04 July 2023

The ‘Coventry Doom’ is
an astonishing, glorious
work of mediaeval art

The ‘Coventry Doom’ was panted above the tower arch in Holy Trinity Church, Coventry, in the 1430s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023; click on images for full-screen viewing)

Patrick Comerford

Holy Trinity Church in Coventry is famous for its beautifully restored 15th-century wall painting of the Biblical Day of Judgment over the chancel arch.

The ‘Coventry Doom’ was painted above the tower arch in the 1430s, possibly in response to an earthquake that may have prompted Church leaders to fear that the Day of Judgment was at hand. The painting is the work of mediaeval artists working in Coventry 50 years before Leonardo da Vinci painted the Last Supper.

The result is an astonishing and glorious piece of mediaeval art, full of detail and vibrant colours.

Doom paintings were a common sight in churches in mediaeval England, and the ‘Coventry Doom’ in Holy Trinity Church is one of over 60 known Doom paintings in England. I went to see the painting at the end of last week, and described Holy Trinity Church in my prayer diary on this blog this morning (4 July 2023).

‘Doom’ is the old English word for judgment, and the ‘Coventry Doom’ is a representation of the last judgment, a common theme in mediaeval art. ‘Apocalypse paintings’ depict the End of Days, when the dead are raised from their graves, their souls are weighed, those found wanting are led off to Hell, while those found worthy are welcomed into Heaven.

At one time, this would have been one of many paintings around the church, and they helped illiterate people to understand more about Christianity. Doom paintings taught people about the eternal fate awaiting them beyond death – either the hope of Heaven or the horrors of Hell, depending on how they had lived on earth.

The ‘Coventry Doom’ was on view for only a century or so before it became victim of the Reformation. Many images, statues, shrines and other forms of decoration in churches were considered to be frivolous, and the mediaeval mural in Holy Trinity Church was whitewashed over some time in the mid-16th century.

The restoration of the ‘Coventry Doom’ was completed in 2004 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

More liberated times were to come, and the ‘Coventry Doom,’ seemingly long forgotten, was rediscovered in Holy Trinity Church in May 1831 underneath a coving of lime wash.

The Coventry-born artist David Gee (1793-1872) was commissioned to restore the painting. Gee mostly painted battle scenes, landscapes as well as pictures inspired by local legends such as Lady Godiva. The Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry has 15 of his pictures in its collection.

Gee began his restoration work on the Holy Trinity Doom in 1831, and received five guineas for his work. He painstakingly uncovered the image, but there is little contemporary information about his work on the Doom. Later conservation work suggests he added outlines to the figures and repainted or recoloured some areas, but there is no evidence that he significantly changed the painting’s composition or symbolism.

Gee also applied a coating of megilp to the painting to ‘preserve’ it. The bitumen contained in his varnish soon degraded, collected dirt, and caused the painting to darken. By 1873 the Doom had once again virtually disappeared from sight, and by 1909 it was almost invisible.

Test cleaning in the 1980s found that the painting was fragile, but in good shape. Discussions on the best way to reveal and preserve the painting began in 1995. Conservation and restoration work by a multidisciplinary team was finally completed in 2004, and it was unveiled on 11 September 2004 for the public to see once again.

The amount of colour and detail still visible in this mural after almost 600 years is extraordinary, especially when one considers that it has twice been covered over and revealed. The art historian, broadcaster and biographer of Caravaggio Andrew Graham-Dixon said it is ‘... one of the most important discoveries ever made in the field of mediaeval art.’

At the top of the scene sits Christ, surrounded by his disciples. To his right – the viewer’s left – the dead rise from their graves and a stair leads up to Heaven. To the viewer’s right, Saint John the Baptist pleads for the souls of the damned. It is fascinating to see that among the damned are church figures including a cardinal and a monk, plus two kings.

The lower left shows people coming out of their graves, and making their way towards Jesus Christ. He is the largest figure, and at the top and centre of the painting. His hands, with the holes in them, are held up in both welcome and judgement. Various great characters of the Bible are shown with Jesus. They have an aura around their heads to denote their holy example and that they are blessed.

Once judged by Christ, the people are seen either going up to the left, where a staircase can be seen, or down to the right, where there are demons, and the fiery mouth of hell, with people actually in it.

The central focus is Christ with his pierced hands raised in judgment. He is flanked by the twelve Apostles, Saint Peter at his immediate left and Saint Paul on his right. The Virgin Mary and Saint John the Baptist are close by, interceding for souls. Angels blow the Last Trumpet to herald Christ’s return and to wake the dead, while figures, including popes, cardinals, kings and queens wait to be judged.

A startling feature is a gaping mouth, representing the entrance to Hell, devouring the souls of the damned licked by flames. It is a harrowing scene. Diagonally opposite – and in clear contrast – is the stairway to Heaven where Saint Peter is welcoming sanctified souls into the eternal city.

By offering her breast, which had suckled Christ as a baby, the Virgin Mary shows her desire for sinners to be forgiven.

A curious if not humorous detail is the depiction of several of the damned as ale-wives, considered in mediaeval Coventry to be corrupt, often accused of watering down their ale and overcharging their customers as they became more drunk.

Holy Trinity’s Doom demonstrates a high level of artistry. The painting was built up in layers using a variety of pigments applied in oil. The technique used on the figure of Christ is especially sophisticated, including a striking halo with gold leaf and a rich crimson glaze. The fresh and dried blood on Christ’s wounded feet are shown using two different pigments. The materials are expensive, the technique complex and the composition monumental, making it one of the most significant works of mediaeval art in Britain.

The ‘Coventry Doom’ carries the message that the way we respond to Christ and how we live our earthly lives affect our eternal destiny. While God loves us, he does not force the consequences of this love on us. Instead, we are given the dignity of choosing whether or not to respond to the gift of eternal life in Christ.

A display panel in Holy Trinity Church offers a key to the ‘Coventry Doom’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

A display panel in Holy Trinity Church offers a key to the ‘Coventry Doom’:

1, Christ raising his wounded hands in judgment.

2, A scroll with the words, ‘Venite benedicti Patris Mei’ or ‘Come you blessed of my Father’ (Matthew 25: 34).

3, A scroll with the words, ‘Discedite a me maledieti in ignem aeternum’ or ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire’ (Matthew 25: 41).

4, Saint John the Evangelist.

5, Saint Peter next to Christ at the gates of Heaven.

6, Saint Paul.

7, The Apostles on either side of Christ.

8, A pope leads the redeemed into Heaven.

9, An angel blowing the Last Trumpet.

10, A scroll carrying the plea of the Virgin Mary on behalf of the damned.

11, The stairs to Heaven.

12, The Virgin Mary offering her breast to intercede on behalf of those souls in torment.

13, The book of evidence presented at the Last Judgment.

14, Figures of the dead rising from their graves.

15, An orb representing the earth.

16, Figures at Christ’s feet representing the redeemed and damned.

17, Saint John the Baptist.

18, High-status women with ale and water vessels.

19, A group of chained figures being led into the mouth of Hell.

20, The mouth of Hell, with figures being licked by flames.

Figures of the dead rising from their graves (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Holy Trinity Church invites visitors who view the Doom painting to join in a prayer:

Lord Jesus, when we see the holes in your hands and feet on this Doom painting, we are amazed at what you did for us out of pure love. Sometimes, during our busy lives, it is difficult for us to appreciate what you did for us, and the agony it caused you. We thank you for honouring, and dignifying us enough not to force yourself on us, but right now, we say ‘thank you Lord Jesus, for loving us that much.’

We recognise that we do/say some good things, and do/say some bad things too. We know that we need to entrust our whole selves to you. Please forgive us all of the bad, and help us to value your way of living by walking with you through our lives. We want to be one of your followers, and one of your friends. Please help us to rely upon you. Amen.

The central focus of the ‘Coventry Doom’ in Holy Trinity Church is Christ with his pierced hands raised in judgment (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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