The Foxearth and District Local History Society

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Tuesday, June 13, 2006

The Wenhaston Horror

The Wenhaston Horror is one of the wonders of East Anglia, and it is amazing that such a work of art should have survived, almost intact. Unfortunately, it is the last survival of its type, and the following account, written by Canon F.J. Meyrick in the 1920s tells us how it very nearly ended up as firewood

IF (in the pew-heads) at Blythburgh we find humour, we have only to walk two miles to Wenhaston to be face to face with the Terror-the haunting Terror-that the medieval Church held over the heads of her disobedient children.

In the Sistine Chapel at Rome Michael Angelo's " Last Judgment" portrays a muscular Jupiter hurling the thunderbolts of damnation on the lost. At Torcello and in the Campo Sancto at Pisa the terrors of hell, with its monstrous demons, its fires, its pitchforks in which the Pelion of despair is heaped on the Ossa of misery, may well have haunted a child's dreams, and may possibly have induced the craven soul to leave wealth to Mother Church. But in all England we question whether horror is anywhere depicted with more gruesome reality-or, rather, with more terribly developed imagination-than in the wonderful " Doom " at Wenhaston.

The story of this amazingly interesting painting is full of romance. I talked with the old man, whose eyes first saw it since the whitewashes hid it more than two hundred and fifty years ago.

It happened in this wise. In 1892, when the chancel of the church was being restored, a large whitewashed partition of wood, more than seventeen feet in breadth and eight and a half feet in height, entirely blocked the upper part of the church arch. On the left a large hole for a stove chimney had been cut through the boarding. No one dreamed that these whitewashed boards carried on them a work of art, probably unique in England. So the boards were knocked down and thrown into the churchyard for the use of villagers as firewood.

Fortunately that night as the old verger told me, a " tempest" raged. The heavy rain washed the ancient boards, and when in the morning the verger went to open the church for the workmen he was surprised to see saints smiling at him, and horrible demons scowling at him from the rubbish heap.

There was great excitement in the village when the discovery was made known. The painted boards were carried to the room used for the village Sunday School, and later were re-erected in the west of the church.

In the upper part of this great background for the rood is the Divine Judge enthroned on a rainbow. His outstretched hands and bare side reveals the wounds of His passion. Near His right hand, which is held up in blessing, is a scroll, which no doubt once contained words of welcome to the blessed. To the left of the cross are the kneeling figures of the Blessed Virgin and St. John the Baptist interceding for a sinful race. So far all is tender. The judge is not there to condemn. His wounds are pleading for man. The gentle Mary and the strong child of the desert in his camel-hair cloak unite, in this dreadful day, in prayer for the souls of men.

Below the artist contrasts the peace of Heaven with the horrors of hell. Few artists have power to paint eternal bliss as though it were as great a reality as eternal woe. Perhaps Fra Angelico succeeded. But here at Wenhaston the horrors of hell far exceed the joys of heaven.

St. Michael, like Osiris in the Book of the Dead, presides at the weighing of souls. In one hand he holds the infallible scales, in the other the sword of justice. In one scale a little naked child represents good deeds; in the other two foul goblins symbolize the unrepented sins. Close at hand stands Satan, a horrible creature with horns and tail, with eyes on his legs, for does not Satan see everything " going to and fro in the earth, and walking up and down in it ? With hungry hate he watches the scales. Michael shall not rob him of his prey. He holds an unopened scroll-his indictment against the soul whose eternity is hanging in the balance.

But most horrible are the jaws of hell. Hell is a living thing-a hungry monster with greedy eyes, a shark's mouth and teeth, and with the snout of a swine ; on the snout is seated one of Satan's brood, busily blasting damnation on a ram's hom. The nightmare terror is focused on the unequal battle raging within the jaws. All is hopeless. There is no escape. A red-hot chain binds all the damned together, and slowly very slowly, draws them towards the awful throat. A black monster with flapping ears drags one of the lost over the bulwark of teeth. Of course there is the pronged fork, the fiend's own goad for sending his own to their destiny.

A painting in the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, Chaldon, in the county of Surrey, has a horror comparable to the " Doom" at Wenhaston. Here the artist, probably a monk of Chertsey, seems to gloat in the thought of a revengeful God. His work is sheer devil worship. The cruelty of his God had entered into his soul.

I would rather believe that once at work the monk forgot all about God and hell and heaven. He simply let his imagination have a free rein. He painted horror for horror's sake, rather to amuse himself than to terrify the sinner.

So he smiles as he puts the cheating tradesmen on his awful bridge of spikes. There is the milkman who even in the twelfth century added water to his bucket. There, too, is the woolworker, the mason, and the smith who broke the rules of their Guild.

A year or two ago a woman left £2,300 in trust for her poodle dog. She stipulated that "the dog should be provided with a daily bath, plenty of Sauerkraut, a lighted Christmas tree," and other luxuries and follies. Such a person was known to the Chertsey monk, who for sheer fun sends her to hell, and paints a dog from hell gnawing the hand which in life fondled her pet dogs and neglected the poor at her gates.

Was the artist laughing or shuddering as he boiled the unbeliever in horrible cauldrons at Chaldon and as he drove the sinner in to the jaws of living hell at Wenhaston ? Did he really-could he really-believe that the God he worshipped at Mass was really and truly such a monster of cruelty ? I would like to believe that, as these men painted, they laughed as the brethren in the Priory of Blythburgh laughed over their gargoyles and their pew ends.

Round and about Norfolk and Suffolk, by Canon F.J. Meyrick, Jarrold & Sons


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