High up in the roof space, attached to the east wall of the nave of Holy Trinity church in Penn in Buckinghamshire, is a very rare object indeed. Painted on a series of wooden boards, forming a Tympanum, is a vibrantly coloured Doom painting. It is one of only five Doom paintings on boards that have survived from medieval England.
The Penn Doom was discovered in 1938, in a series of events that closely mirror the discovery of the Wenhaston Doom in Suffolk in 1892, a subject of an earlier post on this blog. In the summer of 1938, extensive repairs were being carried out at Penn church and during the course of the work some decaying boards, whitewashed and covered in lath and plaster were found above the chancel arch and were discarded in the churchyard. These boards were further broken up and Mr Randall a local workman had already taken some to the tip. For some reason he decided to brush off some of the whitewash and plaster on the boards and he instantly discovered colour. He reported his discovery to the vicar, who summoned the wallpaintings expert E. Clive Rouse. Rouse immediately came down to Penn, scoured the tip for missing pieces and in the local school room he pieced together and laid out the planks.
He came back at a later date to remove the whitewash and plaster and the Doom emerged for the first time in many generations.
Rouse discovered, as he stripped the boards of their lath and plaster and whitewash, that the painted Doom composition he was uncovering was in fact a palimpsest. What initially appeared was a painting with two layers, a later repainting obscuring an earlier painted scheme with the same iconography. The later scheme was executed in bright colours with a crude use of line, while the elements of the earlier scheme that appeared from beneath the later layer, appeared to more subtle in their execution. Both phases of the work were of the same subject matter, the Doom, the Last Judgement, but the second phase appeared to have simplified the iconography of the first. In carrying out his work, Rouse attempted to uncover in some areas the details of the first phase that had been obliterated by the second.
Iconographically, the composition of the Penn Doom follows a typical pattern. Christ, bearing the marks of his wounds, sits on a rainbow at the centre of the composition, he is judging the world. On either side of him are angels in albs and apparelled amices, carrying instruments of the Passion. To either side of them, are angels sounding the last trump on golden trumpets. Ranging on either side and kneeling on a green mound below Christ, are figures of the saints interceding for the dead: to the left the Virgin Mary, to the right St John the Baptist and behind them two groups of the Apostles. The green mound they are kneeling on, is a cemetery and at the sound of the trump, figures of shrouded men and women rise from their tombs. Unlike the Wenhaston Doom, there is no mouth of Hell and no gates of Heaven in this composition and we can assume that the scene on the panel was originally completed by other paintings, probably on the walls.
One of the elements that Rouse uncovered from the earlier painted scheme are a series of scrolls with blackletter text on them. On his right the text: VENITE BENEDICTI PATRIS MEI POSSIDETE REGNUM (Come ye blessed of my father, inherit your kingdom) and on his left: ITE MALEDICTI IN IGNEM ETERNUM (Go ye evil-doers into eternal fire). Both of these imply that there was originally a representation of heaven and hell as part of the original iconographical scheme. Below the angels with their trumpets, is a text directed at the dead: RESURGITE MORTUI VENITE AD JUDICUUM (Rise ye dead and come to judgement). These texts were all painted out in the later scheme.
Another element painted out in the later scheme was a representation of the Weighing of Souls and Rouse found the remnants of this appearing beneath the green pigment of the mound below the rainbow (photo above). He carefully uncovered the outline of the head of Mary and also of St Michael and one of the pans of the scales that Michael was holding.
Rouse, with the assistance of Professor Francis Wormald, a leading expert on medieval manuscripts, did try and have stab at the dating of the different phases. Wormald suggested on the basis of comparison with manuscripts that the earlier phase of the world dated from around c.1400. Of the later phase, Rouse came to the conclusion, primarily on the way the figure of Christ is treated, that the work was after 1450 and perhaps late in the 15th century. That makes a lot of sense, the somewhat clunky feel to it feels late 15th or early 16th century.
When the panel was conserved in 1999 the timbers of the Tympanum were subjected to dendrochronology and this process indicated that the timber of the panel was felled between 1414 and 1448, pushing the date of the first phase of the painting forward some way. An analysis of the paint suggested that this first phase was painted in an oil medium and in using a quite wide ranging and subtle palette. The second phase was also painted in oil, but in a more limited palette and with a predominance of Vermillion.
Ruth Bubb who conducted the 1999 conservation scheme, found evidence of a third decorative layer in addition to the two painted layers. She saw outlines of stars scattered over the whole surface of the painting, paying no respect to the composition and iconography. She concludes that tin stars, glazed with a yellow varnish, were affixed to these spaces. They were probably pre-Reformation in date, as smoke particles from candles or incense were found trapped inside the star shapes.
The present location of the Doom panel is unusual, it is placed high up within the roof structure and is difficult to see, it is difficult to see how in that position it could have been in relationship with the great rood. In its current location it isn’t in contact with any of the nave walls and it is difficult to see how the iconography and composition could have been completed, unless it was close to the nave walls. The original chancel arch was removed in the eighteenth century and it seems likely that the Tympanum, which once fitted into that lost chancel arch, was moved upwards at that time to be used as a filling for the east wall of the chancel.
R. Bubb, ‘The Penn Doom: The re-examination and conservation of an important medieval painting on wood’ in The Conservator 27: 1 (2003), pp.64-80.
E. Clive Rouse, ‘The Penn Doom’ in Records of Bucks 17, part 2 (1962), pp. 95-104.