Painting in Medieval England: The Wall-to-Wall Message

Pamela Tudor-Craig looks at complex allegories, moral and theological, conveyed in images of considerable beauty which are still being recovered today.

And by his side rode loathsome Gluttony,
Deformed creature, on a filthie swyne,
His belly was up-blowne with luxury,
And eke with fatnesse swollen were his eyne...
(Edmund Spencer, The Fairy Queen, 1590)

In Spencer's description, the six Deadly Sins attendant upon Pride, their Sovereign, ride upon the same beasts that were so libelled in the late thirteenth-century moral text, 'the new Mirror of the World', which itself grew out of the French 'Somme le Roi'. Representations of the seven Deadly Sins mounted upon animals appear in splendid illuminated manuscripts of the fifteenth century, like the English copy of the Mirror of the World in the Bodleian Library, or the French Book of Hours of Jean Dunois, Bastard of Orleans, and in French wall paintings. But we could not be sure that the imagery of Gluttony riding a pig, Lechery a goat, Avarice a camel, Envy a wolf, Sluggishness an ass and Wrath or Pride variously upon a lion, was common medieval currency – until 1985.

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