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Open Features: Cometh The Day, Cometh The "Doom''

...n opening that door the unexpected took the breath away, a Doom, so colourful on a grey day, but at the same time, so weighty in its message, stared at us from the north wall...

In this fascinating article Mary Pilfold-Allan tells of her family's chance "discover'' of the Wenhaston Doom.

The first time I saw Wenhaston’s Doom it came as a big surprise. We had rented a cottage on the Suffolk coast for part of the long summer holiday, reasoning that with four young children, the proximity of sea and sand was a must. The third element, the sun, was unfortunately having its own vacation at the time; we had nothing but rain, rain and more rain.

Trapped in a small cottage for hours on end, the slightest hint of a break in the clouds had us donning Wellingtons and heading for the great outdoors. It was on one of these excursions, principally to find a shop selling daily essentials that we came upon the village of Wenhaston nestling just off the A12.

It was at this point that the break in the clouds closed again and once more the rain came down in a torrent. We ran for the shelter of the village church, quaint in its country churchyard with lopsided gravestones and sprawling Yews. Not that either caused us a missed stride as we sped along the path to the door. Upon opening that door the unexpected took the breath away, a Doom, so colourful on a grey day, but at the same time, so weighty in its message, stared at us from the north wall.

The children saw it for what it was in stark reality and therefore took it as such, a relatively primitive painting depicting some scary creatures and some that they thought were angels. As soon as the rain eased off they were eager to be away, seeking out more adventurous outlets for their energy. I went with them, but the Doom stayed in my mind, definitely to be revisited at a later date.

Three decades later, I have just made that return visit. Little has changed. The church is still guarded by its Yew and the door still opens to reveal the Doom glowing in the church’s dim interior, but this time its message seems to be more pertinent, closer to the mark. Perhaps age has tempered my reaction?

Most graphically depicted is the Devil watching over the weighing of souls, the scroll carried in his hand has the Latin words ‘Now for what is lacking may you give pardon for sin.’ Two frightened figures huddle together on one side of the scales, aware of their fate to come, while another, the good soul, is gently lowered to a heavenly reception.

Painted on timber planks and thought to date from 15th century, the Doom must have represented an awesome sight to concentrate wandering thoughts as the congregation listened uncomprehendingly to the Latin medieval masses. Few then could read or write; the pictures required no words, their meaning plain, choose the path of righteousness or you are eternally doomed!

All this colour and symbolism was very nearly lost forever and it is indeed a sort of miracle that it has survived. Following the Reformation and also during the time of Edward VI, many church wall paintings and Dooms were whitewashed over to comply with a more sombre style of religion. Then around the end of the 1800s, during renovations to the church, the Doom still camouflaged by its whitewash was removed and left outside to await final destruction. Obviously that night, the scales were tipped on the side of righteousness for it rained and in doing so, washed off great tracts of the whitewash to reveal the glories of the medieval painting underneath.

The Wenhaston Doom is now rated as one of the most important such artworks of its time to still exist, and justly so. The initial surprise I encountered all those years ago may have dimmed over the decades, but it has been replaced by sheer appreciation of the painting’s ability to survive and for the clarification of its message. It is a brave soul who would choose to sit on the Devil’s side of the scales and face the jaws of Hell. Although as that infamous character in Dad’s Army would say, “We’re doomed. We’re all doomed.”


Mary Pilfold-Allan
May 2011.


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