St Mary's Church, Huntingfield, Suffolk


The Ceiling

The ceiling is a masterpiece of Victorian church decoration, painted from end to end in brilliant colours, with carved and coloured angels, with banners, crowns and shields, all in the medieval style and of a most intricate and detailed finish.

The scheme of decoration is important as it reflects the ecclestiastical devotion of the late Victorian period clergy and their patrons, combined with the heightened liturgical practices of the Oxford Movement.

It was painted by Mildred Holland, the wife of William Holland who was rector for 44 years from 1848 until his death in 1892. The church was closed for eight months from September 1859 to April 1860 while she painted the chancel roof. Tradesmen provided scaffolding and prepared the ceiling for painting but there is no record to show that she had any help with the work, and legend has it that she did much of it lying on her back. We may imagine Victorian ladies wearing tight laced corsets and many petticoats, and wonder how she managed the ladders, scaffolding and hard labour of painting. She had an adviser on her schemes, a Mr. E. L. Blackburne F.S.A., an authority on medieval decoration.

The twelve large panels of the chancel ceiling each show an angel holding either a scroll with the words of the canticle 'Blessed be the Lord God of Israel', or the emblems of the Passion: the cross, the hammer and nails, the scourge, the lance, the crown of thorns and the reed.

Two pelicans in their piety (pecking their breasts to feed their young) are in the last small panels.

Between the beam ends of the chancel roof there are Bible verses in Gothic lettering,

then two tiers of panels; the lower have pictures of the Lamb of God alternating with`the Keys of Heaven. Above, are crowned monograms.

Above the Chancel Arch, the Lamb of God is depicted with the words 'Glory, Honour, Praise and Power unto the Lamb for Ever and Ever', lines taken from the Book of Revelation.

Three years later Mildred Holland began to paint again in the nave. In 1866 her husband William makes a note 'scaffolding finally taken down, September Ist'. The whole cost of repairing the nave roof, preparing it for painting and for materials amounted to 247.10s.7d of which 16.7s.6d was for 225 books of gold leaf and 72 for colours. William Holland's notes show that between 1859 and 1882 a total of 2,034. 10s.0d was spent on the church restoration, of which, apparently, he gave all but 400.

Recent research has found the complete record of William Holland's work in restoring and furnishing the church. These are available for interested students.

The figures on the nave roof are of the twelve apostles and two female saints. Each is painted in the lower tier with their traditional symbols and again in the upper tier clothed in heavenly raiment holding scrolls bearing their names.

Reading from the chancel arch on the north side are the saints with their symbols:
  • Peter (keys of Heaven)
  • Andrew (cross on which he was crucified)
  • James the Great (scallop shells of pilgrimage in hat)
  • John (chalice and dragon)
  • Philip (knife)
  • Bartholomew (unclear what he is holding but possibly his flayed skin)
  • Margaret of Antioch (dragon)
Reading from the chancel arch on the south side, the saints are:
  • Paul (sword with which he was executed)
  • Thomas (spear)
  • James the Less (mitre and oar symbolizing his bishopric of Jerusalem and his trade as a fisherman)
  • Matthew (axe)
  • Simon (pit saw)
  • Jude (boat)
  • Ann the mother of the Virgin (three crowns and book)
Note that Saints Margaret and Andrew are both included as there is a tradition that these two saints were specially venerated here. There are niches for statues in the south aisle which may have held statues of them. The cult of St Margaret of Antioch grew in the 10th century and her veneration was brought back to England by crusaders. Her inclusion here may hint at an early date for the church's foundation.

Mildred Holland died in 1878; William served on until 1892, a total of forty years. He gave the font cover in memory of his wife and also the brass lectern with its graceful angels and winged dragons. Their graves are in the churchyard to the west of the entrance gates. Side by side they lie, beneath a table tomb alongside a standing cross.

Today, their roof may be lit up by visitors putting a 1 coin in a meter.


The roof itself
It is natural to speculate about the roof. It is of a single hammer-beam construction, arch-braced principals alternating with hammer-beams ending in carved angels. The angels in the nave carry a crown or a banner, those in the chancel have heraldic shields bearing arms. The question all ask is: are these angels genuinely medieval work which escaped the axes of the post-Reformation Puritans, (and remember that William Dowsing, the arch-destroyer, came from nearby Laxfield) or are they all the handiwork of Victorian craftsmen?

Traditional East Anglian hammer-beam roofs generally terminate in a carving of some sort, and the de la Poles made angel roofs in the churches of their manors, even taking Suffolk carpenters to Ewelme in Oxfordshire to make one there. But our angels are too perfect to be so old. Entries in a tradesman's account of 1865 would seem to settle the matter; or do they?

Mr Spall's extras included 8 angels with expanded wings, Chancel, 12
B. W. Spall, time and materials to preparing and fixing 10 angels, 80

The account does not actually say 'making'.

In 2005, extensive conservation and cleaning of the painted roof, together with repair and repainting of the internal walls, was carried out thanks to grant aid from the Heritage Lottery Fund and supporting donations. See the Ceiling Conservation page for more information.