When I was in Somerset and Devon last September, I also visited Exeter Cathedral which, among many other notable furnishings and features, also houses what I believe is one of England’s finest wall-paintings from the late 15th / early 16th century. I’ve been meaning to blog about it ever since, but somehow never got round to it. Now, at Easter, however is the perfect occasion to finally write that post, seeing as the painting in question depicts the Resurrection of Christ (with the Three Marys at the Tomb and the Noli me Tangere in the background):
According to your background and education your opinion may vary on whether to tag this painting “late Gothic” or “Northern Renaissance”. What’s undeniable though is its dependence on the realism of Early Netherlandish painting which, from c. 1440 onwards had become the blueprint for most of European painting. Of course, there nonetheless were considerable differences between the various local schools, and as far as I know the image of the Resurrected Christ in Exeter was indeed painted by an English artist. While the painting’s surface isn’t exactly in what you’d call perfect condition, the better preserved parts are of remarkable quality. It is tempting, and at the same time devastating, to imagine how many images like this must have adorned the walls of England’s churches before the English Reformation made sure that all religious imagery was, as 1547 decree puts it, “utterly extinct”.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Resurrection mural in Exeter is, however, its location, namely in or rather above the Sylke Chantry Chapel:
A delicate, cage-like construction in the north-east corner of the transept, this was the burial-place of the cathedral’s preceptor William Sylke (died 1508). As you can see in the photo, Sylke’s tomb itself is placed in such a way that it is visible/accessible from outside the chapel (where church-goers might see it) as well from inside (where the clergy would be saying mass for the deceased’s soul).
Something similar may be said for the Resurrection mural although, admittedly, one has a much better view of it from outside, standing right in the centre of the crossing. From this viewpoint it seems as if the figure is Christ is actually rising from the Chantry Chapel, or indeed as if it is rising from the tomb of William Sylke. This, of course, makes the image all the more poignant – and goes to show just how crucial it is to take setting and context into account when studying wall-paintings.