Rhagor - Opening our national collections

Catherine of the Wheel

What do a firework and a painting from a medieval church have in common?

[image: St Catherine]

Medieval wall painting of St Catherine, from St Teilos church, dating to around 1400.

In 1998 St Fagans National History Museum began the challenging work of rebuilding and refurbishing a stone-built medieval church that had been moved from its original site in west Wales in 1984 — one of the first projects of its kind to be attempted in Europe. During the dismantling process, a number of extremely rare wall paintings were uncovered from beneath the limewashed walls.

St Catherine

One of the oldest paintings uncovered at the church dates from around 1400-1430 and represents St Catherine of Alexandria. It had remained hidden for centuries under layers of limewash, which had to be removed using doctors' scalpels.

Once the complete image had been painstakingly uncovered and the many thin layers of limewash delicately removed, St Catherine was revealed dressed in late fourteenth/early fifteenth-century costume, standing next to a spiked wheel and holding a sword.

Torture wheel and sword

[image: St Catherine medieval wall painting]

Close up showing detail of St Catherine's face after conservation and cleaning by Jane Rutherfoord & Associates Ltd of Milton Lilbourne, Wilts. The work involved removing the backing that had been applied during initial conservation work in 1986, and replacing it with a modern high-tec solution based on hexlite - a lightweight aluminium hollow board used in aircraft manufacture. The surface was then cleaned to reveal the original paintwork.

The spiked wheel she is pictured next to is the instrument of torture that Catherine was condemned to death on by the Roman Emperor Maxentius [306-312] for her strong Christian beliefs. According to legend, the wheel itself broke when she touched it, so she was beheaded with the sword she is seen holding.

The torturous wheel that St Catherine is associated with gave rise to the name 'Catherine wheel' for the popular firework.

The re-erected church can be seen at St Fagans National History Museum. The wall paintings have been faithfully and expertly reproduced to show how the church would have appeared in about 1530. The St Catherine painting is not represented in the re-erected building, as it would have been covered over by this time.

The original wall painting of St Catherine is currently stored at the museum and can be viewed upon request in advance.

Article Date: 11 January 2007

9 comments

Amgueddfa Cymru on 14 May 2013, 14:10

Dear Adam Szemere,
Many thank for your comment, I have contacted the appropriate collections manager and unfortunately, due to a) staff shortages, b) shortage of notice and c) the current movement of significant proportion of collections to another site, it would not be possible to view this item this Sunday.
Please contact the collections manager [ dylan.jones@museumwales.ac.uk ] if you wish to make an appointment in the future to view this item. Apologies we are not able to show you this item on Sunday,
Graham Davies, Online Curator

Adam Szemere on 13 May 2013, 10:59

"The original wall painting of St Catherine is currently stored at the museum and can be viewed upon request in advance"
We'd like to see it on May 19, 2013 - Ida+Ádám Szemere

Graham davies on 6 November 2012, 13:39 (Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales Staff)

Dear Welsh Observer,

Thank you for your comments. It is a shame that you did not join us on a recent 'Open Doors' tour of the original murals, in which the source material for our interpretation (plaster panels, photographs, tracings, pigment samples etc), as well as the very issues you raise, were explored and discussed in detail.

Wall-painting conservation is an emerging field - the 'best practice' for their display and conservation is still changing. Opinions vary all over the world, and the 'right way' to go about it is still being developed and discussed. It is often the case, due to the fragility and scale of the work, that each painting is cared for by an individual conservator - inevitably adding to the variety of approaches already applied globally.

You mention 'over zealous cleaning' - it is not clear to me whether you are talking about the replicas on the church walls, or the source material held in our collections. I will take that you mean the original painting - do add to the comments if I've got that wrong, and I'll follow it up: I suspect that the 'cleaning' your eye has been drawn to is actually infill of modern, ochre paint. If the intention is to display the painting, some will argue that, in a severely damaged painting, some 'infilling' should take place, in order to help the viewer make sense of the image. These additions are usually small, and are only carried out when one is certain of the subject matter e.g. filling in a gap in a continuous line, using sympathetic materials and techniques. Simply put, the thinking behind it is: if it takes an expert over a week to work out what the image is, then what use displaying it when people stop, on average, for 10 seconds to explore it? What use putting it under the considerable stress of display, when very few will be able to understand it at all? Personally, I'd love to see an innovative, transparent way of helping people to tell the difference between original and infill painting - I get the feeling you might, too!

If, however, the aim is to preserve and record the painting - to keep it out of public display and only in the domain of the researcher - then such actions may not be seen as necessary. What we have in the St Teilo's mural collection is a mixture of 'Legible' images - destined for public display, such as Catherine, where a small amount of infilling has taken place e.g. on the wheel (though, not to my knowledge, anywhere around the face and eyes); and 'Illegible' images, kept in storage and used as reference material. With most of this second category, the painting is incredibly fragmentary - where sometimes less than half the image has survived. If you infill more than half a medieval painting, then is it still medieval? We were acutely aware of the many potential ethical issues and pitfalls surrounding this process, and are confident that we treated the source material respectfully. Our decisions were also peer-reviewed by a multi-disciplinary panel. If we were to do it again, no doubt there would be some things we would do differently, mostly because the technological/scientific processes involved have evolved considerably since 1985.

As for the 'different and lesser worth' of the paintings - one of the honours of working here is to see occasionally the breadth and depth of the collection, and in that respect I find it hard to ascribe a relative value to one object over another. I suggest that such a process would be subjective, varying from person to person according to their taste and background.

Right, this answer is getting pretty long (hopefully you are as interested as I am in wall-paintings), so I'll address the rest of your comments : With regards to moving a building vs leaving it where it is: we would not normally consider moving a building, unless it is under genuine threat of demolition or collapse, or where there is no reasonable chance of saving it in-situ. This was the situation with St Teilo's. The Museum felt that it was too important a structure not to be saved. If it can, then a building should always stay where it ought to be: where it was first built. We acknowledge that translocating a building is an imperfect solution, but it is an approach in which we feel the benefits outweigh the problems of leaving something to go to ruin. All the buildings we have moved have been offered to us as a gift by their custodians - we do not 'go after' certain sites or artefacts, but are here for those people who do contact us to offer a structure or object.

With regards to the Church itself - it was, as you will know, in quite an advanced state of disrepair, exacerbated by a shifting landscape. The Church in Wales who owned the building sought ways of securing its future, but factors such as cost, inaccesibility and remoteness of the site (there was no one living nearby to keep an eye on the building), not to mention the unstable nature of the site itself (there were already serious structural cracks in the building) meant that they were forced to concede that they could not maintain it in-situ and therefore offered it to the Museum.

Our aim at Museum Wales is to look after something 'into perpetuity' - and when we are offered something as complex as St Teilo's we do not enter into such agreements without extensive debate and research. As part of the St Teilo's Church project we have kept in touch with the community at Pontarddulais, knowing that the translocation of such an iconic building could be a distressing process for some. I hope that the small part I played in that process made a difference, and that people from the Bont still feel welcome, even if the church has been moved. St Teilo's is a building that means a lot of different things to different people, and I hope it will be a talking point for years to come.

Three Archbishops (Catholic and Anglican) were present at the official opening of the church and effectively gave their blessing on the project. It has not been re-consecrated at St Fagans (there is already a medieval parish church in the village); in any case that would have meant that: 1. we would be privileging one denomination over the other and 2. entering in to Canon Law, which would stand in legal contention with the Royal Charter, through which we operate as a National Museum. The building is open for worship and meditation for any individual or denomination: but those big, legally binding, spiritual rites of passage - birth, marriage and death? Should they not take place in a church which has vicar and a community to support it, as the modern St Teilo's in Pontarddulais does today? If we are to take the sanctity of those processes seriously, then it is our place to carry out enactments which look and sound a bit like them?

Kennixton, I will add, is a different beast - being one of the first buildings to be moved here back in 1952, I believe the strict processes we now have in place were still being developed and tested at that time. We continue to learn from those who came before us, as we develop as a centre of excellence, learning, and for the exploration of our collective heritage.

With regards to 'adjustments made to museum comments' - could you please clarify what you would like to see changed? Rhagor, as well as our museumwales.ac.uk website, are well-researched, and the content is created to reflect a balance of opinions and approaches.

Sara Huws, Dehonglydd Addysg/ Learning Interpreter.

Welsh Observer on 1 November 2012, 21:03

Am I the only person to find the 'restored and conser ved' image of St Catherine to be quite different and of lesser worth than the original image which also appears on this website?The pigmented colours are less in intensity across various areas of the object and the eyes over accentuated which lessens the subtlety of the portrait.
I appreciate the preservation of the church and its contents were necessary,and am very familiar with its original geographical location on the banks of the Dulais.
So my point is this-if you wish to preserve history and its remnants,its best done in situ or as close to the original site as possible and for paintings less intervention is preferable to over zealous cleaning.Yes,the church has been preserved but if people were aware of its remoteness and that beauty within that ancient place the temptation to displace completely would not be so strong.Modern 21C technology could have been applied to keep the church in its place.
The same viewpoint could apply to Kennixstone Farmhouse from Gower [and many other buildings] which is also at St Fagans. Perhaps the educated and informed from St Fagans could reply to this comment and thus add to the debate-and maybe in the light of the two previous comments,adjustments made to the museum comments regarding the use of the pictorial image and Latin as the common discourse of that early period.
As for having the church reconsecrated-what a novel 21C idea that could be adopted to further desanctify the importance of this ancient structure.

Maria Williams on 8 November 2010, 10:14

Had a wonderful day at the museum came up from Pembrokeshire to see the church and very greatful to the guide who spent time explaining the murals and the way the paintings were done and the story of St Teilo. Really made the visit special and the journey worth while despite the rain

chloe on 5 July 2010, 09:26

The cafe food is not very good,there is not enough choise of food and not very good for teenagers?

Gerallt D. Nash on 23 June 2009, 09:12 (Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales Staff)

Dear Carolyn -
Images of St Catherine generally include one wheel, with blades projecting from around the circumference (felloes) of the wheel. Sometimes, however, two wheels are shown which may indicate that a 'machine' of sorts was employed, or at least that the artist was familiar with the concept.

The background paintwork suggests architectural detail - possibly part of a later painted scheme incorporating columns with a decorated 'canopy' over.

Gerallt D. Nash
Senior Curator, Historic Buildings

Gerallt D. Nash on 23 June 2009, 09:12 (Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales Staff)


According to The Golden Legend, a compilation of stories by Archbishop Jacob de Voragine, first published in 1480 and translated in 1483, "...four wheels, studded with iron saws and sharp nails, and by this horrible device the virgin should be cut to pieces, that the sight of so dreadful a death might deter the other Christians. It was further ordered that two of the wheels should revolve in one direction, and two be driven in the opposite direction, so that grinding and drawing her at once, they might crush and devour her." (This translation is from Ryan and Ripperger (London, 1993), p. 711.)

Medieval illustrators would be familiar with their contemporary single wheel used in executions to break bones, not cut; presumably this would be why they usually depict Catherine with a single wheel.

Information provided by John Shinners, Professor of Humanistic Studies, Saint Mary's College, Notre Dame, Indiana, USA. (see also Mitchell B. Merback. The Thief, the Cross and the Wheel: Pain and the Spectacle of Punishment in Medieval and Renaissance Europe (1999).

Carolyn.Stephens@CUW.edu on 22 June 2009, 08:52

Great resource! A couple of Literature Professors are debating whether the Catherine Wheel was a machine of many wheels (interlocking, grinding, gears) or one wheel, like a sawmill wheel that cuts logs. Your painting from St. Teilos would tell us how it was represented c. 1400. I can\'t make out the background on my computer screen. Can you help?

Leave a comment


Rate this article

Content:     

Images:     

Style and readability: