I never expected to be excited by these Sussex frescoes. But I was.
You see, on the side of the road, just south of Pulborough in West Sussex and on the way to Arundel, is a small and unassuming sign that says “12th century frescoes”. That’s all. And although I’ve passed this sign thousands of times, and registered it in the back of my mind as a place of possible interest, in the back of my mind it has stayed. Until recently, when I pulled in to take a closer look.
St Botolph’s church, Hardham
St Botolph’s church at Hardham was probably built in about 1050 and is Grade I listed. It’s on a quiet side road surrounded by fields and a couple of houses. It’s made, in part, from reused Roman bricks and tiles, has a simple lime wash exterior, and is not far from the old Roman road of Stane Street. As you approach, and whatever your religious inclinations (or lack of them), there is something profoundly uplifting about a church, beautiful in its complete simplicity with a halo of light surrounding it caused by the rising sun. It’s quiet, it’s spiritual, it’s a curiosity, and it’s somewhere that people have worshipped for hundreds of years.
Awash with intricate stories
If you’re expecting a small fresco framed behind a protected layer of glass, or a grand church full of religious architecture, think again. This is a simple, two-cell building with a whitewashed ceiling and wooden beams. But it’s the wall panels that grab your attention, decorated as they are with the most incredible paintings that date to the 1100s and are believed to have been painted by artists from Lewes Abbey. The church is one of six in the county which have similar artwork and when you walk in, there is a definite feeling of … Wow! These paintings feel slightly intoxicating.
The frescoes depict a series of religious stories, namely the Life of Christ, Judgement, Apocalypse and the Labours of the Months and you can clearly discern scenes of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden being tempted by the Devil, and scenes of St George. It was thought St George was shown slaying a dragon but it is now believed that it is a battle scene from the First Crusade. The frescoes also show St George being held captive, tortured and martyred.
You do not have to be religious to be awed by the work. They are beautiful for what they are and magnificent in the fact that many hundreds of years ago, an artist travelled what would have been a great distance then to carry out this work. Painting frescoes is a unique skill that requires the artists to work quickly whilst the plaster of the walls is still wet. His work here is intricate, startling, and simply beautiful.
An anchorite and a bell
It’s a very small building bearing in mind its incumbent curiosities. Apparently, an anchorite (a person who lives in seclusion usually for religious reasons) called Myliana lived in a house attached to the church from about 1250 and a small opening was created so she could receive Communion through it. And one of the two bells in the church is thought to date to the early 12th century and is one of the oldest in Sussex. But despite these historical quirks, it’s the frescoes that grab you by the soul and shake you up a little.
St Botolph’s is a quiet place, standing still and firm against the tides of time. And whatever your religious persuasions, whatever your schedule, next time you find yourself travelling along the Pulborough to Arundel road, pull over, pause, admire, and reflect. Your day will be better for it.
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