‘England’s Sistine Chapel’ (Simon Jenkins)

20150521 142 St Marys Kempley

St Mary’s Church, Kempley. You’ve probably never heard of it, nor have the least idea where to find it. Neither had I—until yesterday, that is. Kempley is a small village just north of Junction 3 on the M50 in the Forest of Dean district of  Gloucestershire close to the county boundary with Herefordshire, a handful of miles north of Ross-on-Wye. St Mary’s is a further couple of miles to the north of the village, and was replaced by another parish church, dedicated to St Edward the Confessor.

Owned by English Heritage, 12th century St Mary’s Church (built around 1130) is an outstanding example—perhaps the most significant and most complete set in the whole of northern Europe—of Romanesque fresco paintings. We had stumbled across this little gem, while deciding if there were other sites near the main objective of our outing yesterday: Goodrich Castle (which is about 12 miles or so south of Kempley). St Mary’s is not the easiest building to find, but the effort is worthwhile. The north wall of the church is plain stone. But come around to the south side, and surprisingly the wall is rendered in the most fetching shade of pale pink.

But it’s inside that the biggest surprise awaits you. The church has the most exquisite medieval wall paintings you could ever imagine. It also proudly boasts one of the oldest roofs (even original doors) in the country, with its original timbers dating back to its construction.

It wasn’t until the late 19th century that these paintings were discovered beneath layers of whitewash—presumably applied for generations following the Reformation in Tudor times. The images on both north and south walls of the nave were worked in tempera on dry lime mortar, and depict the Wheel of Life and to its right either side of a window, depictions of St Anthony of Egypt (on the left side) and St Michael accompanied by the Virgin Mary (on the right).

But the real glory of St Mary’s is found in the chancel, where the wall paintings are true frescoes, painted on wet plaster. They lift your soul! On the ceiling is a magnificent portrayal of Christ. I cannot better Simon Jenkins’ description published in The Guardian in 2008: The sensation lies in the chancel, composed of the most complete set of Romanesque frescos in northern Europe. Christ sits in the middle of the ceiling on a rainbow, his feet on a globe. He is attended by sun, moon, stars, candelabra, a winged ox and seraphim with books and scrolls, the complete Book of Revelation. Below him sit rows of sepia apostles gazing up at Him from a Romanesque arcade. No inch is left untouched. Here is a bishop, there lay pilgrims heading for a heavenly Jerusalem. Everywhere is chequerboard and zigzag decoration. 

The church porch is apparently also original, and above the door is a depiction of the Tree of Life.

Let me finish with another quote from Simon Jenkins’ article. ‘England’s Sistine Chapel lies lost in the western reaches of Gloucestershire. It is smaller, to put it mildly, and older by 350 years. But what it lacks in grandeur it adds in serenity. I would exchange five minutes in the chancel of Kempley church for an hour in Rome. And I would have it to myself.’

Steph and I were fortunate to have this haven of serenity to ourselves for more than 30 minutes before we had to head home. I felt remarkably calm for several hours afterwards. Go and seek that serenity for yourselves. You won’t be disappointed.

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