Replicating Saint Michael

The Tower of London is, of course, famous for being the place to come and see the glittering and fabulous Crown Jewels. What is less well-known is that it also conceals other treasures, of a subtler kind. Not all of them are on the public route, for safety reasons, or because they are in private accommodation where Tower staff live. One of these is a wall painting in the Byward Tower. I have long held a fascination for this painting, which is a very rare survival from the fourteenth century.

The Byward Tower was built a century earlier, and is a strong gate-tower protecting the main entrance to the Tower of London. The wall painting is in a room directly above the gateway, and medieval building accounts suggest that it was once used by the King’s Exchange, a part of the Royal Mint. The Mint, where the nation’s coinage was manufactured, occupied the Tower until 1810.

The wall painting was concealed for many centuries and was re-discovered by art restorers in 1953, who carefully uncovered it from beneath layers of lime-wash. As well as finding the medieval wall painting, they found a later one of a Tudor Rose. That painting is on a chimney breast, which, when built, destroyed the middle of the earlier wall painting.

The medieval wall painting depicting four saints, and, in the centre, a faded Tudor rose painted onto a chimney breast. Tower of London. Photograph: © Historic Royal Palaces
The medieval wall painting depicting four saints, and, in the centre, a faded Tudor rose painted onto a chimney breast. Photograph: © Historic Royal Palaces

The medieval painting depicts a damaged Crucifixion (the Crucifix was destroyed by the chimney-breast) with the Virgin Mary and St John the Evangelist. They are flanked by Saint John the Baptist and St Michael the Archangel. The green and gold background is painted to look like a fabulous cloth-of-gold silk hanging, something which only the richest patrons could afford in reality. The gold pattern is formed from collared parakeets, with alternating fleurs-de-lis or Plantagenet lions at their centre. The painting was created long before the Reformation, when English people were all Roman Catholics, and familiar with the iconography of the saints. The elegant style of the painting, called ‘International Gothic’ by art historians, suggests that it was painted towards the end of Richard II’s reign. He was deposed in 1399.

Saint Michael is particularly beautiful. He holds a giant set of golden scales, and weighs the souls of the dead. This action takes place at the End of Time, when all souls are weighed in the balance at the Last Judgement.

Detail, St Michael the Archangel, Tower of London. Photograph: © Historic Royal Palaces
Detail, St Michael the Archangel. Photograph: © Historic Royal Palaces

I had an insight into how skilled the medieval painters were, when I painted a replica of Saint Michael’s head for occasional education sessions at the Tower. The real wall painting is painted onto a stone wall. It is made of linseed oil ground up with pigments such as verdigris, azurite and vermilion, as well as gold leaf. The replica was painted onto stone sealed with animal glue. Without modern paint driers, the individual layers of freshly-ground oil paint took a week to dry before the next could be applied. Next came the gilding, and I drew a halo and a crown on top. Saint Michael’s real crown had sadly worn away long ago.

Replica painting of Saint Michael’s head, Tower of London
Replica painting of Saint Michael’s head

My replica is not perfect, but making it gave me a glimpse of the myriad skills needed to create the real thing. Medieval wall painting was an occupation that required forward planning, patience, natural ability, and a deep understanding of how to prepare, mix and apply arcane materials. It sometimes felt closer to practising alchemy than doing anything as prosaic as a spot of posh interior decoration!

Jane Spooner, Curator

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