Stunned church officials have discovered a statue hidden by a stone mason ordered to destroy his own work by Charles II—over 350 years ago.
St Mary’s Church in Lydiard Tregoze near Swindon, Wilts., has been welcoming worshippers since 1100. However, in the 1660s, the ornate religious imagery that decorated the church walls were ordered to be destroyed during the “Restoration” period.
King Charles II ordered the purge as he sought to eradicate the Puritan ideals of his predecessor Oliver Cromwell. However, one canny mason working at the small church decided that instead of destroying his work, he’d simply hide it.
The stone carving and a small statue that are believed to be the remaining fragments were found by conservationists currently working on a 1 million pound (approx. US$1.2 million) project to restore St Mary’s to its former glory.
Chair of the project, Paul Gardner said in October 2019: “Behind one of the wall plaques above the pews, we found an intact niche carved into the wall.
“One of our students noticed a face in the mud and it was of St Christopher.
“During the Restoration in the 1660s, all religious imagery in the church was painted over and smashed up.
“The masons tasked with destroying their own work must have hidden a piece of that statue away for someone to find all these years later.”
He added: “The statue in this ornate niche looked out towards the side doorway welcoming travelers and pilgrims to the church.
“To see that same sight, complete with a restored wall painting of Thomas Becket above it, is really special.
“You can plot the life of the church through the artifacts in here, each century leaves its own mark, it’s like traveling through time.”
Scaffolding has now been taken down from around the church after weeks of meticulous work by a team of experts and students—led by world-renowned conservator Jane Rutherford.
Visitors can now enjoy the newly restored wall paintings.
Rutherford will return in February 2020 to add the finishing touches to the restoration work after eco-friendly plumbing and heating are installed. After the project is complete, a display case will be installed for guests to see what’s left of the St Christopher statue and the rubble that buried it.
Gardner said: “The ceiling has been repainted to make the church a lot lighter. We have brought out a unique wall painting of Christ that depicts him as blonde with no beard.
He further added: “Jane has worked on many church restorations in Europe and has never seen anything like it, you can imagine how amazing it must have looked.
“We’ve put the Royal Coat of Arms back under the nave arch with a new horn for the unicorn and repainted figures above it.”
The church is open to visitors on most weekends until 2020 before closing until spring.