At a church in Sussex, an unexpected gem: a reproduction of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes

At a church in Sussex, an unexpected gem: a reproduction of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes
The Sistine Chapel ceiling, which inspired Gary Bevans to recreate it in Sussex. Courtesy Flickr Commons.
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A pilgrimage to the Vatican can be the chance of a lifetime for millions of people around the world, for those who are religious and irreligious alike. Over the course of a year, the religious and historic city attracts more than six million visitors, which has even prompted the city to consider visitor caps for its popular museums and galleries. One of the main attractions, which most all are eager to see, is the Sistine Chapel. The chapel, built in the early 1500s, boasts a number of breathtaking frescoes by Michelangelo that date back to the 16th century. But did you know that there’s a near exact replica of the famous chapel ceiling in England?

An unassuming brick church in Sussex is the home of an incredible tribute to the Renaissance master’s work by a man whose day job was as a trained signwriter. Gary Bevans, a deacon of the English Martyrs Church in Goring-by-Sea, is the unlikely artist of a complete replication of Michelangelo’s frescoes, though Bevan’s worked on wood. The unheard-of recreation took Bevans more than five years but the outcome is nothing short of amazing.

‘[Signwriting] was my craft when I left school,’ Bevans told The Guardian in a recent interview. ‘It’s a lovely old craft – pub signs, shop fronts, lorries before they were done in vinyl. I had a love of doing old masters for pleasure.’ After a trip to Rome and the Vatican, Bevans returned to his Sussex church and saw an opportunity in the form of a blank ceiling. With the blessing of the parish priest, Bevans took to his monumental task, sketching out a two-thirds larger scale drawing for the church and building vaulted additions to the ceiling. He then transferred his drawing to the ceiling and got to painting.

‘At first I could only do it for 20 minutes. It took me six months to be able to paint like that for four to six hours at a time,’ Bevans said of the painstaking process of painting, with meticulous detail, on the church’s ceiling. Like Michelangelo, Bevans didn’t lie on his back to paint the work (a common misconception), he stood, head tilted upwards, until the work was complete.

His work naturally attracted the attention of locals, tourists, and camera crews and donations helped keep the project going. Bevan’s contribution to the English Martyrs Church was not a paid position and he continued to work throughout the process.

Communing with the work from 1987 until its completion in 1993, it is easy to see how the process became a ‘spiritual journey’ for Bevans. Though more than 1,000 miles from its Italian inspiration, the ceiling made by Bevans is a stunning tribute to his faith and Old Master alike.

This spring, Gary Bevans will hold an exhibition at the English Martyrs Church, which is open to visitors beginning in April to see the rendering of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel.