Worshippers in a remote Devon parish have been celebrating the reinstallation of two priceless medieval rood screen panels.
Next week the villagers will take part in a medieval midsummer celebration to mark the return of the artefacts.However, visitors will not be allowed to get as close to the Torbryan screens as they used to: an alarm system has been installed that sounds if they cross a line taped to the floor.
The panels, bearing paintings of St Victor of Marseilles and St Margaret of Antioch and considered of national importance, were stolen in August 2013. They were recovered two years later by the Metropolitan police’s art and antiquities unit after being spotted in an online sale.
An amateur antiques dealer from Trallong, Brecon, has been jailed over the thefts of the panels and other religious artefacts taken from churches across England and Wales.
The panels were in a fragile state. It turned out that thieves were not the only danger to the pieces: deathwatch beetles had been boring their way into the wood, making the edges of the panels crumble.
Thanks to donations totalling £7,000, the panels were painstakingly restored by two experts. One focused on shoring up the damage; the other worked on restoring the paintwork.
The Rev Peter Ashman, whose parish includes Torbryan, said local people were delighted to have the panels back. “They are valuable both historically and in financial terms,” he said. “They are also part of our heritage. There are hundreds of churches around the country that are there for prayer or for quiet time but are also simply at the centre of village communities.
“I think people here felt as they do when a home is burgled – violated. The beauty and feel of the place had been affected and changed. It’s really important that the panels have been recovered, renovated and restored. The fact that so much money was raised to restore them shows what high esteem they are held in.”
The painted saints, once part of a procession of 40 panels spanning the width of the church, are exceptionally rare because so few figurative paintings, either on panels or stained glass, survived the flurry of image-smashing during the reformation in the 16th century.
Most rood screens – which originally divided the nave from the altar area and supported carved crosses – were dismantled and either burned or recycled for their wood. Those with representations of saints were particularly targeted.
The Torbryan panels were restored in the 19th century from beneath layers of whitewash, which may have been deliberately applied to protect them from iconoclasts. They were regarded as among the best preserved in Britain.