Saturday, July 9, 2011

Clayton, Sussex


Wonders within

It’s a small church up a lane not far from Lewes, and from the outside, it’s charming but unassuming. A few gothic windows, a wooden bellcote, a low porch. This is the kind of exterior that makes one expect rustic charm inside rather than great architecture. None of which prepares one for the wonders within. Because inside, although the architecture itself is indeed very plain, there is a stunning set of very early wall paintings. Their exact date is unknown, but the best guess is around 1100, which is probably also the date of the semicircular chancel arch.


The clearest painting, above this arch, shows Christ in Majesty, apparently flanked by apostles and angels. The painting immediately to the left of the arch, beneath the band of ornament and above the niche, depicts Christ handing the keys of heaven to St Peter; that in the corresponding position to the right of the arch, much more fragmentary, is said to show Christ giving the Book of the Law to St Paul. The left-hand wall shows part of the Last Judgement, with the souls of the good being led to heaven; there is also a painting of a hexagonal arcaded structure thought to be the City of God. The right-hand wall (not visible in my photograph) continues the last judgement theme and includes what is thought to be souls of the damned being led by a devil riding a beast.

These paintings are much less bright and distinct than they would have been when first painted, and they are fragmentary and often difficult to interpret. But it is remarkable that they have survived at all – survived, that is, some 900 years, during which time they were covered in whitewash in the 17th century, to be rediscovered by restorers in the 1890s. The frescoes of Clayton are a wonderful reminder that the churches of the Middle Ages were buildings full of art and imagery, alive with spirits and angels, vibrant with colour and light.

11 comments:

Val S. said...

This is lovely. The smaller churches are often the most wonderful places - so quiet and in such lovely settings. Abbey Dore and Stow (Lincolnshire) both have some interesting artifacts. The church at Marbury in Cheshire is just a gorgeous little church overlooking a mere.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Val: Thank you. I'm an admirer of Abbey Dore and Stow, but don't know Marbury - another one on my list of places to explore.

Ron Combo said...

The utter joy of English churches. Thank you.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Ron: Indeed. English churches are a source of unending fascination.

Jon Dudley said...

Sadly, I have more often by-passed the church for the Victorian excesses of the castellated entrance to Clayton tunnel on the LBSCR...I'll pay far more attention in future - the wall paintings are a joy.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Jon: I'd heard about the tunnel entrance, but missed it this time around. Will try to remember it next time I'm in the area.

James Russell said...

Interesting to compare Berwick Church, which isn't all that far away. I wonder if Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant (or the clergyman who commissioned their work) were inspired by Clayton.

Philip Wilkinson said...

James: The bishop who commissioned the paintings at Berwick might well have been inspired by Clayton and the other churches in the Lewes area that have medieval paintings. I suspect Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell drew on wider inspiration, although maybe the idea of putting the Christ in Majesty above the chancel arch came from Clayton.

Jon Dudley said...

I really don't know what to think of those Bloomsbury-ites daubing all over the church at Berwick...I suppose I must know, having said that. The kneeling airman and sailor I find quite moving but the rest leaves me, like the rest of their 'art' rather underwhelmed. Give me a nice bit of Eric Ravilious any day. I'm probably in a minority - everyone in the world seems to beat a path to Charleston Farmhouse to pay homage.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Well, Jon, I think it's a bit of a curate's egg, myself, but it's a matter of taste, I suppose. I, too, like the servicemen on the left-hand side of the arch. For a 20th-century decorative scheme in a church, give me Stanley Spencer's chapel at Burghclere (not in an old church of course), or Chagall's windows at Tudeley.

Joseph Biddulph said...

I would regard the chancel arch, etc., as Late Anglo-Saxon, but not as late as c.1100. Bramber, West Ham churches, Battle Abbey and Norwich cathedral all probably before 1100, but DEFINITELY Romanesque. Recently re-visited Odda's Chapel, Deerhurst, Gloucestershire, dated precisely 1056: whatever happened in architecture between then and the 1070s hadn't happened with Clayton and Bosham chancel arches, it seems? Normans used chamfered mouldings - Anglo-Saxons very rarely. The proportions of Clayton are also tall in the vertical dimension, as with A.S. buildings generally. P.S.Are the bats still in residence? Lovely walk from Hassocks station next to woodland.