Four hidden masterpieces that were hanging on the wall of a country church are to go on sale for up to £1.5 million.

The 14th century paintings were on display at the Church of St Michael and All Angels in Withyham after being donated by an artist.

But now the Church of England has given permission for the four Italian paintings to be sold off to fund refurbishment work on the building.

The four pictures, depicting the Passion of Christ, have been under the ownership of the church near Crowborough for more than 150 years.

The images depict four stages of the crucifixion of Christ – the washing of the feet, the betrayal in the garden, the mocking and finally the flagellation – and were donated to the church in 1849 by artist and art scholar Edward Ottley.

But it was not until the paintings were cleaned at the Courtauld Institute in London that their enormous value was uncovered.

It was decided that the paintings were too valuable to continue to be displayed at the church and so were moved to Leeds Castle in Kent. At the same time as the paintings weremoved, high-quality copies of the paintings were produced to remain in the church.

The pictures will remain at the current location until later this year, when they will be removed to Sotheby’s in London.

The original paintings were brought to England some time around the turn of the 19th century and were originally hung in the chancel of the church.

They were temporarily removed to the chapel of nearby Buckhurst House, but were then returned to the church in 1920.

It is thought they are the work of Italian artist Nicolo di Pietro Gerini.

Under its ruling to allow the church to sell the paintings, the Church of England said every effort should be made to keep the paintings in the public domain.

The money could go towards a £20,000 project to resurface the churchyard paths, a £2,500 restoration of an altarpiece as well as possible investment to improve access to the church for disabled and elderly parishioners.

Reverend Adrian Leak said: “Edward John Ottley will rejoice that once again Withyham Church will benefit from his gift.”