Wall paintings from St Stephen's Chapel, Westminster Palace by Unknown artist

Unknown artist

Wall paintings from St Stephen's Chapel, Westminster Palace, c.1355–63, Wall painting, The British Museum, London; Donated by Society of Antiquaries of London, 1814,0312.2, © The Trustees of the British Museum / Art Resource, NY

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A Day of Disaster

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In the heavenly council room of Job 1, God commends Job, but Satan accuses him of having a fair-weather faith: ‘Does Job fear God for naught?’ (v.9). Surely his luxurious life explains his apparent piety? It is only through the furnace of suffering that the truth will be demonstrated, so God says to Satan, ‘Behold Job is in your hand’ (1:12; 2:6).

In one day, Job loses all he has. His vast livestock and his servants are wiped out (1:15–17), but worse by far is the death of his ten children, killed by a desert storm that blows down the house where they are holding what may be a birthday party (vv.18–19).

Job’s children are depicted here in a rare artistic survival: a fourteenth-century mural fragment from St Stephen’s Chapel in the Royal Palace of Westminster. An adjacent scene shows messengers bringing news of the tragedy to Job and his wife. The children sit in a gothic stone hall with wooden ceiling beams, much like the architecture of St Stephen’s Chapel itself. The ceiling beams crash down on the children as they are feasting, causing them to bleed as they die. Satan appears in the central arch as a grinning horned devil, the orchestrator of this disaster. Their clothes are painted in the expensive pigments of vermilion and ultramarine, while the figural modelling, consistent light source, and use of perspective suggest Italian artists were among the elite painters working under the direction of Hugh of St Albans.

The chapel was begun by Edward I in the late thirteenth century as a rival to the Sainte Chapelle in Paris, but was only completed by Edward III, who commissioned these paintings between 1348 and 1363 as a visual commentary on his Christian kingship. In 1547, under Edward VI, St Stephen’s Chapel became the debating chamber of the House of Commons and was whitewashed. A fire in 1834 completely destroyed the chapel and was the final obliteration of what had been one of the greatest painted spaces of medieval England. The mural fragment, which had been saved in James Wyatt’s re-modelling of the House of Commons Chamber in 1800, is thus itself a reminder of the devastation that can occur in a day.

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