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)

Daily prayers in Ordinary Time
with USPG: (37) 4 July 2023

Holy Trinity Church, Coventry, is the only complete mediaeval church in Coventry and one of the largest mediaeval parish churches in England (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

We are in Ordinary Time in the Church Calendar, and the week began with the Fourth Sunday after Trinity (3 July 2023).

I have a medical appointment later today for a check-up on Vitamin B12 deficiency. But, before this becomes a busy day, I am taking some time this morning for prayer, reading and reflection.

Over these weeks after Trinity Sunday, I have been reflecting each morning in these ways:

1, Looking at relevant images or stained glass window in a church, chapel or cathedral I know;

2, the Gospel reading of the day in the Church of England lectionary;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Holy Trinity Church escaped destruction survived the bombing raids on Coventry during World War II (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Holy Trinity Church, Coventry:

Holy Trinity Church is the only complete mediaeval church in Coventry and one of the largest mediaeval parish churches in England. It is also one of the few major buildings in Coventry that escaped destruction during the bombing raids in World War II. But it was not because of a lucky escape … the vicar of Holy Trinity, Canon Graham Clitheroe, and a team of firefighters bravely averted the danger from the falling incendiaries during the heaviest raid on 14 November 1940.

Although the first record of Holy Trinity Church dates from the early 12th century, the story of the church dates back a century earlier, when Earl Leofric of Mercia and his wife Godiva founded a Benedictine priory dedicated to Saint Mary on the site of a Saxon nunnery.

Holy Trinity Church was built of red sandstone between the 1200s and 1400s, replacing a much older chapel built on the site by the monks of Saint Mary’s Priory. The monks of administered half of the growing settlement of Coventry and built a side chapel beside the priory to serve as a place of worship for the Prior’s half of Coventry.

The church first looked like nearby Saint Michael’s. However, several major restorations have seen much of the original brickwork replaced with a paler coloured sandstone.

The spire is 72 metres (237 ft) high and was rebuilt in 1667 to replace the older, original spire that collapsed during a storm in 1665, killing a young boy.

Inside, the stained-glass windows are full of colour and artistry. The east window behind the High Altar, added in 1956 to replace the original window, blown out in World War II. The new east window by Sir Ninian Comper was paid for by couples who had been married in the church, and is known as ‘The Brides’ Window.’

The great west window above the main entrance was designed by Hugh Easton in 1955. The ‘Te Deum Window’ shows Christ in Majesty seated on a rainbow, while all around him are historical figures of the Church. The window replaced a Victorian window destroyed by bombs in 1940.

The choir stalls have 20 late 15th-century misericords or ‘mercy seats,’ made to support clergy who had to stand during long services. Some of the misericord carvings depict heraldic shields, others are carved with foliage. Two misericords show a woodwose, or wild man of the woods, a mythical figure carrying a club and accompanied by a lion; one shows a Green Man with foliage emerging from his mouth; others show a hunting scene, a griffin, and the mythological basilisk.

The pulpit, carved with quatrefoil panels and foliage, was built ca 1470 and is said to be one of the highest in England. Two damaged figures are said to represent Henry VI and Queen Margaret, who made Coventry their base during the Wars of the Roses.

The 15th-century octagonal font is painted with bright colours.

The Marler Chapel or Mercers’ Chapel was added ca 1526-1527.

An extensive restoration and a new west front were completed in 1849 by the architect Richard Charles Hussey (1806-1887). The interior was restored in 1855 by Sir George Gilbert Scott (1811-1878).

The doom painting above the tower arch was painted in 1430s. It was discovered in 1831, covered by a lime wash, and was then restored and varnished over by David Gee. In the years following, the varnish darkened and hid the painting from view again. Conservation and restoration work began in 1995, and the painting was revealed in 2004. I hope to look at this doom painting in detail later this evening.

The Coventry Cross outside the church is currently being renovated.

The Revd Richard Hibbert is the Vicar of Holy Trinity, and the church is open to visitors daily. Sunday Services are: 9:30, informal worship; 11.15, Holy Communion; 5 pm, Choral Evensong; 7 pm, ‘Sundays at Seven.’ Midweek Services are at 12 Noon on Wednesdays.

Inside Holy Trinity Church, Coventry, facing the liturgical east (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Matthew 8: 23-27 (NRSVA):

23 And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. 24 A gale arose on the lake, so great that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. 25 And they went and woke him up, saying, ‘Lord, save us! We are perishing!’ 26 And he said to them, ‘Why are you afraid, you of little faith?’ Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a dead calm. 27 They were amazed, saying, ‘What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?’

Hugh Easton’s ‘Te Deum Window’ (1955) shows Christ in Majesty seated on a rainbow, surrounded by historical Church figures (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Today’s Prayer:

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘FeAST – Fellowship of Anglican Scholars of Theology.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday by the Revd Canon Dr Peniel Rajkumar of USPG.

Find out more HERE.

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (4 July 2023) invites us to pray:

Almighty God. You are the source of all wisdom and truth. Nourish us by your Living Word and fill us with your Holy Spirit, so that we may love and serve you faithfully this day, and always.

A Trinitarian symbol (centre) between the coats of arms of Bishops of Lichfield in Holy Trinity Church, Coventry (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)


O God, the protector of all who trust in you,
without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy:
increase and multiply upon us your mercy;
that with you as our ruler and guide
we may so pass through things temporal
that we lose not our hold on things eternal;
grant this, heavenly Father,
for our Lord Jesus Christ’s sake,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion:

Eternal God,
comfort of the afflicted and healer of the broken,
you have fed us at the table of life and hope:
teach us the ways of gentleness and peace,
that all the world may acknowledge
the kingdom of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.

The crossing in Holy Trinity Church, Coventry (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Holy Trinity Church, Coventry, was restored in 1855 by Sir George Gilbert Scott in 1855 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)