Originally the walls of the Abbey would have been whitened and coloured in red lines with rosettes. A fragment of this design was seen in the early 20th century, hidden behind a blocked recess at the end of the wall passage in St Nicholas's chapel.
The most important wall paintings in the Abbey are from the late 13th century i.e. the figure of St Faith in her chapel and the figures of Christ with St Thomas and St Christopher in the south transept. The series of 14th century paintings of the Apocalypse and the Last Judgement in the Chapter House are the most extensive.
The six foot (two metre) high crowned figure of the saint stands on a corbel and beneath a canopy and is wearing a dark green tunic with a rose coloured mantle lined with fur against a rich vermilion background. She holds a book and a grid-iron, the symbol of her martyrdom. The wall behind is dark green and the recess is painted with zig-zag red and white bands. The painting is in oil on a thin primed ground and can be dated c.1290-1300. On the dado are a series of geometrical panels, with a crucifixion scene in the centre. To the north is a praying Benedictine monk with a Latin inscription slanting upwards towards the saint. This can be translated as "From the burden of my sore transgressions sweet virgin deliver me; make my peace with Christ and blot out my iniquity."
The painting was cleaned in the 1970s.
These two paintings were in the chapel of St Blaise, a small chapel in the southern section of the south transept which survived until the 18th century. They had been obscured by two monuments (now re-located) and were only discovered during cleaning in 1934. By 1936 figures of the Risen Christ with St Thomas and St Christopher bearing the Christ Child on his shoulder had been revealed. The main figures are nine feet (three metres) in height. The Incredulity of St Thomas is painted on a vermilion ground, diapered with fleurs de lys which were once gold, as was the vexillum, or cross, that Christ holds in his left hand. With his right he grasps the hand of the kneeling St Thomas to put it against the wound in his side. Christ wears a pink coloured mantle and the Apostle wears a pale yellow tunic and dark green over-mantle. No inscription remains. St Christopher is painted on a green ground, originally diapered with small rosettes. The saint has his mantle drawn over his head and carries his staff in his right hand while he holds the Child on his shoulder, supporting the foot in his hand. The Child wears a blue robe and carries an apple. In the water through which the saint is wading there is a small head, which may represent a mermaid associated with his legend. Two Latin inscriptions remain. These can be translated: "Think that St Christopher was so called because he carried Christ. The Omnipotent makes grow the One whom he is carrying" and at the base "Whoever keeps safe the image of St Christopher is surely possessed by no exhaustion on that day". Both saints were revered by Henry III. The paintings are in oil on a thin primed ground and have been attributed to Master Walter of Durham, the King's Painter. Dates from 1270-1300 have been suggested for the paintings. The rosettes carved around the arches also have traces of colour.
Eleanor, queen of Edward I, died in 1290. On the stone base of her tomb, visible from the north ambulatory, are faint traces of a painting of a sepulchre, at the feet of which are four pilgrims and at the head is a knight praying before the Virgin Mary and Child. By his armorial surcoat the knight can be identified as Sir Otes de Grandison, Lord of Grandson near Lausanne, a close friend of Edward I. The background is apple green and his surcoat has blue and white stripes with a red bend and the pilgrims wear grey and red. The painter is thought to be Master Walter of Durham. A framed reconstruction of the painting by Prof. E.W. Tristram stands by the tomb.
Edmund, brother to Edward I, died in 1296. On the base of his tomb on the north side are the remains of a painting depicting ten knights in mail armour and surcoats, although only a few can now be made out. The painting is also thought to be by Walter of Durham. First described and drawn by John Carter in the late 18th century the paintings were damaged by an oil bomb thrown by a fanatic in 1968.
On the arch of this early 14th century tomb in the south ambulatory are remains of vine leaves, a Catherine wheel and head of a woman. By tradition the bones of Sebert, who died in about 616, were re-buried in this tomb in 1307, after Henry III had rebuilt this part of the Abbey.
The main series of paintings in the wall arcades were the gift of John of Northampton, a monk of Westminster from 1375-1404. The lower tiers of paintings of birds and animals were probably painted a century later. The Apocalypse series begins in the north-west bay (to the left as you enter). Some scenes are now obliterated or very faint. Each arch has four scenes from the Revelation of St John the Divine, framed in bands of red decorated with small dogs or roses. Scrolls of text appear beneath each scene. In the heads of the arches are angels playing musical instruments. The Apocalypse series is interrupted in the eastern bays by the Last Judgement or Doom group. These show Christ in Majesty robed in crimson with a golden nimbus sitting on the arc of Heaven with a globe beneath his feet. Seraphim are shown holding golden crowns and in two more arcades are crowds of figures which have the appearance of portraits. The paintings were cleaned in 1924 and in the 1980s.
Last Judgement or Doom group
Christ in Majesty
This small chapel off the north ambulatory has several designs on the walls, brought up by cleaning in 1923. The vaulting has red stars on a white ground with a roof boss depicting the Assumption of the Virgin, who is dressed in red. The ribs have barber pole bands and rosettes and the walls are diapered over with pine-shaped designs, on each of which is a fleur de lys. This was a popular design in the late 14th century. The antlers and head of a white hart, a badge of Richard II, can still be made out.
A small band of medieval painting behind the bust of Anne Cottington in this chapel was uncovered in 1952 during cleaning. It consists of red foliage in circular patterns with a green band above.
Aristocratic and wealthy relatives and benefactors to the building of Henry III's church between 1245 and 1272 were first commemorated by carved shields of arms (to be seen in the choir aisles and easternmost bays of the nave). When the rest of the nave was finally rebuilt nearly 150 years later the series was continued but the shields were painted onto the spandrels of the wall arcades. A few shields were re-painted in the 1960s. Those that remain on the south side are: Roger de Venables, Roger de Montealto, Fulk Fitzwarren, Robert de Thwenge, William Longspee, Earl of Salisbury and William Ferrars, Earl of Derby. On the north they are: Gilbert Talbot, John de Balliol, Robert de Ross, Roger de Mowbray, Henry de Hastings, John de Dreux, Earl of Richmond and Hugo de Vere, Earl of Oxford.
In the late 1920s, nearly 400 years since the death of Abbot John Islip who built this chantry chapel, traces of two monochrome paintings of St Peter and St Edward the Confessor were found either side of the altar in the upper chapel. They stand on large corbels beneath elaborate canopies and are about ten feet (three metres thirty cms.) tall. The paintings in this chapel were executed by Master Humphrey in 1530 but the central Crucifix and figure of Christ standing on a rainbow have not survived. (The scheme of paintings in the upper and lower chapels can be seen in a drawing in the mortuary roll of Abbot Islip, 1532, in the Abbey'.
For further information and pictures contact Westminster Abbey Library.
"Westminster Abbey Chapter House..." edited by W. Rodwell & R.Mortimer, 2010.
"Chapel of our Lady of the Pew" thesis by Signe Hedegaard, 2009.
"Wall painting technology at Westminster Abbey c.1270-1300...composite study of the murals in the south transept and chapel of St Faith" by Emily Howe, thesis 2004 and in "Medieval painting in northern Europe", 2006.
"The polychromy at Westminster Abbey 1250-1350" by H. Howard & M.L. Sauerberg and "The Virgin Mary and white harts...the 14th century wall paintings in the chapel of Our Lady of the Pew and the Muniment Room " by J. Spooner both in "Westminster: the art, architecture...of the Royal Abbey" vol.1 BAA Conference Transactions 2015.
"On the paintings in the Chapter House" by J.G. Waller, 1874 (London & Middx. Archaeological Society).
At different times of the day, or in different seasons, the light falling in the Abbey will light up something that you have walked past a million times and never seen before.