The Smugglers' City
Department of History, University of Bristol


Valid XHTML 1.0!

Mural Decorations / Grisailles from the Dormitory of the Old Deanery, Bristol Cathedral

This page contains photographs and brief descriptions of some of the grisailles (monochrome drawings) in Bristol Cathedral. The murals were originally on the walls of rooms that lay behind the cathedral's old deanery, which was destroyed in 1900 to allow for the construction of the City Reference Library. The first person to write about the murals was:

George Pryce, A Popular History of Bristol, Antiquarian, Topographical and Descriptive (1861):
p. 49: 'At the back of
the deanery were the dwellings of the petty canons, as they were called,
but more properly the servitors of the regular brethren. In these
buildings are several doorways of late Perpendicular English archi-
tecture; with the exception of which, the whole has been so completely
modernized, that little remains of the original structure on the ground
floor, save where the exterior walls, supported by buttresses, can be
traced with certainty. In the dormitories, too, at the top of the
building, we discover in the gabled roof, remains of arches of
wood, of the style of architecture prevailing at the close of the fifteenth century.
Upon the plaster which covers the sloping roof of these apartments,
is a variety of sacred and profane subjects depicted in clear black outline,
without the slightest mixture of any other colour or shading whatever.
p. 50: Although certainly not the work of the middle ages, they were as
certainly executed at a period not long subsequent to the Reformation.
The figures, which are numerous and varied, are, notwithstanding a
want of accuracy in the drawing, exceedingly graceful and striking,
and are evidently the work of a master, being hit off with a
few strokes of the pencil with wonderful effect. The subjects
consist of pictorial representations of historical passages in the Old
and New Testaments, together with the parables of our Lord; and
numerous allegorical designs, after the manner of Quarles' Emblems,
but of an earlier date. They were accidentally discovered a few years
ago, when Dr. John Lamb was Dean of Bristol, by the removal of some
paper with which the walls were hung. Attached to each
drawing are a variety of Latin sentences and inscriptions, both in the
old Church Text and Roman characters.*
It would be interesting to associate these drawings with the monks
of the middle ages: the dresses of most of the figures, however, and
the mixed character of the inscriptions, evidently refer to a period sub-
sequent to the dissolution of religious houses.'
* 'The author has made a copy of these beautiful drawings, and deposited
them in the City library.'

Subsequent to this, a few of Pryce's tracings were reproduced as incidental illustrations in: J.F. Nicholls and J. Taylor, Bristol Past and Present, Vol. III, Civil and Modern History (Bristol, 1882), pp. 265, 289.

Prior to the demolition of the Old Deanery in c.1900, further examinations were carried out of the drawings. The results were published in: W.W. Hughes, 'Mural decoration in a dormitory of the Old Deanery, College Green, Bristol', Proceedings of the Clifton Antiquarian Club for 1900-1903, Vol. V (1904), 147-153. Hughes noted that the drawings he examined were probably only a small portion of those originally created and that, although it had proved possible to cut out and preserve all the complete drawings, 'There were many traces of other drawings, showing that at one time almost the whole of the walls and ceiling must have been covered with them. The plastering, however, has been so often patched and repaired without the slightest regard to their preservation that a great many have been destroyed.' (p. 153). Hughes' reproduced the tracings made by Pryce and the article included a description of all the surviving drawings. These descriptions form the basis of those provided below.

Following the removal of the murals from the Old Deanery, they were placed over the Cathedral Library at the end of the cloisters. The mural's remained on public view until at least the 1950s. Pevsner noted that they were, at that time, in the temporary Cathedral Museum in the East Range. He noted that these 'curious Black outline DRAWINGS on white plaster...are of the later C16 and iconographically of much interest, religious and allegorical scenes, some with scrolls inscribed in black lettering': Nicholas Pevner, The Buildings of England: North Somerset and Bristol (Penguin, 1958), p. 384.

At some point subsequent to this, the drawings were removed from public view and have since been locked away for safekeeping. The disadvantage of this is that very few people have been aware of them and they have been little studied. To increase awareness of these drawings and to encourage research into them, photographs and descriptions of some of the surviving murals have been reproduced below.


Within a wreath, a hand descends from the clouds holding an anchor, on which is a crucifix resting upon an open bible. The inscription reads: 'Spe Prece. patieNTia' (By hope, by prayer and by patience).



Within a wreath, a standing man with a fallen ass. Inscription reads 'O mihi post multos'. Probably Balaam and the ass. The angel of the Lord appears as the sun in the clouds above the writing.


Within a wreath, a representation of an eclipse of the moon. Inscription reads 'ASCENDE NITEBIS' (mount higher and you will shine).


Within a wreath, a hand descending from clouds (i.e. heaven) grasping, over a rainbow, another hand rising from the Earth. The inscription reads 'Serua et Seruabo' (Serve me and I will preserve thee).

Flaming Heart

Within a wreath, an anvil resting on the legs of a woman. The woman on the right is holding a flaming heart in a pair of blacksmith's tongs. The woman on the left prepares to strike the heart with a hammer shaped like a cross. The woman in the middle points to the sky, from where rain has started to fall from the clouds. The inscription on the anvil appears to read 'Non despici cor.'


Within a wreath, a man holding scales in his right hand and a medallion with the portrait of a woman in his left hand. The man's right hand has a pair of wings, his right toe a single wing. From a cloud to the right, emerges a hand holding a label inscribed 'Sufficit tibi gratia mea' (My grace is sufficient for thee). In the scales are flowers, the one to the left holding roses, that to the right, thorns.


Within a wreath, a ship in a storm sailing close to rocks. The ship is guided by a hand issuing from the clouds. The inscription on the foresail and mainsail, reads 'Non timebo' (I will not fear).


Within a doorway, with a round arch supported on piers built of human skulls and thigh bones, an angel takes the hand of a kneeling man. The inscription reads 'MORS VITAE IANVA' (Death the gate of life).

Home  |  Reading |  SourcesDepartment