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Ancient tiny church in western England a keeper of history

  • This May 23, 2017 photo shows a painting of six of Christ's Apostles, on the wall of the chancel of St Mary's Church in Kempley, Gloucestershire, western England. The tiny church dates back to around 1130 AD and boasts some of the finest and most complete medieval wall paintings in northern Europe. They were whitewashed during religious turmoil under Henry VIII and were only rediscovered hundreds of years later.. (AP Photo/Jerry Harmer) Jerry Harmer

  • This May 23, 2017 photo shows St Mary's Church at Kempley, in Gloucestershire, western England. It dates back to around 1130 AD. Half-hidden down winding country lanes, the tiny church some of the finest and most complete medieval wall paintings in Northern Europe. (AP Photo/Jerry Harmer) Jerry Harmer

  • This May 23, 2017 photo shows the door from the bell tower into the nave of St. Mary's Church in Kempley, Gloucestershire, western England. Scientific tests on the wood from the door has shown that the tree from which it was made was felled between 1114 – 1144 AD, making it one of the oldest wooden doors still in use in the country. The church, which was built around 1130 AD, also has the country's oldest wooden roof and some of the finest and most complete medieval wall paintings in Northern Europe. (AP Photo/Jerry Harmer) Jerry Harmer

  • This May 23, 2017 photo shows the interior of St Mary's Church in Kempley, Gloucestershire, western England, which boasts some of the finest and most complete medieval wall paintings in northern Europe. On the left of the photo is a depiction of the Wheel of Life, which in its original state would probably have featured Christ in the centre, surrounded by representations of the ten ages of man, including birth, youth and death. Experts believe the earliest of the church's paintings date from around 1130 AD though the Wheel of Life is believed to be from the 14th or 15th century. (AP Photo/Jerry Harmer) Jerry Harmer

  • This May 23, 2017 photo shows a painting of Jesus Christ, accompanied by six of his Apostles and angels. on the roof of the chancel of St Mary's Church, in Kempley, Gloucestershire, western England. The tiny church was built around 1130 AD and is home to some of the finest and most complete medieval wall paintings in northern Europe. They were whitewashed during religious turmoil under Henry VIII and were only rediscovered hundreds of years later. (AP Photo/Jerry Harmer) Jerry Harmer



Associated Press
Saturday, August 12, 2017

I’m lost in a world of hedges. The narrow lanes crowd in. I drive ever slower, looking for a signpost. Just as I think I’m lost, a squat, square tower and a weather vane peep above the greenery.

St. Mary’s Church, in Kempley, in Gloucestershire, western England, is a hidden gem. The hidden, I’ve realized. The gem I’m about to discover.

I push open the door and the first thing I notice is how cool it is inside. Then I freeze. But it’s nothing to do with the temperature.

Painted on the bare, stone wall opposite is a large circular pattern. It’s so unexpected that for a second I wonder if it’s graffiti. Then I see another design, then another, and more, off to my right, in the chancel. It isn’t immediately clear what they are: the reds, ochres and yellows are muted, the paint faded.

Many of the paintings have adorned this ancient, tiny church, just 30 paces from altar to back wall of the tower, for about 900 years. Experts from the United Kingdom’s Courtauld Institute of Art say they’re among the most complete and best preserved medieval wall paintings in Northern Europe.

I’m standing in what amounts to one of the finest art galleries you’ve never heard of.

As I walk around, I start to make sense of what I’m seeing: Bible scenes, saints, the apostles, Christ and the Apocalypse.

It’s remarkable they’ve survived so long. During the Reformation, that tumultuous period of doctrinal strife ushered in by Henry VIII, an estimated 90 percent of English religious art was destroyed. As part of that iconoclasm the Kempley murals were whitewashed. They were not rediscovered or restored for centuries.

You don’t have to be religious to be enthralled by old churches. What I love is their role as the keepers of history, written there in their stones, carvings and paintings. A thousand years of clues, stretching back to the Normans and before.