St Mary’s Church

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I had come across this church almost by accident when researching the area before a visit, and it was added to the list for its wall paintings. The church is set back from the road and above the small village of Brent Eleigh. Hidden from view by trees, it is signed off the A1141. Next to the church is the splendid Bent Eleigh Hall who were responsible for appointing parsons in the past.

The church is Decorated in style and dates from the late13th/early 14thC. The rood screen, altar plate and vestments were destroyed in the Reformation when the walls were whitewashed. Religious texts were painted on the walls, and one survives on the north wall. During the Commonwealth, the south chantry chapel became the family pew for the owners of Brent Eleigh Hall. After the Restoration, the chancel was given a make over. The church escaped a Victorian makeover, apart from the east and south east windows.

There is a simple square flint tower with nave with side aisle, chancel and south porch. From the outside there is nothing remarkable about the church apart from the table tomb of Robert Coleman d1730 and his wife Dionesse d1697. On the end is a grinning skeleton with a spade and hourglass , a reminder of mortality.

It might lack impact on the outside, but more than makes up for this when you go inside.

Entry is through the carved south door with sanctuary knocker. First impressions are of a simple plastered nave with the wall beams of an earlier wooden roof still still showing. Octagonal pillars with pointed arches separate nave and side aisle. Over the north door is the Royal Coat of Arms. At the back is the Purbeck marble font with arches carved around the bowl and Jacobean cover. The pulpit is Jacobean.

The nave contains box pews. Those below the pulpit have carved ends. The first to pews on the south side have painted shields. At the far side of them would have been the chantry chapel with a parclose screen round it. During the Commonwealth, this became the family pew for Brent Eleigh Hall.

The chancel is more elaborate with a panelled wood ceiling, impressive wall monuments, many with small painted coats of arms above them, and the remains of the 13th/14thC wall paintings.

The church is deservedly famous for the quality of its wall paintings. The most important is the 14thC Crucifixion scene painted on the wall above the altar and is the only known example of a wall painted altar piece still in situ in England. In the centre is Christ on the cross. On either side are the Virgin Mary and St John. They are standing on a red earth base against a pale turquoise background.

To the right is a 13thC Harrowing of Hell. Again few of these have survived. Christ descends into Hell to free Adam. Much of the painting has disappeared, but it is possible to make out the tall figure of Christ with part of Adam kneeling and holding out his hands. A small figure at the bottom right corner is a monk or priest wearing a red robe with his hands raised in prayer, who could be a representation of the donor of the painting.

To the left was probably a statue of the Virgin Mary. This would have been destroyed in the Reformation and there is an unpainted patch where the statue would have been. On either side are two kneeling angels with censors. The background would originally have been bright turquoise with gold stars, but has turned black with age.

On the north wall is the splendid memorial to Edward Coleman of Brent Eleigh Hall, d1740. This is still protected by a spiked iron fence. These were commonly placed round memorials but most were removed for scrap in the Second world War. This again is a rare survivor. He was the last of the family and responsible for building the almshouses in the village.

He is semi lying in a classical pose. Above him is a cherub with a crown, welcoming him to Heaven. Both are set in an arch with a cherub head above and garland. On the outside pillars with elaborately carved capitals support a portico with cherubs and coat of arms.

The three most unusual wall paintings make the church worth visiting. It is not far from the great wool churches of Lavenham and Long Melford, but is a refreshing contrast from them.

It is reached down a grassy drive with parking at the end by the church. The church is open until dusk.

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