Canon Diggens Archive

Wall Paintings in St Keverne Parish Church

Painting of St. Christopher.

This painting occupies a prominent position as usual upon the North Wall of the nave over the North door and opposite to the South or principal entrance.

The date is about 1480. The picture is enclosed in an ornamented scroll border of elegant design. The gigantic figure of Saint Christopher occupies the main field of the painting.

He bears the infant Christ upon his right shoulder and looks towards Him, while with his two hands he grasps the uprooted sapling that steadies him in fording the river. He wears, as usual, a sort of turban, and has a red mantle wrapped over the left shoulder, the under-tunic being white and flounced below the waist; and beneath this appear baggy trunk hose, the legs below the knee being bare.

A number of fish of various kinds are swimming in the stream. On one of these, a large plaice, the orange spots are realistically depicted. A heron is shewn perched on a rock on the left bank.

This stream is depicted as flowing between undulating banks with trees, on it a ship in full sail, having a pennon streaming from the mast, and, to the right of the spectator, is the hermit's cell with a winding path leading up to it. This cell has a small tower at one end with a door in it, and a gabled roof, and below, on the margin of the stream, is the usual figure of the hermit holding out with both hands a lantern to light the Saint across. Behind him are trees, one bearing apples, and two rabbits peeping out of their hole.

Around this main subject are eight smaller ones, arranged in square panels, four on either side, and forming a sort of inner border. I have no doubt that the incidents depicted in these are taken from the legend of the same Saint's life; but they are unfortunately in a very mutilated state and it is difficult to be quite certain as to what incidents some of the scenes relate to.

The uppermost on either side is half destroyed and the second on the left hand has not been freed from whitewash. The two lower panels on the left side contain each a male and a female figure standing on a tiled floor. Probably we have here the incident of the two women sent by King Dagon to lead Christopher into unchastity and idolatry. The woman in one of these scenes wears an ermine-bordered gown and the steeple head-dress so characteristic of the ladies of Edward the IV's reign; and, similarly, the Saint is attired in the short jerkin, long hose and black shoes of that period. In one scene he is carrying a club over his shoulder, and in the other he grasps an uprooted sapling.

Nothing can be made of the half-destroyed top panel on the right. It appears to contain a small seated figure and a larger one standing. The next below represents the Saint bound to a great post while King Dagon's soldiers (diminutive figures) are shooting arrows at him: the arrows, in accordance with the legend are shewn as hanging in mid-air; but one is turning round and darting to put out the eye of the wicked King, whose face can be made out in the left of the picture. The fetters round Christopher's ankles are very distinct.

The third scene from the top appears to have reference to Christopher as one of the race of the Cynocephali, or dog-headed men, in which guise he is said to have appeared at the gate of the city of Samos. A monstrous white beast, with its head thrown back, is apparently causing great wonderment to the men of the city, three of whom can be made out in the picture. According to the legend, Christopher prayed that a sign might be given to convert the people, and when he had planted his iron staff in the ground it forthwith put forth leaves and bloomed. No trace of this tree is visible, however, in the painting.

The lowest panel in the right hand tier shews the limbed figure of the Saint, as if in the act of falling, while another smaller figure in a quaintly shaped hat (not unlike Punch's traditional headgear) is bending over him with a pair of handcuffs or fetters. This probably represents the incident of the collapse of the iron chair into which Christopher was thrust by command of the tyrant King, that he might be roasted over a slow fire. The difficulty of deciphering these remains of the painting is increased by the existence of portions of a later piece of wall decoration (probably a l6th or 17th Century text within a frame or border) fragments of which still adhere to the original painting.

I do not know of any other mural painting of St. Christopher in which these "events" in his legendary history are depicted in addition to the main subject of his bearing the Christ: this Cornish painting has therefore an unique interest and it is perhaps worthy of note that the above incidents are taken from the Greek form of the legend.

In the last named panel there is also a fetter ring fastened to the wall.
The Fresco of St. Christopher in St. Keverne Church is unique in the kingdom as it represents a legend not found in other paintings relating to him.