traditional term for a painting or other image of the last judgement. In this Christ judges souls and then sends them either to Heaven or to Hell. Usually Dooms were sited in the most prominent position in front of the congregation on the wall above the Chancel arch.
There are many different versions but the composition stays broadly the same. On the left side is Heaven, on the right is Hell. At the top of the image Jesus Christ sits in glory with his right hand encouraging the saved up to Heaven and his left hand pointing down to Hell for the damned. Typically flanking him are the Virgin Mary on his right hand and John the Apostle on his left. Angels blow trumpets to raise the dead for judgement. Commonly the Archangel Michael is in the centre with the scales he will use to weigh the souls to see if they are fit for Heaven or should be sent to Hell. The Virgin Mary often places her Rosary or her hand on the scale to counterbalance the demons and protect the soul being weighed. In our church – St Peter Ad Vincula – a clear representation of this scene can be found high on the north wall of the nave, adjacent to the chancel arch.The most famous last Judgement is probably that painted by Michaelangelo in the Sistine Chapel at the height of the Renaissance in the 1530’s.
What remains of the South Newington ‘Doom’?
At present (2014) although the existing painting appears to be something of a jumble, there are in fact several beautifully painted faces of the ‘saved’ visible, at present, only at close range. There is also some evidence of figures of the ‘saved’ emerging from a coffin with indications of the gathered and tied ends of shrouds. There is an angel’s wing, the folds of a garment and praying hands.
Other Doom paintings and how ours might have looked
There are around 60 known original Doom paintings left in churches throughout the UK, in varying states of deterioration. Although most were painted during the period between the 12th and the 15th centuries, many were destroyed during the Reformation and many more painted over (which may have protected them). A very few remain almost complete in their original condition; good examples are Holy Trinity Church, Coventry, and more locally St Laurence’s Church, Combe Magna and St John the Baptist Church, Hornton. Other dooms have been fully restored – most famously that in St Thomas Church, Salisbury. Though the latter retains little that is original it does provide us with some idea of the possible appearance of South Newington’s Doom.
English Heritage have advised that the South Newington Doom painting should be preserved in the most practical way. Restoration of the kind applied at St Thomas Church, Salisbury would not be considered appropriate to modern day practice and would not be allowed by English Heritage, since it might obscure original medieval work. Conservation measures can be used to clean up imagery and clarify the overall picture. The increasingly fragile state of the plaster and paint makes this work urgent. English Heritage advise that full conservation is the most appropriate option.
What will conservation involve?
Conservation will involve a preliminary surface clean, stabilising the support plaster,re-attaching flaking paint, removing of the dirt-attracting wax coating applied in the 1930s, replacing inappropriate previous repairs, filling cracks and applying limewash to repaired areas. To enhance the clarity of surviving painted detail it is considered acceptable for wall painting conservators to tone in distracting small lacunae (gaps) within otherwise coherent areas of a scheme. This is done using appropriate paint and without painted detail being reconstructed.
What will the Doom look like after conservation?
Although the appearance will still be somewhat confused and hard to read our chancel arch will be cleaner and brighter with a little more indication of the pictorial structure of the Doom and greater visibility from ground level for some of the delightful and beautifully painted surviving details.
Some details from the Doom before conservation
Examples of other Doom paintings
St John the Baptist Church, Hornton, believed, according to recent research, to date from 12th or 13th century.
St Thomas Church, Salisbury, a 15th century painting heavily restored in the 1950s.