Paul Griffin describes how a painted church ceiling in Suffolk illustrates the Christian understanding of the difference between this life and the next
St Mary’s Church, at Huntingfield in Suffolk, has a remarkable painted ceiling, executed by Mrs Holland, the then Rector’s wife, in early Victorian times. How this Lincolnshire lady can have reached the standard of artistry to paint a single angel, let alone a whole church roof, is a mighty puzzle, which one can only accept in gratitude.
After she had completed the chancel roof, Mrs Holland turned her attention to the nave, and produced a whole series of saints on each side, male and female, each of whom she portrayed in earthly dress, and,
above, the same saint in heavenly dress.
Mrs Holland was, I suppose, thinking of the passage in 2 Corinthians where St Paul says we live in a tent on earth, which we strip off and replace when we lose our material bodies. The likeness between, say, Andrew on earth and Andrew in heaven is so close – just popping on a halo and a clean robe – that it makes one think afresh about the Resurrection of the Body.
Here, the medieval tradition of tapping into and adding to known and loved stories by wall paintings is followed, though even the modern interest in iconography has not greatly increased the likelihood that many visitors or even worshippers will recognise the niceties. We still assume too easily that the young will have a rudimentary knowledge of their religious heritage. My heart sank the other night when Jeremy Paxman asked the four representatives of a university what was meant by the phrase in the Anglican Catechism, ‘an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace’. Not one knew. That idea was not far from Mrs Holland’s, as Victorian congregations would have known.
It is perhaps sufficient if visitors at least see that Christians distinguish between the earthly and the heavenly body, yet believe the essential nature of the person in some way survives death. It is only another step to seeing that humans can, like certain bread and wine and water, become simultaneously themselves and a source of grace, comfort and fulfilment to others.
But there is more: one hopes that some at least of the visitors will see and understand the cross that St Andrew carries before he becomes the differently clad figure above him. In a world like ours, where bread, wine, baked beans, wood, water, men, women, kneeling, standing, silence, chatter, seem to exist
with little more significance than their outside appearances; we have even less awareness of true significance than the people that thronged the streets of the Roman world. Most of them at least had a sense of a world beyond the world, though they conspicuously failed to see the supreme and vital meaning that lay not in success but in suffering. It took Jesus to show that forth, and it needed the suffering Church to echo his message, shown in Christian iconography by that cross of St Andrew. ‘Indeed, as the sufferings of Christ overflow to us, so, through Christ, does our consolation overflow’ [2 Cor. 1.5].
So we find Paul glorying in his tribulations, which echo the process by which Jesus puts off his flesh and becomes the newly arrayed person who met him on the Damascus road. The astonishing new events of the Crucifixion and Resurrection had thrown open the gate to understanding the physical world, with its limitations and blessings.
That uniquely Christian understanding should comfort us in the minor sufferings we may undergo as we stand firm and trust in the insights of the ages, with their reverence for the sacramental nature of human lives. These insights have continued from the saints, through the Fathers, and in our Church Universal, and are exemplified there by talented Mildred Holland for all to see on a ceiling in Suffolk.
May those who visit her work be given abundant grace to work out its significance.