The School of St Albans: Medieval Wall Paintings from St Albans Cathedral Itself!

An Artistic Pilgrimage

This summer, when visiting England and staying in London, I decided to take the short drive up to see St Albans Cathedral. The main structure was originally built in Norman times and so would have been Romanesque, but the appearance is largely gothic. There have been several renovations over the centuries included a partial rebuilding after an earthquake in 1250 - not a common occurrence in England!

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In some ways, one might even think of this as a sort of artistic pilgrimage.  Readers will know that I have suggested that the style of the 13th-century monk based at St Albans, Matthew Paris, is one that I think could be the basis of a liturgical style for today. I have called this style The School of St Albans (the suggestion originally came from a student in a class of mine in fact). My experience as a teacher is that Roman Catholics do seem to take to this style naturally and seem to make it their own even in a single class. You can see work done by my students in a week-long workshop in a past blog post here.  

True to the gothic spirit, Paris drew and painted not only sacred art, for psalters for example, but also illustrations of saints that are probably not for a focus of prayer - for example of Plato and Socrates, and even of plants and animals around him. 

 St Amphibalus (a convert of St Albans) baptizing converts (note full immersion.

St Amphibalus (a convert of St Albans) baptizing converts (note full immersion.

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 Euclid and Herman the Dalmation (a medieval philosopher)

Euclid and Herman the Dalmation (a medieval philosopher)

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This is a style which relies on the description of form with line and which has restrained use of tonal and color variation. These limitations will help modern artists to eliminate the sentimentality from their naturalism that is the blight of so many artists today, I thought. 

I have only seen illuminated manuscripts by Paris and generally, they are miniatures. Some have questioned whether or not this style would work on a large scale. I have always thought that it could be adapted to work on the walls of modern churches. So, when I had heard that there are some original medieval wall paintings that have been uncovered at St Albans Cathedral and I wanted to see them to see the scale of them, as well as wanting to make a sort of pilgrimage to the place that nurtured such a great, and largely unsung, artist in the 13th century.

So, it was with these things in mind that I entered the cathedral. After a quick prayer for the peaceful return of stolen property to the Church, I stepped inside. 

The paintings are pale, but as we can see, largescale and done according to this same basic style - form described by line with simple coloration. Whether or not you are convinced that it is right to use this style today, we can certainly conclude that the artists of the period felt that it was appropriate for floor-to-ceiling frescoes (and this is a high ceiling). I would encourage patrons and artists to look at these and think about how they could reproduce this style in our churches. I think that it allows for large areas to be covered relatively easily and appropriately:

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