A HIDDEN niche containing the head of an ancient statue thought to be St Christopher has been discovered by conservators restoring a church’s medieval wall-paintings.
Experts believe that the figure in St Mary’s, Lydiard Tregoze, near Swindon, was smashed by Puritan iconoclasts during the 16th century.
The head, about the size of a pineapple, had been mixed with lime mortar and was used to fill the three-foot-tall niche, which was later covered with an 18th-century memorial tablet.
The wall paintings at the Grade I-listed St Mary’s are among the country’s finest. They are being restored as part of a £1.1 million Heritage Lottery funded project. In 2013, they were included in the Church of England’s “100 Church Treasures” campaign, to save the 100 artworks most in need of conservation.
The Vicar of St Mary’s, the Revd Clive Deverell, said that all the evidence suggested that the head was that of St Christopher, the patron saint of travellers, installed in the church to encourage pilgrims walking a traditional medieval route to the shrine of Thomas Becket at Canterbury. A wall painting of him is near by.
The niche is directly below a painting of the hermit who baptised Christopher as Christophoros, “Christ bearer”, and told him to serve God by carrying people across an unfordable river. Mr Deverell said: “A wall painting of a hermit would normally indicate that somewhere near by would be a St Christopher. The niche and the hermit’s figure would have been seen by pilgrims as they came in through the south porch.”
The chairman of the restoration project, Paul Gardner, believes that the fragment of the statue was deliberately returned to its niche by one of the local masons “brought in to do all the dirty work” on a sculpture made by their predecessors.
“I suspect one was almost crying as he smashed up the statue,” he said. “He took the head and pushed it into the niche he was filing up, hoping in years to come it might be discovered. That person took a great risk: they were under strict orders to destroy all religious idolatry. Even using it as a bit of infill was not allowed.”