The name ‘Gussage’ means a small stream or spring (as in ‘gush’). Nearby Minchington comes from the Anglo-Saxon word for nun, ‘myncheon’ and the chapel of Gussage St Andrew stands on the site of a nunnery. King Alfred built a wooden chapel here as part of Shaftesbury Abbey. When it burned down it was replaced by the present building in the 12th century. On the walls are stunning late 12th century wall paintings which were discovered (or rather rediscovered) in 1951 when the walls were being prepared for decoration.
About the medieval wall paintings
The paintings that can be seen on the North wall of this ancient chapel were first rediscovered in 1951 during routine work of re-plastering. An expert on such paintings, Clive Rouse MBA FSA, has the opinion that they date from the late 12th or early 13th century. It was not until 1966 that the work of uncovering and restoring what still remained of the painting was undertaken under the supervision of Mrs E. Baker ARCA. The simple pattern of masonry lines was the first stage of painted decoration, done in the late 12th century, and subsequently over-painted with scenes showing Our Lord’s Passion. The masonry lines now show once more through the later work. Later still, texts in black gothic letters were added, and the remains of these can be seen above the dado ridges. Although they are now fragmentary, enough of the Passion cycle of paintings can be seen to deduce what the whole once was. The figures in general are well drawn, any apparent distortions being the result of style rather than incompetence – the hands and feet in particular are well done. The work was probably done by itinerant craftsmen, who plied their trade from church to church, probably in return for very little more than their board and lodging.
The upper register begins on the left for what may be Jesus, in the Temple, driving out the money-changers. On the extreme left is the representation, and the figure of Jesus seems agitated. Next comes the betrayal of Jesus. The figures in this group, left to right, are Peter, carrying a torch in his left hand, and fingering a sword in his right. He is shown bald – an old tradition. Next Judas leans forward to kiss Jesus – he has his hand on Jesus’ shoulder. On the right, two men seize Jesus. One of them armed with a stick. The suicide of Judas is next – he has hanged himself. This is believed to be unique in English medieval murals. The next scene is fragmentary, but centres on a seated figure, which probably Jesus, as the hands are bound. The scene is most likely of Jesus enthroned and mocked – the figures each side would be paying homage. The last scene on the upper register is even more fragmentary, but from the activity of the figure on the left, it is likely that this is the scourging of Jesus, of whom only the face remains.
The lower register shows, on the left, Jesus carrying the cross, led by a smaller, armed figure, and looking backwards and down, perhaps to Veronica, who according to tradition, wiped his face and received his image on her towel. Next is the crucifixion. Jesus is shown, arms outstretched and two thieves, one each side, are shown upright. Very seldom are the thieves shown crucified in the same manner as Jesus. Immediately on the left of Jesus, a soldier pierces Jesus’ side with a sword with a spear. (Legend calls him Longinus, and tells that his blind eye was healed). On Jesus’ other side, a soldier offers vinegar on a sponge on a stick. Jesus removed from the cross by Mary and John (kneeling) is shown next, in a very touching scene. The next scene almost completely obliterated by a newer plaster, may well have been the resurrection. A hand is outstretched, as if showing a wound. To the right of this scene, two figures look left towards a third. This may be the appearance of Jesus to his disciples after the resurrection. The last fragment, by the window seems to show a man kneeling, with his hands clasped in prayer – suitable end to a cycle if it shows Thomas, kneeling before his risen Jesus, with the acclamation, “My Lord, and my God!” Remember that when these paintings were executed, no English translation of the Bible existed, and while a preacher might tell the stories, the churchgoer in the Middle Ages could not read for himself. So the pictures were scripture to him. The Victorians saw them as only crude and ineptly painted, and had no hesitation in whitewashing over them – besides they had their own Bibles, and could read the stories themselves. But once, the little chapel was decorated in colours – red and yellow ochre, black, brown and white, and now we have only the ghosts of the old paintings to treasure.