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Do ancient frescoes lie under plaster at St Peter’s Church?

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THOUSAND-year-old paintings may be concealed behind the plaster and paint of some of the oldest sections of St Peter’s Church.

Father Michael Phillips at St Peter's Church

A special conservator will be coming to the Island to investigate as the church begins repair work to its interior next week, a project which is expected to last three to four months.

The church learned of the possibility of the hidden treasures while in the process of getting planning permission for a £130,000 repair job to the Grade 1 listed building’s interior.

The Rector of St Peter, the Rev Michael Phillips, said it would be ‘incredible’ if the fresco artwork was found. St Peter’s is one of 12 medieval churches in the Island, with its oldest sections dating back to 1053.

While many additions and changes have been made over the years, the oldest parts may still have traces of the fresco paintings that were once common in churches before the Reformation.

A heritage department report prepared during the planning process found that there was ‘a very strong possibility that there are underlying frescos or wall paintings in parts of the church, and their loss through lack of appropriate specification, phasing and supervision of works would be unacceptable’.

The most likely sites for the medieval works would be in the sanctuary above the high altar, in the chancel and in an area currently being used as Mr Phillips’ vestry.

‘They may not be there at all,’ Mr Phillips said. ‘But they can’t take the chance of something being hacked off and lost forever.’

According to Planning Department documents related to the work, these sections have evidence of lime plaster at the higher levels ‘and these are the areas where the decoration is likely to be present’.

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Mr Phillips added: ‘It is difficult for us to imagine in our own particular time, but churches were highly painted with pictures until the Reformation. Just like stained glass windows were developed to tell the Bible stories to an illiterate population – because in those days only the clergy could read and write – so the walls of churches were highly decorated in the manner that Orthodox churches still are today in Greece and so on.’

After Henry VIII and the Reformation, however, the colourful artwork inside churches was seen as ‘idolatrous’.

‘Instructions went out all over to whitewash or plaster over everything,’ Mr Phillips said.

‘They might have just plastered over or painted over, or they might have destroyed them first. We just don’t know because there is just no record telling us.’

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To find out, a ‘wall-painting conservator’, of which there are only 14 in the UK, must be brought in. Their work will be painstaking, delicately dissolving and removing small sections of paint and plaster to see what is beneath.

‘That will take a long time,’ Mr Phillips said. ‘They will do test areas, where they know from experience where they [the frescos] are most likely to be. If any are found at all the whole lot will have to be taken off in that very slow manner.’

The less complicated repair work will begin next week and should be completed by Easter.

The church’s project will fix a damp problem caused a number of years ago when a new roof was instaled and work was done on the spire. At the time the granite did not dry out properly.

All the plaster on the interior must now be removed and the stone left to dry for ‘several’ years.

Tania Targett

By Tania Targett
Journalist

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