The Doom Painting of St. Thomas’s Church, Salisbury
Salisbury’s Doom Painting is the largest and best preserved in the UK. Painted around 1470, it was covered with lime whitewash during the Reformation and not seen again until 1819. Now following its most recent restoration in 2019 it is back to its vibrant, detailed glory and is essential viewing for anyone visiting Salisbury.
The nave of St. Thomas’s Church is decorated with this incredible Doom Painting – the largest and best preserved in England.
Doom paintings were once a common feature in the churches of England. These are wall paintings that depicted the Last Judgement; when God would pass his judgement on the people and depending on their actions during their lives they would either ascend to heaven or descend into hell. These paintings were often painted over the chancel so that the congregation would spend their time in church looking at the image, a striking visual reminder of what fate could befall them if they did not follow their religious instruction.
The history of the Doom painting in St Thomas’s is a fascinating one. Painted by an unknown English painter who was heavily influenced by the contemporary Flemish schools, it was painted around 1470 when the church building was undergoing expansion. After just over a century of dominating the church and the thoughts of its worshippers, it was covered up in the Reformation, obliterated by coats of whitewash. It remained forgotten until 1819, when faint traces of colour emerged during cleaning. It was uncovered and a drawing made, then for some reason it was covered with whitewash again. Finally, in 1881, the whitewash was removed once and for all.
A close up of the top section of the painting, showing Jesus and his Apostles.
The painting fills the wall above the chancel arch and continues down down the sides into the spandrels. As with all doom paintings, it has Christ sitting in the centre. Here he is sitting on a rainbow, with his feet on a smaller rainbow. His hands are raised, and both hands and feet show the signs of his crucifixion, with blood running from them. Behind him, angels hold the cross, his crown of thorns, a pillar, a sponge, spear and nails. Further behind the Kingdom of Heaven is the Star of the East and the Sun of Righteousness. To his right is the Blessed Virgin and to his left is John the Evangelist.
The painting continues down the sides into the spandrels of the nave.
Beneath his feet are the twelve Apostles who are judging the twelve tribes of Israel. It is what is beneath them, running down the spandrels, which is what I find the most interesting however. On the left is a burial ground set in a green garden, with the dead emerging from their graves, helped by Angels with trumpets. The dead at the bottom are emerging wrapped entirely in shrouds, others are casting off their shrouds and others are entirely naked, except for some with hats; a Bishop’s mitre, a labourers hat and a crown. The angels are leading the groups of the naked into heaven, gazing beatifically at their smiling faces.
This close up shows the righteous ascending into the Kingdom of Heaven.
On the other spandrel we see what happens to the evil sinners. Flames are rising from the ground where the dead are emerging, their bodies contorted in pain. Dragged out by demons, they are bundled together in chains and forced into the mouth of a fiery dragon, the mouth of hell, his jaws held open by two demons. They are also naked except for some with hats, one Bishop’s mitre and two crowns, and many of them are clutching their heads in agony. An angel is trying to encourage them into the Kingdom of Heaven, but it is too late for them, they are whisked away by demons.
Local lore has it that one of the faces of sinners depicts Agnes Botthenham, landlady of the Rydedorre (now the Rai d’Or public house) in Salisbury which she ran as a house of ill repute, where women would hang out of the windows selling their wares. It seems a little unfair on her as she later repented of her ways and founded the Trinity Hospital for the Poor in 1390, which is still in existence today as Salisbury Almshouses.
The sinners are dragged into the mouth of hell.
The demons are impish little things and quite different from those depicted in other Doom paintings. In others, demons are often large, hulking, clumsy beasts wielding pitchforks or turnspits. Here they are depicted as small and agile, mischievous rather than evil personified.
The Prince of Darkness stands between the Apostles and sinners, with the head and feet of a beast, one bird-like foot peeking cheekily over the painting and onto the bare stone of the chancel arch. With his hand perched coquettishly on his hip, he is being handed a drink by the only clothed sinner there, a woman with a whimple who seems to be hugging a demon. A scroll at the bottom says Nulla est Redemptio – there is no escape for the wicked.
The whole painting is quite something to behold. And now after its most recent restoration in 2019, the pale colours have been transformed into vivid, detailed depictions of the Judgement. It was restored in phases, starting with brushing off all of the dust and securing the painted plaster that had become detached. It was then cleaned with fine decorators brushes and sponges and a protective coat added. Hopefully it will now last well into the next century, providing a must-see attraction for years to come for visitors to Wiltshire in southern England.
Visiting St. Thomas’s Church
Weekdays: 09h00 – 17h00
Sundays: 12h00 – 17h00
Entrance is free, but a donation is requested.
Visiting Salisbury? If you are planning a trip to Salisbury in the English county of Wiltshire, check our Salisbury Travel Guide for History Lovers. Whether you are thinking of a day trip or staying for a few nights, we have more suggestions and recommendations for your trip.