A look inside Goring’s Sistine Chapel

PUBLISHED: 10:47 30 August 2016

Goring's Sistine Chapel (Photo by Jim Holden)

Goring's Sistine Chapel (Photo by Jim Holden)

Jim Holden www.jimholden.co.uk 07590 683036

Louise Schweitzer finds out how a West Sussex man was inspired to recreate the marvel of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel

Everyone knows something about the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Perhaps it’s the name of the artist, Michelangelo, who painted it; perhaps the Pope, Julius II, who commissioned it; perhaps the image of God breathing life into Adam, one of the most celebrated images in Western art. Older readers might recall The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965), a celebrated film starring Charlton Heston as Michelangelo and Rex Harrison as the Pope in a titanic battle of wills between an impatient Pontiff and a temperamental painter.

But not so many people know another version of the famous painting. There is only one full-scale reproduction of Michelangelo’s masterpiece in the world and it can be found on the curved ceiling of the modest English Martyrs Church, in Goring-on-Sea.

It all began when Gary Bevans took his wife and two children on a parish pilgrimage to Rome in 1987. A devout Catholic, he and his family were regular worshippers at their church in Goring. Some of his paintings already adorned the white walls of the modern building.

There were images of two martyrs commemorated in the name of the church – St Thomas More and St John Fisher, who share a feast on 22 June each year. And there was his version of The Last Supper, which unusually includes Mary on Jesus’ left, a young child, and a Yorkshire terrier. The painting is much loved by the congregation who recognise familiar features of their hierarchy in the depictions of the disciples around the table. The dog belonged to a priest at the time.

Gary Bevans had shown unusual artistic talent when young but his parents had decided that a “proper” job would be safer and he trained as a sign writer. Parish secretary Anne Niven feels the hand of God in the story, explaining that whereas a sign writer might conceivably imitate a Michelangelo fresco, a trained artist would never even consider it.

When the Bevans family arrived in Rome, the Sistine Chapel ceiling was being cleaned. Colour shone anew from the celebrated frescoes.

Goring's Sistine Chapel (Photo by Jim Holden)Goring's Sistine Chapel (Photo by Jim Holden)

The idea to replicate it began to take root in Gary’s mind. He says he wished it would cross his mind and leave: the idea was too big, too daunting, too impossible. However, once the seed was planted, it refused to go away. The designer in him realised that the proportions of the Sistine Chapel matched his Church of the English Martyrs. The length and breadth were comparable: later, it was discovered that this was no accident. Canon McCarthy wanted his new church to be “basilica-like”, large and airy with columns. Anne Niven remembers the original plain, bare-walled concrete church which became known as the “aircraft hangar”. She adds that “it was easy to pray. There were no distractions”.

The inspiration of the Sistine Chapel refused to budge. There was some discussion among the congregation who were in favour.

Gary Bevans approached his priest who sent him to Bishop (now Cardinal) Cormac. The answer was a qualified yes. He could decorate the ceiling with a scale copy of Michelangelo’s fresco on one condition – once begun, it had to be finished. His initial plan had been to paint individual panels at home and mount them on the ceiling but this soon altered into copying not just the design, but a similar method of installation. Gary lined the ceiling with plywood panelling, a substitute for the wet plaster of Michelangelo, and skimmed over the hundreds of thousands of tiny screws with white acrylic paint. Working from a scaffold tower, he painstakingly copied the images from a book containing perfect photographs of the newly cleaned Sistine Chapel ceiling. Destroying the beautiful book which cost £600 in 1987 was unutterably painful, but he needed to detach each picture in order to reduce the dimensions by one third. “Luckily,” says Anne Niven, “health and safety hadn’t been invented. Gary worked through nights, spare days and very early or very late hours. This was a labour of love. He had to keep the day job going to earn a living for himself, his wife and his two sons.”

Church life went on around the scaffold. Every few days, Gary would move it downwards as the congregation rearranged itself underneath. Anne remembers wondering if she would be able to sit in her usual pew but neither she nor anyone else seemed to mind, all becoming involved in the progress of the ceiling as Gary’s work began to be a focus for marvel, prayer and contemplation.

He felt his technique improving as he progressed. But Michelangelo had only painted the central ceiling of the Sistine Chapel which had been decorated before 1508 with painted niches and plaster Popes already in place around the edge. In order to achieve the identical effect, Gary had to paint 12 windows, and 24 niches achieving a mastery of perspective that stunned art experts. When he completed the last panel he was one inch out.

The work took more than five years and was completed in 1993. There was great rejoicing, Bishop Cormac came to a service of dedication and Gary Bevans was presented with a medal from Rome. The media buzzed and for a while it seemed as if Goring had become famous, but some of the press coverage was disrespectful and thence discouraged.

Goring's Sistine Chapel (Photo by Jim Holden)Goring's Sistine Chapel (Photo by Jim Holden)

Today visitors are welcome but the church must remain a place of tranquillity and peace, something not easy to manage with up to eight coachloads of sightseers a day. The internet has spread the news and it’s likely to be tourists from overseas on pilgrimage to the remarkable ceiling that spread the word in England and in Sussex.

Gary Bevans looks up at his ceiling now and wonders how he did it.

Technically, he knew how to draw the full-sized sketches and how to reduce the proportions to exactly two-thirds of the original size. Michelangelo’s ceiling occupies 5,000 square feet compared to The English Martyrs’ 3,500 square feet. But because the Goring Church ceiling is lower than the Sistine Chapel, the magnificence is easier to comprehend. Bevans feels inspired by God to have been enabled to complete the project: he speaks of the profound effect that working long hours alone with the just the Blessed Sacrament for company had for him. He has long since refused to give interviews – the ceiling has been described as private prayer and he cannot discuss it in public. It speaks for him – and for God.


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