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Walk over to the wall painting or fresco to the left of the information desk. This is a modern fresco completed in 2004 to mark the Cathedral’s 1400th anniversary. Once, the Cathedral was covered both inside and out with vibrant colours like this and would have seemed a very different place.
But only some of this decoration was fresco painting. Frescos require a special technique that involves painting directly onto wet plaster, a difficult skill to master. The effects are stunning because the paint soaks right into the plaster, making the images last much longer than normal wall paintings.
There are different stories here. At the top, Jesus is being baptized in the River Jordan by John the Baptist. This is a defining moment in the Christian story, when the Spirit of God descends on Jesus in the form of a dove, which you can see above his head. God speaks to Jesus at this point addressing him as his son and the angels you see on the bank of the river are there to watch over him as he begins his new life spreading God’s word.
The stories below depict the establishment of Christianity over 500 years later here in Kent. At this time, around 600, England was made up of a number of Saxon kingdoms. Ethelbert was king of Kent and he is the man in the water on the left, being Baptised By St Augustine of Canterbury, a missionary sent from Rome. This baptism marked the King’s conversion to Christianity.
King Ethelbert gave the land to build the first Cathedral here at Rochester and he appears again on the right wearing his crown this time and watching as his subjects emerge from their baptism in the River Medway that runs past the town. As they do, they’re being given Holy Communion by Bishop Justus, the first Bishop of Rochester.
The style of painting used here is very special. You may think it looks a little bit odd, perhaps even cartoon like, with some things out of proportion and everything quite two-dimensional. This is deliberate, as the flat nature of the scenes without perspective are part of its purpose. We’re not looking into the scene, rather the people are looking out at us.
In this way, the fresco acts like an icon. Icons are a distinctive feature of the branch of Christianity called Eastern Orthodox, practiced mainly in Greece, the Balkans, Russia and the former Republics of the Soviet Union. You can see some examples of icons hanging in the nave. Having this unusual kind of decoration here is symbolic of Rochester Cathedral’s open attitude to other Christian traditions. Icon painting follows particular rules and icon artist, called iconographers, must prepare themselves spiritually before working on their art. Sergei Fyodorov, the famous iconographer who created this fresco, described the work and his preparation for it in this way: ‘The spiritual life of the Cathedral is reflected in these images. It is wrong to think of them as decorations. The images of this fresco are the result of my prayer.’
The fresco is a focus with visitors’ meditation and prayer too. As you listen to this music, you may want to take a moment for your own quiet reflection.