HIDDEN paintings dating back 500 years have been uncovered at Stratford’s Guild Chapel.
Experts now believe it is one of only a handful of places in Europe to have an almost complete medieval decorative scheme still in situ.
The finds were made earlier this month by conservators currently working in the 13th century chapel as part of the ongoing Death Reawakened project funded by Stratford Town Trust and a £100,000 Heritage Lottery Fund grant.
Work to reveal, clean and retouch two of the best-preserved wall paintings within the Chapel – the Doom and Allegory on Death – is currently underway. As part of the project, conservators also removed sections of the wooden panelling which covers much of the chapel’s walls to determine the extent of painting preserved underneath.
And what they found has caused huge excitement – shedding light on medieval paintings covered up on orders given to Shakespeare’s father John in 1563. Some of them have not been seen for almost 100 years, while other sections have never been properly recorded.
Wooden panelling along the chapel walls is extensive, and archives noted further paintings lay waiting to be examined – but the scale and detail revealed so far has been beyond all expectations.
Clear details from two large ornate paintings – the Dance of Death and Life of Adam – are both visible.
The Life of Adam was known to have run the length of the south wall, but it had not been exposed since the mid-20th century and documentation on it was limited. The small section now exposed shows details including animals and people thought to be part of a hunting scene.
Light has also been shed on the Dance of Death – always known to have been concealed along the north wall but also not seen for some 75 years. While more degraded than the Life of Adam, sections can still clearly be seen.
And with the majority of both walls still covered, experts hope the best could be yet to come.
“This is an exciting development in our knowledge of the chapel,” said project manager Cate Statham.
“We knew about the presence of something behind the panelling on the north and south walls but the level of detail retained on the south wall in particular is really exciting and encouraging.
“The Guild Chapel’s earlier interior scheme was colourful, vibrant and decorative, with every single wall covered in paintings. We are very fortunate to have what represents an almost complete pre-Reformation medieval scheme still in situ, where the design was conceived and executed all as one piece of work at the same time – and we know of only a few comparable examples surviving in all of Europe.
“It raises lots of exciting possibilities for the future of the chapel, the conservation of these additional paintings and whether they could ever be on regular display.”
Conservators are now surveying and recording the sections uncovered and carrying out testing to ascertain what might be achieved with further conservation, similar to the works carried out to the Doom and Allegory paintings.
Work is almost complete on the Doom, with later layers of paint and wax painstakingly removed to reveal exceptional detail and colour previously hidden.
The Allegory on Death has also undergone conservation, with the full painting now visible, probably for the first time since the 17th century, when it was limewashed over before another scheme was painted over the top, and later timber panelling installed.
The chapel, on the corner of Church Street and Chapel Lane, is open daily to visitors and entry is free.
Visit www.stratfordtowntrust.co.uk/guildchapel for further details.