[The University of Leicester]

Seven Deadly Sins

Seven Deadly Sins and Seven Corporal Works of Mercy:

Initial Findings of the Seed Corn Project

In addition to providing detailed information on individual churches it was intended that this project would serve to illuminate more general issues, including:

Initial Findings

Some of these relate to the expected outcomes described above, while others are the unforeseen consequences of the systematic approach required by a data base.


The corpus demonstrates the high level of losses among recorded wall paintings. Of the forty paintings recorded in the database, eighteen are no longer visible. In some cases they may be hidden under whitewash, but in other cases they have probably been destroyed. The roll call of lost paintings is: Cropredy, Hunworth, Ingatestone, Milcomb, Milton Abbas, Netherbury, Quatt, Ruabon (possible painting of Seven Deadly Sins) and Stanningfield. The case of a scheme of the Seven Deadly Sins at Kidlington in Oxfordshire provides an example of the sort of reasons why these often graphic paintings were obscured. A nineteenth-century account describes:

'indescribably accurate drawings of these sins which were not considered suitable for the notice of the Sunday School whose benches were beneath them'

(Edwards (1989), 486).

Even those paintings which survive are often fragmentary and hard to decipher, for example, those at Arundel and Catfield. Encouragingly, some of the paintings at Hardwick have recently been uncovered again.

Levels of dissemination of different schema and region

In such a select survey, any interpretation of patterns of survival must be provisional. Given the small corpus of paintings, the initial impression is of both the variety of schema used and of the variations between paintings based on the same schema. However, there are a couple of potential clusters. In Sussex the paintings of the Seven Deadly Sins proceeding from a naked man are found at both Arundel (c.1380-1400) and Trotton (c.1399-1405). Similarly, it appears that seven of the nine paintings using the schema of a Tree of Sin are in East Anglia.


In one instance, the Benedictine Monastery at Milton Abbas, both extensive Latin texts and Middle English labels were included. This painting was in a part of the Abbey accessible to the laity (Traskey (1978), 152). It may be that the English labels were for the laity or lay brothers and novices and the more erudite Latin texts for the monks. The inclusion of Latin labels in parochial paintings at Catfield and Trotton may suggest basic lay knowledge of Latin, derived from experience of the liturgy and preaching, or simply reflect the origins of the source used. Interestingly both Catfield and Crostwight use the term 'Socordia' for Sloth, rather than 'Accidia'. Although the arrangement of the Sins in these paintings is not identical this detail may suggest a common model. Given the use of vernacular preaching and poetry to instruct the laity in the catechism, it is sad that the Middle English inscription around the Wheel of the Sins at Ingatestone cannot be reconstructed in greater detail. Only at Netherbury in Dorset is a vernacular inscription used for devotional effect. Each of the deeds of mercy is accompanied by the text: 'For Jesus's sake'.

Directions of reading

The Seven Deadly Sins

Position numbers were included in the data base to facilitate the comparative study of schema and to enable comparisons between paintings and written material. The results from this exercise are intriguing, but a little frustrating. Although all the paintings show Pride in position one, none depict the remaining Sins in the same positions or order. At Brooke, Ingatestone and Milton Abbas, Pride is followed by Anger, but the order of the remaining sins diverges. What is more, none of the different orders used seem to bear much relation to the more common of the variety of orders used in didactic literature or in the Constitutions promulgated in the dioceses or archdioceses.

Given the variety of orders in which this material was presented, it is difficult to know whether the assumptions about reading order (left to right or clockwise) on which the position numbers are based are generally correct. Further research is needed into the patterns evident in paintings without text, if we are to substantiate the assumption that directions of reading based on literacy were generally accepted in this period.

Although the order proposed by Gregory can be found in such illustrious instances as Chaucer's Parson's Tale and Dante's Divine Comedy (Watson (1947), 148), it is not followed in any of these British paintings. Hardwick comes closest, but the final three Sins are in a different order. The order found at Hardwick presents the Sins from the most to least serious. The same order is found in the description of the Sins mounted on animals in The Assembly of the Gods (formerly attributed to Lydgate) (Triggs (1896), 19).

The identifiable elements at Milton Abbas appear to have followed the order found in a fifteenth-century vernacular poem, in Oxford, Bodleian, MS Bodley 549 (Russell (1962-3), 115).

MS Bodley 549

  1. Anger
  2. Envy
  3. Avarice
  4. Gluttony
  5. Sloth
  6. Lust

Milton Abbas

  1. Pride
  2. Anger
  3. Envy
  4. ?
  5. Gluttony
  6. ?
  7. ?

The Seven Corporal Works of Mercy

Given their Biblical origin, it might be imagined that the order of the Works of Mercy would be more stable, but there is still some variation in both the paintings and related didactic works. Only at Milton Abbas, where the paintings are accompanied by inscriptions from the Vulgate, can we be certain that the Biblical order was used. Reference is made to this order at Catfield, where the final scenes are Visiting the Sick and Burying the Dead and at Oddington, where Visiting the Sick is in fifth position. Both Ruabon and Hardwick start with Feeding the Hungry and Giving Drink to the Thirsty, but then digress. The order at Ruabon, with Clothing the naked in third place and Welcoming the Stranger in fourth corresponds to that found in St Brendan’s Confession (Bowers (1939), 41-3). At Trotton the scenes seem to have been ordered so as to contrast with the Sins proceeding from the naked man. Thus the cycle begins with Clothing the Naked as a contrast to Pride. Clothing the Naked is also shown first in the paintings at Hoxne. It has this priority in the Wheel at the foot of the Cherub in the De Lisle Psalter, but the following order is different (Sandler (1983), pl. 24). The Wheel at Kingston shows burying the Dead in first position.

Chronological distribution

No dating evidence survives for Cropredy or Stanningfield. The dating evidence for the rest of the corpus is discussed in the data base. Ruislip is assigned a general fifteenth-century date and nineteenth-century commentators dated Netherbury to the reign of Henry VI.

The datable sites are as follows:

(post 1488)

Brooke, Ingatestone
Arundel, Catfield, Kentford
Dalham, Hoxne, Hunworth, Ruabon
Milton Abbas

Given the small number of sites, it may be dangerous to draw firm conclusions, but two features seem evident. Firstly, that these subjects enjoyed particular popularity in the later fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries (eleven of sixteen dated paintings). Secondly, that there was a modest revival in the second half of the fifteenth century. Although the paintings at Netherbury were dated to the reign of Henry VI, these findings do point to an intriguing 'gap' in the middle of the fifteenth century.

It is difficult to know whether this chronological distribution relates to Lollardy. The catechism was one of the few permitted subjects for vernacular preaching after the prohibition on Biblical preaching in the vernacular introduced by Archbishop Arundel in 1386-7 (Spencer (1993), 199, 217). It might be expected that enforced concentration on this subject would have enhanced its popularity in parochial art. However, the apparent reduction in depictions of the Seven Deadly Sins and Seven Corporal Works of Mercy in the first half of the fifteenth century may relate to a wider suspicion of lay education, evident in the suspicion of private religious instruction expressed at heresy trials (Spencer (1993), 54.) and in the troubles encountered by the reforming Bishop Pecock (Fines (1981), 59-75: Aston (1993), 79-93).

The other significant factor in this distribution may be the chronological pattern in the building and rebuilding of churches. Although few of these churches have been assigned precise dates, many of these paintings relate to Perpendicular naves or clerestories. At Arundel, the paintings have been identified as part of a rebuilding of the church as a Collegiate foundation, which began in 1380. At Kingston a fire in the church prompted an extensive programme of refurbishment in 1488.

Social Construction of Vice and Virtue

During the cataloguing of individual elements of the Seven Corporal Works of Mercy two interesting details became evident. The first is that in two paintings the practical gift of food or clothing is replaced by the donation of money. The second is that several of the paintings depict those receiving assistance as disabled.

At Ruabon, a fashionable male figure is shown feeding the hungry by handing over money from a purse. This portrayal of the feeding as a financial transaction may relate to the popularity of forms of charity such as penny doles distributed at funerals. It may also be significant that the figure giving money rather than bread is portrayed as a fashionable young man, rather than a housewife at her kitchen door who might have surplus food to hand.

At Hoxne. where a prisoner is shown receiving a purse of money, this detail may refer to the ransoming of prisoners. Such an interpretation is made clear in an inscription from a fragmentary window of the Works now in St Patrick’s Chapel, Glastonbury, which showed coins being offered and the explanatory inscription: 'sylu' to pa ye feys' (Woodforde (1950), 193). The offering of money is also depicted in wall paintings, such as that at Potter Heigham in Norfolk.

The original Work of visiting the prisoners is replaced by the ransoming of prisoners in a fifteenth-century rhyme (MS Bodley 549): 'helpe the prysoner out for to bye' (Russell (1962-3), 115). The same substitution is made in one of the didactic poems written by John Drury in 1434 (Meech (1934), 77). There were several medieval religious orders dedicated to ransoming prisoners, and fifteenth-century bishops, such as John Carpenter of Worcester, used their episcopal authority to issue indulgences to those who helped to ransom named prisoners of war. Perhaps the ransoming of prisoners was considered more obviously meritorious than the 'visiting' of criminals.

At Hardwick, Hoxne and Ruabon several of the recipients of charity are depicted as needing the support of sticks or crutches. For example, at Hoxne, it appears that the recipients in clothing the naked and giving drink to the thirsty held staffs. At Ruabon the figure receiving drink has a T-headed staff on which he leans heavily. An unidentified scene of one of the Works at Oddington includes a figure supported on a crutch. Hardwick presents the most obvious images of disability. The figure receiving drink has a wooden leg and supports himself with a crutch. The kneeling figure of the naked man also clings to a staff for support.

The inclusion of these details, which can be paralleled with further examples, for example the paintings at Kimpton (c1320-40), Moulton St Mary and Wickhampton in Norfolk (c1360), raises two possibilities. Where staffs alone are shown it may be that the figures were intended to represent pilgrims. One of the figures at Dalham is described as a pilgrim with a hat and such an identification is clearly indicated in the painting of welcoming the stranger at Potter Heigham in Norfolk (c1360). This depiction is reminiscent of the sentiments expressed in a sermon by John Mirk:

'So that, bi this, euery woman may take good ensaumple how it is good to herberugh (harbour: offer accommodation to) the servauntz of God, and suche as be prechinge and techinge the lawe of God and the faythe, and for to herburgh pilgrimes and other peple, to refresshe hem that be nedfull to receiuve almesse'

(ed. T.Erbe, Mirk's Festial (EETS London 1905, 135).

Where the figures are shown as disabled we can perhaps identify a deliberate decision to demonstrate that these individuals, the majority of whom are male, are in genuine need, rather than being feckless and idle. Although these images extol charity as the route to a heavenly reward, they may also be intended to express the social parameters in which it was appropriate.


The sample reveals the predominance of male figures of Pride. Pride is depicted as a male figure in nine churches (Arundel, Brooke, Catfield, Hardwick, Hoxne, Milton Abbas, Oddington, Quatt, ?Trotton) as opposed to a single securely identified female example at Ingatestone (in addition, there are possible female images of Pride at Dalham and Ruabon, and at Ruislip there are two figures of Pride, one male and one female). This predominance of male representations of Pride accords with the pattern evident in paintings of the Seven Deadly Sins not included in this survey.

When the gender of the figures performing the Works is considered, the pattern which emerges is at variance with that in the wider corpus. While the wider corpus shows a predominance of female benefactors, these are found only at Hardwick, Hoxne and possibly Dalham. Male benefactors are depicted at: ?Catfield, Kingston, Netherbury and Quatt. Both male and female figures are shown at Ruabon and Trotton. This predominance of male figures may be indicative of the models used, or possibly the gender of the patron.

Context in Churches

The position of the two possible schemes at Hunworth and Stanningfield is unknown. Of the eighteen other paintings, none are in the choir or chancel area. At Trotton the west wall was used and at Quatt the east. Significantly, both of these schemes are related to images of the Last Judgement. Most English representations of this subject are on the nave east wall, as at Quatt, but a few maintain the older model of using the west wall, as at Trotton.

In the case of the remaining paintings it is possible to trace an interesting pattern related to the opposition between the north and south walls. Traditionally the north wall had predominantly negative associations and was often used to depict scenes from the Old Testament. However, in the medieval church, this pattern was complicated by the possible association of the north side of the church with the Virgin Mary (and in many places, women in general), with St Christopher, whose image was generally situated on this wall so as to be evident to those entering by the south door and with Heaven in images of the Last Judgement often displayed above the chancel arch. Some residual negative associations may be evident at Kentford, where the sins were painted on the north wall and the Works on the south.

The remaining fifteen paintings suggest a distinct preference for the north side of the church. In eleven instances, both subjects are shown on the north side of the church (Arundel, Catfield, Cropredy, Dalham, Hoxne, Ingatestone, Kingston, Milcomb, Netherbury, Oddington and Ruislip. The four places where the south side was preferred were: Brooke, Hardwick, Milton Abbas and Ruabon.

The apparent preference for the north side may reflect the desire to confront the congregation with these images as they entered the church. Given the predominance of male images of Pride and beneficence in this corpus, it seems that if these images were aimed at a predominantly female audience, this rarely influenced their iconography. Perhaps more significant is the traditional association of the north side of the church with the pulpit. These paintings relate directly to material which priests were required to expound from the pulpit on a regular basis. Perhaps those who have regarded didactic wall paintings as a visual aid for preachers are in this instance correct.


See Also:

Online Resources
Public Resources Menu
Contact the Department

[University Home][DEPARTMENT-NAME Home] [Index A-Z][Search][Help]

Last updated: 20/12/2001
History of Art Web Maintainer
This document has been approved by the head of department or section.