Winchester Cathedral: Chapel of the Holy Sepulchre

The Holy Sepulchre Church in Jerusalem is believed to contain the place of Christ’s crucifixion and the tomb in which he was placed and from where he was resurrected. It has been a place of pilgrimage for centuries.

In the north transept of a cathedral in southern England a chapel called the ‘Holy Sepulchre’ was created and painted in the late 12th C with scenes from the life of Christ. The main painting contains 2 scenes: the taking down of Christ from the cross and laying him in the tomb. The chapel itself is of two bays, one with a rib-vault. The corbels are stiff-leaf, from which ribs spring. The painted walls give us a rare glimpse into how a cathedral or parish church would have been decorated in the medieval period.

Figure 2: Chapel of the Holy Sepulchre.


Here, in this chapel in Winchester, people of the medieval period could make the connection through prayer to the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The majority would never make the pilgrimage to the Holy Land, but many could make the pilgrimage to Winchester.

During the 10th and 11th centuries pilgrimages to the Holy Land began to be accessible by greater numbers. The monastic revival in Europe encouraged men to make the journey. At the same time the Byzantine Empire was opening up access through land routes. Prior to this, pilgrimages had been by sea, which was only for the very wealthy.

This chapel was built at a time when the Crusades were part of the European social and martial story. In November 1095 Pope Urban II preached at Clermont in France a call to arms to aid the Byzantium Empire which was to lead to the re-conquest of Jerusalem. The First Crusade started in 1096. Until the late 13th C, crusader armies set forth to attempt to gain and keep control of sacred Christian sites.

First Crusade:           1096 to 1099

Second Crusade:      1147 to 1149

Third Crusade:         1187 to 1192

Fourth Crusade:       1204 (The Fall of Constantinople)

Final Crusades:        1208 to 1271

For a culture deeply immersed in the Christian faith this small chapel reflects the importance of the life of Christ in the Holy Land. The Crusades still dominated the international stage around 1200, and here, in Winchester, a little piece of Jerusalem was created.

These exceptional fine wall paintings are a significant survival of this time. The 20th C academic, Sir Walter Oakeshott, noted a stylistic similarity to that of the Winchester Bible (12th C).


Figure 3: The taking down of Christ’s body from the cross & the entombment.

Figure 4: Detail of Christ being taken down from the Cross.

Figure 5: Christ In Majesty – notice the decoration on the ribs of the vault.


Bartlett, W. B., God Wills It! An Illustrated History of The Crusades (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 1999)

Pevsner, N. and Priscilla Metcalf., The Cathedrals of England: Southern England (London: Penguin Books, 1985), p. 342