In the late 15th and early 16th centuries the walls were painted with a series of striking images. These all depicted the saints, the gates of heaven and hell, and other popular reflections on the afterlife. Following the Reformation, these images were banned, Elizabeth I passing Royal Injunction in 1559 demanding “removal of all signs of superstition and idolatry from places of worship”.
In Stratford, that Royal injunction was received by the Corporation of Stratford and John Shakespeare, father of the playwright, who was Chamberlain of the Corporation. Surviving council records show that in 1563 John Shakespeare authorised payment of 2s for ‘defasyng ymages in ye chappell’. Whether they were all covered at that time or at a later date is unknown. William Shakespeare was born in 1564 and it is quite possible the paintings, or some of them, were still visible during his lifetime. Speculation also surrounds John Shakespeare’s willingness to follow the orders he was given, with scholars long debating whether John and his family followed the Catholic faith the Reformation was out to suppress. What we do know is that rather than the paintings being defaced, they were largely limewashed over instead (only the face of the Archangel Michael in the Allegory of Death painting can be seen to have been clearly ‘defaced’ – literally scratched away). This limewashing actually served to protect the paintings, many of them in very fine detail.
“The Guild Chapel wall paintings are an extremely important survival and are of national significance. Not only are they unique in iconographic and art historical terms, but they also provide a visual context for the social and religious attitudes which would have been prevalent at the time of the young William Shakespeare. This is an incredibly exciting and important project.”
Conservator Tobit Curteis.