In our secular age it is difficult to understand quite why our medieval ancestors were driven to devote such enormous resources to the construction of religious buildings - until, that is, one walks away from Salisbury Cathedral and visits the 15th-century church of St Thomas and St Edmund, which stands right in the city centre.
Enter through the side doors at the west, turn towards the altar and there, over the chancel arch, is a "Doom" painting of about 1475 which shows us how immediate Heaven and Hell were to people in the Middle Ages. In the centre of the painting sits Christ, perched on a rainbow with the 12
Apostles sitting at his feet. On the left of the Doom, angels are helping the righteous as they get up from their graves and make their way happily towards Heaven.
But it is the action on the right which is really something. Here a deeply ugly Prince of Darkness presides over horned devils as they drag the damned down into torment, their flesh burning and their limbs snapping off - the kind of ferocity that makes the films of Quentin Tarantino look a bit tame. The sinners include one mitred bishop and two kings still sporting their crowns. The anonymous creators of such Doom paintings knew the value of contemporary comment. Would it be tempting fate to note that the devils are a much livelier-looking bunch than the impossibly pure angels? Butter would never melt in their mouths. The odd evening with them would be fun - but not eternity.
This takes us back to the original question: what made medieval man tick? In a world of the Black Death and the Wars of the Roses, the Day of Judgment was always just around the corner, and any Brownie points - building a cathedral, say - might just tip the balance. Is this an idea whose time will come again?
The Church of St Thomas and St Edmund is in the High Street, Salisbury.Reuse content