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21st century tech restores the medieval colours of St Albans Cathedral

a photo of a medieval painting of a saint

St Christopher restored to full colour. © The Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban.

St Albans Cathedral is ‘lifting the veil of the past’ to restore the colours of medieval England

Most historians agree that the medieval world was a colourful one; churches, statuary and even the clothes of everyone from the peasantry to the clergy boasted an array of colours. This was especially true in medieval cathedrals where the images of saints adorned the walls in bold and saturated hues that befitted their venerated status.

At St Albans Cathedral, which has one of Britain’s finest collections of surviving medieval wall paintings dating from the 13th to the 16th centuries in England’s longest Nave, they are using 21st century layered light projection techniques to restore the many colours that ornamented the medieval world.

Effectively lifting the veil of time, the projections reveal how four of the biggest south-facing wall paintings in the Nave may have looked in all their medieval glory.

The four monumental images of saints depict St Christopher with his staff, the Christ child on his shoulder and a river flowing around his feet; former archbishop of Canterbury St Thomas Becket; St Zita, a 13th century servant from Italy who is the patron saint of maids and servants, and a narrative scene taken from the story of Saints Alban and Amphibalus.

The Cathedral is said to be built on the execution site of St Alban, often referred to as the first British Christian saint, who was executed by the Romans in Verulamium for sheltering the Christian priest Amphibalus.

photo of a digitally colourised medieval painting in a church

St Zita. © The Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban.

But like most medieval church decorations, they have not weathered the passing centuries very well and were vandalised during the dissolution and the reformation.

Yet, while the extent of the defacement to the paintings at St Albans was significant, enough of the outlines remained to attempt a reconstruction of them, building up the paintings’ histories from deep scratches and cross-hatching indicating where they were defaced in the 1500s, to identifying where various colours were used, to the finer features of the saints’ faces and the iconography of the time.

The end product of these various layers is a line drawing which forms the basis of the reconstructed illuminations. The line drawing was then recoloured, using reference colours from within the Cathedral itself as well as other historical documents, resulting in a series of clear, bright images reminiscent of the originals.

“Reconstructing the paintings proved to be extremely challenging yet ultimately rewarding,” says Craig Williams, Head of Illustration in the British Museum’s Department of Britain, Europe and Prehistory. Williams worked alongside Professor Michael A. Michael at the University of Glasgow and the Chair of the St Albans Cathedral Guides, Julia Low, to bring the project to fruition.

“Seeing them helps us to understand why pilgrims of the Middle Ages are said to have fallen their knees in wonder”

“It involved in- depth research into the processes involved in the creation of the original medieval artworks. Ultimately, the results can be seen as a sympathetic recreation of the original artists’ work, allowing a fresh perspective on the fragments that remain.”

The Very Reverend Dr Jeffrey John, Dean of St Albans, adds that the paintings’ unique survival means that he and his congregation have “long wanted to lift the veil of time to see how the paintings might have appeared…”

“Seeing them helps us to understand why pilgrims of the Middle Ages are said to have fallen their knees in wonder,” he says.

The project, digital reconstruction and research into the collection are part of the Cathedral’s landmark Alban, Britain’s First Saint redevelopment project, funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

“The illuminations project is an example for other churches with fragmentary, damaged and vandalised wall paintings of how they can be brought to life again,” adds Professor Michael. “Careful preservation of the surface of the wall painting can be taken to a new level of understanding [through the collaboration of art historians and archaeological illustrators] in order to interpret the surviving evidence and make it accessible to a wider public.”

an outline line drawing of Thomas a Beckett in a church pillar

St Thomas – line drawing. © The Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban.

a colourised medieval drawing of Thomas a Beckett in a church

St Thomas, with added colours. © The Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban.

a colourised medieval drawing of Thomas Beckett in full colour

St Thomas Becket in all his full colour glory. © The Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban.

The wall painting illuminations is just one in a series of autumn illuminations organised by St Albans Cathedral. Other events include a five night son-et-lumiere installation, Space Voyage, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the 1969 moon landings and the annual Fireworks Spectacular in Verulamium Park. Further information can be found online at www.stalbanscathedral.org

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St Albans Cathedral

St Albans, Hertfordshire

St Albans Cathedral is a great place to visit for the whole family – whatever the weather! From the longest nave in England and an extensive collection of medieval wall paintings, to an exciting programme of activities and events and a brand new interactive exhibition with artefacts, audio visuals and…

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