St Laurence Frescoes

Possibly 450 years after Cuthbert’s death, scenes from his life were painted inside St. Laurence church. The artist used the fine curves of the old Saxon windows in the North wall, for his work.

Wall paintings at St Laurence Church

Cuthbert is consecrated bishop

Only two paintings remain. Maybe other paintings were in the second window and on the flat wall surface between them.

635 – 687 Cuthbert’s life

987 – Three hundred years after Cuthbert’s death, there was most certainly a Saxon church at Hallgarth.

998 – 1017 A stone church replaces a wooden church at present Cathedral site.

1066 – Norman Invasion

1069 – Ethelwine, the last Saxon Bishop of Durham, escapes the Norman army, taking Cuthbert’s relics with him.

1093 – The Foundation stone of Durham Norman Cathedral was laid.

1104 – Cuthbert’s relics were placed in the shrine behind the High Altar.

1137 – This is a possible date for the wall paintings in St. Laurence, 450 years after Cuthbert’s death.

Wall paintings at St Laurence Church

Cuthbert’s vision

It is interesting to think of the process the painter went through to research and select from Cuthbert’s life story. I have used Fire Of The North, by David Adam, for Cuthbert’s life, and Adam lists his own Bibliography, mainly 20th Century writing, and of course everyone uses Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, written in Latin in the 8th Century, and since translated over centuries. Bede and Cuthbert were alive together. Bede was 15 years old when Cuthbert died.

Did the frescoe artist, who might have also painted in the Gallillee Chapel, absorb these stories from the Cathedral setting, or did every “man on the street” own the account?

David Adam was for thirteen years vicar of Holy Island, Lindisfarne, and must be sympathetic to the island atmosphere that Cuthbert loved.

Bishop Trumwine and King Egfrith, in the royal boat came to plead with Cuthbert, on Farne, to take on the burden of being a Bishop. Tearfully Cuthbert left the island to go with the men to Twyford on the River Aln to the Synod meeting. The journey was not far but it seemed it was to another world. Was he the sort to be a Bishop? His rough clothes stood him apart from the others. He was amazed by the warmth and confidence of the Synod. His consecration was set to take place in the following Spring, and in the meantime he was allowed to return to his island home. Cuthbert was made Bishop at York on Easter Day,

Cuthbert loved visiting the high hill country and the windswept moors. Whenever he arrived in an area people flocked to him for his prayers and the laying on of hands. In areas where there was no church, they set up little dwellings made out of branches from trees. It was like the New Testament, with the sick being brought to him and the people hearing him gladly.

Years of hard work and spending himself in the service of others were taking their toll. When he knew it was time to lay aside the office of Bishop, he planned a last visit to the hill places of his diocese.

Abbess Elfleda had invited him to dedicate a church in her monastery. During the feast before the dedication he had a terrifying vision. Elfleda, concerned for his health begged him to reveal his fears. He had seen a holy man from her estate being taken up to heaven. The next day he learnt of the man’s death from a fall from a tree, at the very same hour that Cuthbert had seen it at the table.

Elfleda said, “ I pray you my lord bishop, remember at mass Hadwald my shepherd.”

Cuthbert always said to the people, “Beware of wanting to have visions for they need not be for your own good.”

Maybe folk responded easily to holy Hadwald’s accident? Would they be impressed, amazed but fearful of Cuthbert’s visions? How proud they would be living so close to Durham Cathedral, where he rested.

What scenes from Cuthberts life did the missing paintings in our church depict?

Fire of the North, The Life of St. Cuthbert, by David Adam SPCK 1993

August 2012, Sylvia Hope