Medieval art at St Mary’s church Thornham Parva

26 April 2016

I met up with a group of OCA students to discuss our work in the cafe at Thornham Walks, near Eye, Suffolk. We then visited the nearby church of St Mary in Thornham Parva. 

The medieval retable

In this tiny thatched church resides one of the few medieval retables (an altarpiece structure) to survive the purge of decorative church furniture during the English Reformation in the 16th and 17th centuries. 

The piece (not complete, but none the less the largest surviving in the UK),  is originally thought to be from the Dominican Priory in Thetford (1). It is estimated that it was made in the 1330’s (2). The style in which the figures are painted, and the fact that it features St Dominic and St Edmund, suggest it was made in East Anglia. (5) It is considered a particularly fine example of medieval painting.

Medieval Christianity was full of symbolism and superstition. The practise of placing images on or over alters was well established by the 14th century across Europe, the aim being to stress the fact that alters were dedicated to saints who witnessed the daily commemoration of Christ’s death in the Mass. (5)

The retable is a low wide rectangular painted wooden panel, 3.81 x 0.94m. It consists of a row of carved canopies, and arcade of gothic arches supported on round columns. Over the row of arches is stylised, carved and gilded foliage. It shows a crucifixion theme with the Virgin Mary flanked by St John and panel paintings of the saints on a gilt background. Within the arcade stand the figures of saints, no two being alike. In medieval fashion the saints are imagined in then-contemporary costume, as if to present to the beholder as being in the ‘here and now’. (5) Alternate archways show black and gilt chequerboard backgrounds (also in relief).

The retable was ‘discovered’ in 1920 in a stable on the Thornham estate. It was clear that the medieval paintwork had been seriously compromised by later repairs, and a decision was made to undergo a programme of restoration. The restorers (Hamilton Kerr Institute, Cambridge) were able to gain new insights into the sophisticated practise of oil painting in England before the fifteenth century and published a book to document the contribution of the altarpiece to the history of medieval art (3).

The retable is not isolated – it has a ‘sister’ panel painting which resided in the Musee de Cluny, Paris. This panel was painted by the same team of painters using the same distinctive stamped decoration. Both panels also showed identical damage, and were probably damaged by the same person at the same time. This led researchers to conclude that they must have been commissioned together; the Thornham painting at the back of the alter, the Paris painting as the frontal, placed in front of the altar table. (5)de Cluny, Paris (

The image above is of an information board in St Mary’s church, showing what the two painting look like when viewed together as originally intended.

Contemporary work inspired by the medieval retable

I was also interested to buy a postcard of a contemporary interpretation of the retable by Jonathan Lloyd (2015). His piece, entitled “Altarpiece in dazzle camouflage (Thornham Parva)“, is a woodcut on Japanese paper, 88 x 27cm. It is possible to see echoes of the arches, chequerboard design and poses of the different figures. Clearly present is also the olive green and orange colours of the pillars. 

The picture below shows a Lloyd’s second study for the woodcut; acrylic on board (2014), which is on loan to Thornham Parva church.

The woodcut print was originally exhibited at the Royal Academy summer show of 2015, and proved extremely popular (with the entire edition of 18 prints selling out within three hours) (4). Lloyd lives in Wooler, Northumberland, and any association he may have with Suffolk or reason for a particular interest in this retable is unclear, although his work frequently has a religious theme.

I took a step back and examined the origins of Dazzle Camouflage. Originally conceived in WWI as a camouflage for ships, it was designed not be be stealthy, but to confuse the enemy as to the direction of travel of the vessel, making it an extremely difficult to target. (6) The dazzle designs have been compares to the Cubist art movement, made famous by Picasso and Braque. 

The illustrator who developed the dazzle designs, Norman Wilkinson appointed dock officers around Britain to supervise painting of the ships. One such officer was Edward Wadsworth, a founder of Vorticism – a British art movement that grew out of Cubism. (6)

I remembered reading about Sir Peter Blake’s commission to paint the Mersey ferry “snowdrop” in dazzle paintwork. (7), and found a ‘dazzle app’ which I have been experimenting with to produce my own dazzle effects (below)

Although not original (the dazzle designs are pre-programmed), it did help me understand the principle.

Medieval wall paintings

Although the work of a provincial painter and modest in quality compared to the retable, the medieval wall paintings at St Mary’s church Thornham Parva are nonetheless of interest, especially as they contain one of the only two surviving cycles in English wall painting of the life of St Edmund. (8) St Edmund was particularly important in East Anglia; Anglo Saxon King and martyr, he was killed by invading Danes in 869 and his relics were enshrined in Bury (later taking the name Bury St Edmunds), less than 20 miles from Thornham Parva.

Dating probably from the 14th century, the cycle starts with scenes from the infancy of Christ on the South wall; consisting of the visitation, the nativity of Christ, the denunciation of the shepherds, the adoration of the Magi, and the presentation in the temple.

The photo below is a close-up, showing the Virgin (cloaked figure on the right) and Child, and St Joseph in the presentation in the temple (the figure facing the opposite direction, on the left).

The St Edmund cycle is shown on the North wall; consisting of St Edmund attempting to flee the Danes, martyrdom of St Edmund, St Edmund’s severed head rejoined to his body, The burial procession and the cart carrying St Edmund’s relics.

The photo below shows the martyrdom of St Edmund. In this scene, St Edmund’s severed head is rejoined to his body. 

My final photo shows two scenes; the burial procession (right), and the cart with St Edmund’s relics (left)

The inexpensive nature of the paintings is re-enforced by their use of just a few cheap, readily available pigments, their outline style and only certain features being blocked in solid colour. Although many features are consistent with the 13th century, the outsize crowns which suggest they are unlikely to date from before the beginning of the 14th century. (8)


1. Secret Suffolk [n.d.] Thornham Parva. [online]. Available from: [Accessed 25 May 2016]

2. BBC (2003) Medieval altarpiece is restored. [online] BBC News 20 February 2003. Available from: [Accessed 25 May 2016]

3. Hamilton Kerr Institute (Ed.) (2004) The Thornham Parva retable: technique, conservation and context of an English Medieval painting. Chicago. Harvey Millar Publishers.

4. Old School Gallery (2015) Jonathan Lloyd – Royal Academy Summer 2015. [online]. Available from: [Accessed 25 May 2016]

5. Binski, P. (2003) St Mary’s church Thornham Parva, Suffolk. A guide to the retable. Ipswich. Expression printers. 

6. Willis, S. [n.d.] How did an artist help Britain fight the war at sea? BBC iWonder series. [online]. Available from: [Accessed 30 May 2016]

7. Brown, M. (2015) Mersey ferry gets the dazzle treatment from Sir Peter Blake. In: The Guardian. 2 April 2015. [online].Available from: [Accessed 30 May 2016]

8. Courtauld Institute (2004) St Mary’s church Thornham Parva – a guide to the wall paintings. Ipswich. Expression printers.


One thought on “Medieval art at St Mary’s church Thornham Parva

  1. Pingback: Contextual studies, Assignment 4 questions | Learning log for Textiles 1: Exploring ideas

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