Several years ago, in a remote corner of rural Norfolk, a discovery was that is as romantic and resonant as anything in the JL Carr novel A Month in the Country. During repairs to the crumbling church of St Mary's at Houghton-on-the-Hill, a sequence of astonishing frescoes dating from shortly after the Norman conquest came to light.
The church is the last survivor of a lost medieval village, which like so many other communities in the mid-14th century succumbed to the ravages of plague and then to the fatal slide of declining populations. Yet in St Mary's we can see, as in a palimpsest, the legacy of a faith that was vital and inspiring. Confronted by the solemn saints, and the faces of damned and elect that coolly return our gaze after countless years, we are able to enter imaginatively into a system of belief that was this society's heartbeat.
It is no accident that one of the most significant of the frescoes uncovered in this ancient building depicts a wheel of fortune, a popular motif in the middle ages used to illustrate the inexorable ups and downs of day-to-day existence. Religion both reflected and made sense of the capriciousness of fate, while also offering the prospect of eventual relief from struggle.
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