Mysterious Painting of a Face is Attracting Visitors to The Bishop’s Palace
A mysterious painting of a face on oak panels in the +Treasures exhibition at The Bishop’s Palace, Wells, has aroused much interest and attention. The panels have been dated to perhaps as early as 1280 AD by radiocarbon dating.
Known as ‘The Templecombe Head’ the painted wooden panels were discovered under plaster in the outhouse of a Templecombe cottage during the Second World War. Molly Drew, the owner of the cottage described seeing a face amidst bright red, blue and green paint, when she first saw the panels. Sadly this was washed away by over-enthusiastic cleaning by the then vicar.
In the 1950s a conservator revealed 10 or 12 gold stars on the panel and further conservation in the 1980s produced microscopic evidence for the bright colours seen by Mrs Drew.
Knights Templar connections
The curator of the +Treasures Exhibition, Mary Gryspeerdt explains a fascinating link to the Knights Templar:
“The Knights were a military order in the medieval Church who fought in the Crusades. They held property in Templecombe, where the painting was found.
Many theories surround the subject of the portrait and the reason why the painting was secreted in the ceiling of a lowly building in Templecombe. The Templars were mistrusted on account of their secret ceremonies and were accused of heresy and worshipping idols.
It is known that the Templars bought and sold relics from the Holy Land, which has led to the theory that the painting is a copy of Christ’s face on the Mandylion (a cloth miraculously imprinted with the living face of Christ). It has also been suggested that it represents the lid of the wooden box containing the shroud itself.
It seems possible that the Templecombe painting was hidden for safe-keeping, during trials of the Templars, when their property was confiscated.”
The Templecombe Head panels stand at 2.3 metres wide x 1.8 metres high and the ghostly face overlooks all the other artefacts and objects in the +Treasures exhibition.
The exhibition reveals over 50 objects and artefacts found in parish churches in the Diocese of Bath and Wells. Each item has a fascinating story to tell relating to who it belonged to, how it was used and why it came to be preserved. Some items were lost and found, while others have been carefully treasured for years.
In addition to the mysterious Templecombe Head visitors can see:
- the ‘Spear of Aller’, a 3 metre long spear that supposedly was used to slay a medieval dragon;
- a richly embellished 19th century chalice, designed by the famous architect of the Gothic Revival, Augustus Pugin;
- a stuffed swift preserved as an expression of thanksgiving, since it was the only casualty when a church tower was toppled by lightning during a church service;
- a huge golden dragon weathervane, that was the only surviving fragment of a church demolished during the WWII Blitz in Bath;
- a 17th century baptismal ‘bearing cloth’ made of coral silk and edged with silver metal lace, used at christenings by a West Somerset family.
The Templecombe Head
- The portrait is of a bearded face within a geometric frame.
- The presence of stars may represent an aureola or luminous cloud, frequently used in medieval Christian art to surround the figure of Christ or other sacred people.
- In the early 1300s the Templars’ secret ceremonies were mistrusted and they were suppressed. In a series of trials they were accused of heresy, including the worshipping of idols.
- It is possible that the Templecombe painting was hidden following these trials, when the Templars’ property was handed over to the Knights Hospitallers.
- Alternatively it may have been hidden in 1540 when the House of the Hospitallers was dissolved, accused by King Henry VIII of loyalty to the Pope.
- One theory suggests that the portrait is not of Christ, but represents the severed head of St John the Baptist.
“Although there is no certain evidence to prove that the panel painting was linked to the Knights Templars or was ever hidden to keep it safe, theories about it will certainly continue to thrive and it really is worth seeing. You don’t get to see this kind of mysterious medieval artefact that often in your life” adds Mary.
+Treasures is included in the price of admission and is open daily 10:30am – 4pm. Occasionally closed for private functions so it is advised to call ahead of a visit on 01749 988111 ext 205.
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