St Mary’s Church, Kempley; ‘England’s Sistine Chapel’

As much as I wish that I could claim the title as wholly original, credit must be given to Simon Jenkins piece in The Guardian in 2008 that called Kempley ‘England’s Sistine Chapel’. However it is a title that is more than deserved. After having been dragged out of bed by my family and carted around Gloucestershire, I can easily say that Kempley is worth putting up with my grouchy woken-up self. In fact I’d go so far as to rank it in my top 3 religious sites (the others being St Augustine’s in Canterbury and the Church of St. Mary and St. David in Kilpeck, Herefordshire). But enough about that! Here is a little bit about the church itself, and some images yours truly managed to take.

Also, terribly sorry for the dreadful photos.


Kempley itself is tucked away in the Forest of Dean, almost straddling the border with Herefordshire, about 8 miles from Ledbury. So why do I love this rather small (to put it mildly) and out of the way church? Well for starters it was built by the Normans, who I do admittedly have a soft spot for, but more to the point it contains some of the most fantastic medieval frescoes you could hope to see. To quote our old friend Mr Jenkins again once more, perhaps “the most complete set of Romanesque frescoes in northern Europe”. Built c.1120-50, as evidenced by the fact it is home to the oldest timber roof of any building in Britain dating to that time period. Most likely constructed on the orders of Hugh de Lacy, son of Hastings veteran Walter de Lacy (d.1085), the glorious paintings in the chancel were perhaps a memorial to his father. In fact while some of the art was done in the 14th-15th centuries, the majority of the frescoes visitors can see are actually 12th century Norman artwork. To say I was excited to be able to touch a Norman fresco is a gross understatement. The building itself consists of a stone-built chancel and nave with a timber framed porch on the southern side, with much of the fabric dating from the 12th century. The west tower of the church was built in the 13th century during Edward I’s Welsh Wars and while there are no records of Kempley ever being attacked in reprisals, the villagers did move some 2 miles up the hill to higher ground.

What of the interior then? Well as mentioned the interior contains 12th century roof timbers which is nothing short of a miracle and, of course, the frescoes. The subject of the paintings in the chancel seem to be the Last Judgement, while in the centre of the barrel-vaulted ceiling Christ sits upon a rainbow, adored by winged angels. Either side of him are the 12 apostles with the Virgin Mary and St Peter closest to the arch. Above the simple windows are representations of heavenly Jerusalem. Between the windows and the east wall are two figures dressed as pilgrims who are almost certainly meant to be Hugh and Walter de Lacy. According to English Heritage the muted colours and treatment of drapery are typical of Romanesque paintings found in France, suggesting the artist could have been a French Monk from Hugh’s own foundation at Llanthony Priory. The frescoes in the nave itself are of a slightly later date, most likely 14th century and feature the Wheel of Life for example.

If you want a more detailed list of the church’s features, here is Historic England’s page

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