Rolling Back the Tide of Post Vatican II Iconoclasm: the Newly Revealed Wall Painting at the Oxford Oratory

When Margarita and I visit Oxford, we regularly attend Mass at the Oxford Oratory. I was excited, therefore, when a friend and parishioner at the Oxford Oratory drew my attention to this spectacular development in its ongoing restoration project. The white paint was removed from large sections of the church walls to reveal the original decoration and wall paintings. The murals of scenes from the life of St Aloysius were painted by Gabriel Pippet between 1902 and 1905.

Whitewashing over wall paintings has always been a common measure taken by those who wish to remove images from churches. Applying a coat of paint is cheaper and quicker than replastering the surface! Islamic iconoclasts at Hagia Sophia, Protestant Reformers in 16th-century England, and, it seems, Catholic iconoclasts of the 1970s all resorted to this method of obliterating sacred art to hide the beauty of the Church.  

The good news is that very often, this actually preserves the images underneath, and the white surface can be removed to reveal what was beneath. This has just been done with great results at St. Aloysius to reveal scenes from the patron saint’s life. 

I post some before-and-after photographs taken from the parish website and Instagram page with little commentary. I encourage you to go to oxfordoratory.org, to read the account written by the Fathers of the Oratory themselves about what has happened.  

Due to the ravages of time and damp, saving all the original paintings was impossible. Still, the goal is to restore the remainder of the church using the revealed imagery and decoration as a model for a full restoration. I do not doubt that they will do a good job. Do consider donating to this excellent cause!

An old photo of the interior, pre-Vatican II