This painting is very much a secret. It’s on the first floor of the Byward Tower, the second defended gateway you walk through when you enter the Tower of London. Our day to day visitors don’t get to see it because of where it is – in a tiny room at the top of a spiral staircase, and because it’s so fragile. For conservation reasons we also have to limit access. Over 2 million visitors a year in such a small room would be disastrous for the delicate painting!
The drama unfolds
It tells the story of the death of Jesus Christ on the Cross, and how he sacrificed himself for mankind, but the central ‘Crucifixion’ figure is gone now – destroyed by a later fireplace. Still surviving though are the Virgin Mary and St John the Evangelist in mourning positions - Mary is wringing her hands with grief for her son and young St John is praying. Either side of the Crucifixion scene are two large saints – St John the Baptist on one side, and the Archangel St Michael on the other. The angel, St. Michael, weighs the souls of dead people in a set of giant golden scales, determining whether they’ll go to heaven or hell! St John holds a Bible with a tiny lamb holding a flag standing on it. This is the ‘Agnus dei’ – symbolising the sacrifice of the Lamb of God (Jesus).
It’s all very mysterious
We don’t know exactly why the painting is in this room but it must have been very important because a wall painting like this would have been extremely expensive. It’s literally covered in gold leaf and expensive pigments such as azurite (blue), vermillion (red) and lac (deep red).
A piece of late 14th century décor
We think the figures were painted in the 1390s. From the soft facial expressions, and the drapery of their clothes we know that they are late 14th century in style. Also, the painting features St. John the Baptist, the patron saint of Richard II, who reigned during the 1390s. There is also some similarity between the angel St. Michael and the painted angels in the National Gallery’s Wilton Diptych, which was also possibly painted for Richard II.
I love this painting because it’s the only surviving decorated medieval interior in the whole of the Tower of London. We know that originally many of the castle’s interiors were painted very richly. The figures, particularly St. Michael, are so beautiful to look at but it’s the mystery that attracts me the most. We don’t know who painted them and we don’t really know why it’s there. I’m having a great time researching the possibilities!
At the moment, we are monitoring the condition of the painting, and the room its in, generally trying to ensure the painting is stable. And we’re analysing the painting materials and techniques with the help of the National Gallery’s scientists. All of this will help us to answer questions about how and when the painting was made, who might have made it, and how best to look after it.
A surprising discovery
We were very excited to find out the painting actually covered the whole room. We found tiny traces of matching paint on the opposite wall, which is now just bare stone.
That’s what makes it so mysterious – there’s a lot left but also a huge amount missing. This is one of the most sophisticated, well-preserved and important wall paintings in Britain but we’re left with very tantalising glimpses of what would have once been a glorious whole.