Towards the end of my perambulation of the county of Suffolk yesterday, I made a point of stopping off at the village of Wenhaston to visit an old friend. Walking into the church of St Peter, there it was before me - the Wenhaston 'Doom'. Although I have been privileged to gaze upon this medieval treasure on many occasions, it never fails to excite me.
As with so much of our medieval material church culture, this is a miraculous survivor. To think that if it had not rained heavily on one night in the late nineteenth century this would have been burned to ashes on a bonfire!
Having originally formed the tympanum, occupying the church's chancel arch, it had been decided to remove it as part of a restoration in the 1890s. At the time, it appeared to be a plain whitewashed panel of eleven old planks. As such, it was decided to remove it and the discarded boards were piled up to form a bonfire in the churchyard. However, overnight the rain fell. By the next morning enough of the water-soluble whitewash had been washed away to reveal glimpses of the original painting, thereby sealing its survival.
Probably painted during the early sixteenth century, this rustic painting depicts scenes from the last judgement, from the jaws of hell to the weighing of souls. As Miri Rubin has observed, it is significant that in this depiction the souls selected for salvation are a minority. For, say, an early sixteenth rural labourer looking up at the naked, tremulous king and cardinal facing judgement, how satisfying it must have been to know that worldly pride and hierarchy meant nothing in the hereafter.
The Wenhaston Doom offers us an important glimpse into the lost world of the pre-Reformation English medieval church. It is not a great work of art - far from it! However, it is a scene familiar to medieval congregations in 'ordinary' parish churches and, as such, is representative of thousands of similar examples that were lost during the long process of the Reformation.
And yet, at its centre, there is an absence. Where the carved figures of the crucified Christ flanked by the Virgin Mary and St John the Evangelist once stood, there remains a blank. Most likely the figures on the rood (or 'perke' as Suffolk folk would have known it) perished in the flames that so very nearly claimed the whole piece several centuries later. The Reformation played out in humble settings such as this - that is the story at the heart of this survivor.
A photograph can only convey so much. If you ever have the opportunity, go see it for yourself. Time spent here will reward you well as you feel the weight of the history behind this remarkable insight into late medieval life.