Down on the south coast is a church with a remarkable and from the outside, totally unexpected interior — the only known handpainted replica of the Sistine Chapel.
This is the English Martyrs’ Catholic Church in Goring-by-Sea in West Sussex, and this remarkable ceiling is the work of one man who took over 5 years to complete the ceiling, working on his own mainly in the evenings.
The ceiling was painted by Gary Bevans, a signwriter who took a trip to Rome in 1987, and on his return was compelled to recall the Sistine Chapel he had just seen. He had the idea of repainting the Sistine Chapel ceiling here in England, and as he had already painted some of the church chapels, after discussions with the Bishop and the other parishioners, he got started.
The ceiling had to be clad in plywood, and then, bit by bit, the plywood was concealed under paint. It took a bit over five years to complete the painting, which is based on the colours that were being uncovered at the time at the real Sistine Chapel during its recent restoration. The timing is fortunate as the Sistine Chapel was really quite brown before the restoration, so had Gary started painting a decade earlier, the effect here in England would be very different.
Completed in 1993, the ceiling has become a bit of a visitor attraction, and now the church is open during the week for people to come and visit.
From the outside, you’d have no idea that anything interesting lies within, as the church is a fairly ordinary mid-century building, clad in stones and with some modest detailing, but pretty unremarkable.
It’s when you walk in, unusually from the north side, with the altar right in front of you, but it’s impossible not to look upward the moment you step inside because the ceiling is astonishing.
The design aside, what’s really impressive is how the colours leap off the ceiling and give the painted ceiling a vibrant life that can only be fully appreciated in person.
Although this church and the Sistine Chapel are about the same width, the church is shorter, so the reproduction is at two-thirds size to fit the fill length in. However, that would mean width wise the painting wouldn’t fill the ceiling, so rather cleverly, I think, he included the upper row of the wall paintings from the Sistine Chapel onto the English ceiling.
The effect is almost as if the Sistine Chapel has been flattened out a bit. In fact, I’d say the English version looks better with its wider flatter appearance as you can see a lot more of the painting.
It’s also a lot lower down so a lot easier to see the details.
One of the joys of this painted replica is that the church here in England is a lot quieter than the Rome chapel – so rather than being hurried through a crowded narrow chapel with staff barking at you not to take photos — here in England, you can sit on a pew, relax, take your time, take photos.
There’s time to enjoy the visit.
Some mirrors on wheels let you get a good look at the ceiling without hurting your neck, and there are information packs you can buy for a modest donation.
There are a few changes from the original — such as including Pope St. John Paul II’s coat of arms instead of Pope Julius II’s, and if you can spot them — or ask a volunteer guide where they are, the artist’s daughter’s names are included in the painting.
It’s also more than just a painting, as the paints were mixed with holy water, so this is also a religious relic.
Mainly though, you can spend time studying the painting, but really it’s just such a remarkable thing to see and soak up the incredible colours and decoration. Just sit back and admire the view.
Visiting the English Martyrs’ Catholic Church
The church is usually open on Mondays from 10am to 1pm, and Tuesday to Friday from 10am to 4pm. It’s not open at weekends, and also check their website before making a trip as it can be closed at times for services.
The church is free to visit, with donations appreciated. There’s a small shop, and I added a mug to my growing collection.
Trains to Goring-by-Sea are every half-hour, and it’s just 90 minutes from London Victoria station. Quite surprisingly, I was able to get return tickets for just £12, and those seem freely available for most weeks at the moment, so it’s quite a cheap visit.
The church is a short walk from Goring-by-Sea railway station.
Sadly, I’d say Goring-by-Sea doesn’t really have a lot else to say for its as a town, so I popped to the church, enjoyed it (a lot) and headed home again.