It is early evening in St Albans. We walk into the new Cathedral Welcome Centre. Tonight, the Fraternity of the Friends of St Albans Cathedral has gathered to witness how some of the finest medieval wall paintings in England have been reconstructed using stunning light-layering technology. Apparently no other cathedral in England has such a wide ranging collection of wall paintings dating from the Romanesque to the Tudor periods.

There is an expectant feeling in the air as we celebrate one of the three ways in which the Heritage Lottery Fund has been used to complete the cathedral’s Alban, Britain’s First Saint project. We take the opportunity to have a look at a newly published book St Albans Cathedral Wall Paintings by tonight’s guest speaker, Professor M A Michael.

The Dean, Dr Jeffrey John introduces the event; he tells us: “Now we can see the wall paintings as they should have been!”. After his speech we walk into the dimly lit cathedral, beneath richly decorated vaulted ceilings as we take our seats in the nave; we look up at the huge rounded Norman arches textured with chevrons framing the natural evening lighting. I can see how the plastered surfaces of these colossal pillars made them an ideal canvas for paintings.

The peaceful ambience echoes what it must have been like all those centuries ago as the Benedictine monks gathered for evening prayers. Prof Michael takes us through the process and we listen with fascination. We learn that the wall paintings have been built up and altered over so many years and reminded of how King Henry VIII ordered the dissolution of the monasteries back in 1539 and soon afterwards demanded that all icons were defaced, then whitewashed over and hidden from view. Henry VIII’s son, Edward VI, continued with his father’s orders to destroy all shrines, pictures and paintings that pilgrims from the middle ages would have prayed to. Centuries later when the Victorians came along, being lovers of revival, the wall paintings were at last rediscovered under whitewash and uncovered.

Afterwards, there is a hush and the moment has finally arrived. We stand expectantly before the huge pillars. A narrator takes us through how the digital images of each painting were developed in six stages: firstly, we are asked to study the damaging incisions made, deep criss-cross scratches defacing the images. Secondly, each colour and pigment was accurately recorded and separated so that individual digital layers could be produced. Thirdly, the facial features were studied in detail. Stage four involved comparing the information from other wall paintings and manuscript illuminations of the same age. At stage five, a pencil drawing was produced. Then finally, a bright digital reproduction of the icon was created, layering the colours that would have been used in illuminated manuscripts and other surviving wall paintings at the time.

Suddenly, they are switched on. I stand in silent wonder, in awe of how advanced technology can be used for good. It’s an honour to witness the grandeur of this illumination in such historical surroundings where, before my very eyes, antiquities merge dramatically with cutting edge technology! It is so much more than a light projection, it is new technology at its best! What immediately strikes me is the precision of each colourful image; unlike projectors in the old days that gave out a sort of diffused, blurred and uneven light.

The overall effect is breathtaking, thanks to the achievements of Prof Michael, archaeological illustrator Craig Williams, a whole team of other experts and, of course, the Cathedral Volunteers Trust, who have worked tirelessly to bring the project to fruition.

I notice the odd parish member has a tear welling up as suddenly the spirit of the icon breathes. Others chat, animated by the impact and vibrancy of light and colour. It is indeed a miracle that these icons can be brought back to life, after the reformers had hacked into the plaster then covered them under whitewash for over 300 years; now that they have been revisited, we can capture the essence of their spiritual lives dedicated to Christ.

For the first time in centuries, we can see Saint Christopher carrying the Christ child. We can have a good look at Archbishop of Canterbury Saint Thomas Becket's vestments. We can acquaint ourselves with Saint Zita of Lucca, one of the most popular saints in England by the end of the 14th century. She was a maidservant with a rosary, purse and keys symbolising the authority of women over the household and her apparent ability to find lost objects. Then, of course, we can admire St Alban and St Amphibalus exchanging cloak and cross.

I manage to catch up with Prof Michael to ask a few questions. He says: “There has been a synergy where conservators, scientists and archaeologists have come together, respecting each other’s views. These fields are usually disconnected, but with this project there has been a merging of knowledge.”

Tonight has been an unusual and educational experience. Apparently, this is the first project of its type in the world! In the 21st century, we have the intelligence to preserve our heritage instead of destroying it. These medieval antiquities, given as gifts to the Benedictine Abbey back in the 13th and 14th centuries have not only survived, but been enhanced and recoloured, victorious over the destructive acts of a self-centred Tudor king.

  • Marisa Laycock moved from south west London to St Albans in 2000. She enjoys sharing her experiences of living in the city