The Bell Tower painting
Hanging in the Bell Tower is a large painting of Christ Falling under the Cross on the way to his Crucifixion.
The original of our picture was commissioned from Anthony Van Dyck in 1617 as one of a cycle of 15 paintings illustrating the Mystery of the Rosary. Van Dyck’s subject – Christ Falling under the Cross - is one of the five Painful Mysteries.
These paintings still hang in St Paul’s church in Antwerp. Ours is a copy of Van Dyck’s, presumably painted by a studio in Antwerp, and, judging by its construction, not long after the original.
How did our copy get to Merton?
We don’t know. It was already hanging in St Mary’s in 1792, when a visitor wrote: “It is much damaged, but appears to have been a good painting.”
As early as that date, the story of how it got to St Mary’s had been lost: “It is not known when or by whom it was given to the church.”
We do know that In 1792 the painting was hanging on the north wall of the nave. In 1866 the north aisle was built, and it was moved to the Bell Tower. But the “much damaged” painting only deteriorated further.
Restoring the painting
Our adviser, Martin Wyld, formerly the Chief Restorer at the National Gallery, opined that it deserved full restoration. The work was undertaken by Richard Pelter of IFACS.
Although greatly improved, the restored painting still shows some evidence of its turbulent history. For example, when our copy was painted, the looms on which the canvas was woven could not make a single piece of canvas large enough, so it had to be in two pieces. Over the years, the canvas had shrunk, so you can see the join.
The restored painting in the bell tower; the painting undergoing restoration.