Milton Keynes seems, to me, like the sort of cut-rate futuristic utopia one sees in a B-Grade sci-fi flick. You know, one that harbours a dark secret, possibly involving cannibalism. A ‘new town’ built after the Second World War, it lacks the nucleaic layout and concentration of facilities one finds in most cities in Britain. Indeed, the town was built around several villages, such as Bletchley.
A short bus ride from the centre of Milton Keynes, one finds themselves in Broughton, an expanse of shiny new housing development that was, as recently as twenty years ago, rural fields. Take the signs towards ‘St Lawrence Historic Church’, however, and you soon find yourself face to face with a remnant of an older, unrulier England.
St Lawrence isn’t a grand church, or a church with great historic importance. It was built in the 14th century to minister to the folk of Broughton when it existed as a small Buckinghamshire farming village.
What sets it apart from those around it are the stunning medieval wallpaitings that were rediscovered in 1849 when the church was being restored. This had led to the church being preserved by the Churches Conservation Trust in 1987.
The wallpaintings recall a Christianity a long way from modern perceptions of the Church as dull and lifeless. They speak of a wild and treacherous world. They depict a world populated by earthy, brutish sorts, whose souls are fiercely fought over by saints and monsters.
Perhaps the most striking painting, the one that smacks you full force when you turn around once entering the church, depicts St George. There he rides, immaculate in full plate armour, lancing a particularly ferocious dragon. To the side, a damsal sits with a lamb, representing the Virgin Mary and the Lamb of God. This is a painting that is as much patriotic art as it is sacred. It dates from the era when St George was elevated from popular to national saint, on whose feast day work was prohibited and church attendance mandatory. Not only does this painting tell George’s iconic story, but would have brought to mind the victories at Harfleur and Agincourt. Leaving the church, the medieval soul could not help but have their chest swell with pride.
Across from St George is a Doom painting, depicting the Day of Judgement. The centrepiece of the painting shows Mary and St Michael weighing a soul, to see whether they are bound for Heaven or Hell. Above them, angels swirl, blow trumpets, bear arms. Below, a snarling Hellmouth swallows sinners, crocodile fangs bared.
A touching aspect of the Doom painting can be discovered bystudying Mary and St Michael at the scales. Look at Mary’s hand closely and you will notice that she seems to be slyly applying pressure to the scales, in favour of sending the soul heavenwards.
I can’t help but think how comforting this may have been to the medieval congregants of St Lawrence. Here, in a maelstrom of change, suffering and death, a figure offers intercession and assistance. Not only that, but in the form of Mary, that ultimate mother figure in medieval faith. This is imagery that would have never have survived the Reformation, but for a crafty whitewasher.
St Lawrence’s real treasure, however, is in what is known as its ‘Warning To Swearers’
In the centre of the painting, we find a Pieta – the Virgin cradling the dead Jesus. Around them, a crowd of the rough and ready sorts that ae not unfamiliar from late medieval depictions of the Passion.
Take a closer look, however. Notice something about those men? Notice what they are carrying? In hands outstretched they hold hands, feet, a bones, a heart. What do you notice about Jesus? He’s lost a foot, a hand. This is not a traditional depiction of the Passion!
No, this isn’t a depiction of a hereto undiscovered Gospel. You didn’t doze through this part of Christ’s story in Sunday School. Dan Brown hasn’t found inspiration for his next book.
This is, instead, an allegorical image. It plays on the habit of medieval people to swear, using bodyparts of God or Christ – ‘God’s Bones!’ or ‘Christ’s Feet!’, to give some examples. What the painting is saying, really, is that when those working in the fields took the Lord’s name in vain, in the view of the medieval Church, they stripped the flesh from God himself.
As grotesque, bloody and brutish as this may seem to modern eyes – it does labour the point – this is a language of violence that the congregants would have understoood. The lion’s share of the paintings at Broughton date from the 15th century, that period of war and strife known as the War of the Roses. As much as revisionists claim that the medieval past was not the violent place of the popular imagination, this, perhaps more than any other time in English history, was a time that saw violence as a way of life.
I adore this church of St Lawrence. I adore it because, more than any other church that I have seen on my travels so far, it places me in the shoes of a medieval parishioner. Here, under modern lighting, I can see what must have once blazed under candlelight as the living manifestation of the people’s faith. As simple as it must have been, and as tightly controlled by Rome as it was, this is a faith that nourished ordinary Englih men and women through centuries of war, famine, strife and discontent.
I might not agree with much of it, I might not understand some of it, but here at St Lawrence, I can experience it.
A phrase that kept resounding in my head as I explored St Lawrence was ‘a map of the universe’. This was a building, the purpose of which was to make a chaotic existence make some sort of sense.
I wonder what other sorts of maps I will find in my travels.