The walls of Medieval churches were covered with wall paintings. These were covered by whitewash during the Reformation as they were regarded as ‘Popish’. They lay forgotten until Victorian restorers came along. In many churches, plaster was scraped off the walls to reveal the bare stonework, so removing all traces of paintings. Elsewhere, the paintings were revealed and left to amaze the congregation. Many are in poor condition and offer a tantalising suggestion of what the church may have been like. St Nicholas Church is one of the few churches were walls are still covered with paintings, many in good condition.
Lower Oddington is a small settlement just off the A436 to the east of Stow on the Wold. Make sure you find the right church, as the one in the village is Victorian. The old church is signposted half a mile from the village centre at the end of a narrow road which peters off into a narrow track. It is surrounded by yew and beech trees and the churchyard. The original village around the church was abandoned in the 18thC when the villagers moved to round the new church. Although they continued to use the churchyard, the old church was left to fall into ruins. In 1912, it was lovingly restored by the Vicar, Thomas Hodson, although the villagers continued to use the new church.
There has been a church here since Saxon times. It was extended by the Normans and again in the 14thC, when a visit by Henry III led to the addition of a much bigger early Gothic nave and chancel beside the Norman one. this became the south aisle separated by a three bay arcade. A new square tower with battlements was built over old chancel, with chancel arch filled in for additional strength. In the 14thC, Decorated windows were inserted into the aisle wall.
Entry is through the south porch with a mass sundial scratched into the side of it, and down steps into what used to be the Norman nave. To the right is a small doorway leading to the old chancel which became a side chapel when the tower was built above it.
There is always a sense of excitement when you open a church door as you never know what to expect. We opened the door and said “WOW”. It is an amazing church. Inside it felt cold and damp as it is no longer used, but the ghosts and memories survive and the wall paintings are incredible.
Immediately facing on the north wall is a 14thC Doom Painting of the Last Judgement. The flames of Hell are still bright red. The lower part of the painting with the dead rising out of their coffins is hidden by the panelling round the bottom of the nave walls.
At the top is Christ in Glory with his feet resting on a round shape representing the world. He is surrounded by apostles and saints. Below are two angels sounding trumpets to waken the dead and summoning them to judgement. A tall crowned figure on the left is St Peter with his Papal tiara. Another angel with raised and spread wings may be Archangel Michael.
On the left, the righteous are welcomed into heaven by angels. They are led by a Pope and there are several kings among them. Heaven is depicted as a castle and most enter by the main gate, but one man is either being helped over a turret by an angel, or pushed back down for trying to enter illegally.
On the right, the wicked are driven into Hell. This group includes kings as well. The jaws of hell are on the lower right edge and the devil is shown as a black figure with paws, a spiky tail and horns, holding a long prod in his hand. Other demons, wearing striped clothes, help to torture the damned. One demon uses a bellows on the fire beneath a cauldron in which people are being boiled. Just to the left, a figure hangs from a gallows while another kneels in front of it, begging for mercy.
To the right is another painting, dating from around 1520. It is dominated by an elegant figure in a gown with long pointed sleeves. The jury is out on what it is supposed to be. They vary from the Seven Corporal Acts of Mercy, Seven Deadly Sins or the Weighing of Souls. Another suggestion is that it represents characters from John Skelton’s morality play, ‘Magnificence’. which is assumed to be a satire on Cardinal Wolsey…. Whatever it is, it is a lovely painting.
Above the chancel arch is a painted Royal Coat of Arms of William IV, dated 1835. This appears crude in comparison with the Medieval paintings.
Ignoring the paintings (which is admittedly difficult), it is is still an interesting church. The original Norman nave is tiny and makes you realise just how small the Norman churches were. It is no longer used and contains an old bier. There is a very small arch into the original chancel which has the ropes hanging from the bell tower above it. Against the wall is the remains of an old pew with a lovely carved end. There is a small altar with an aumbry cupboard, now minus door, in the wall. A wooden screen separates it from the present nave.
There is an octagonal font with carved flower motifs round the bowl.
In the nave is a very high Jacobean pulpit reached by steps with a sounding board above. The carved panels are decorated with aches and interlocking rings.
In the sanctuary there is a wooden altar rail and altar. Beneath the east window is a stone reredos with a carving of the nativity. On either side are painted panels with the Ten Commandments. There are memorial slabs on the chancel walls and wooden hatchments on the south wall of the nave.
This is a lovely church and a worthwhile find. It is definitely worth visiting. There is no lighting in the church so we were advised to visit on a bright day. The church is is open from 9-4 in winter and 9-5 (ish) in the summer. There is a small layby on the road outside.