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April 16, 2013

Telling a story when words don’t get through

by quaesitor
St Botolph's Frescoes (ca AD1100)

I believe in words. I believe in the importance of words. In fact, I would go so far as to say that I believe in the primacy of words. But words can never be exclusive media of truth, understanding and communication. Please note: they are the primary (i.e. supreme) means, not the only means. I’ve touched on this issue before. Words are still essential.

As I mentioned then, the great science fiction writer Isaac Asimov attacked the myth of the image by saying:

You may have heard the statement, ‘a picture is worth a thousand words.’ Don’t you believe it. Consider, for instance, Hamlet’s great soliloquy that begins with ‘To be or not to be’, the poetic consideration of the pros and cons of suicide. It is 260 words long. Can you get  across the essence of Hamlet’s thoughts in a quarter of a picture – or for that matter, in 260 pictures? Of course not.

But sometimes words are simply not the right vehicle for communicating something (i.e. something that can only be expressed in groans). At other times, words need to be supplement – especially if those you are communicating with are unable to understand them (whether because of age, educational development, culture or simply because they have another mother tongue). And so it was in the very early Middle Ages.

At the weekend, we visited a little village church in rural Sussex: St Botolph’s Hardham. It was built some time before the Norman Conquest (ie it’s OLD) and so is shaped by a lovely Romanesque style. Soon after the Conquest though, an artist or artists covered the interior with frescos to tell stories. They were only rediscovered under whitewash in 1866 and so were remarkably preserved (not least because they survived the Reformation). The worst thing that happened to them was in the early 20th Century when varnish was added supposedly as a preservative – but the effect has been rather grim. The plasterwork has started to blister and flake. The best of intentions etc…

On the North Wall there is a cycle depicting St George (who was undoubtedly the church’s original patron saint). But the rest is taken from the biblical narrative. It was breathtaking to see scores of pictures from around 900 years ago, each with daring and fascinating detail (despite having clearly lost their original vibrancy). The details of what the images depict (including Eden, Flight into Egypt, Last Supper etc) are helpfully outlined on the Wiki page.

St Botolph's Hardham, panorama

A fun additional feature is the bricked up wall on the south side (see slideshow). This was where an anchorite hermit lived, food being passed through a whole in the wall. Well, whatever rocks your boat…

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Just imagine the impact of going to church here each week – from the drab drudgery and anxieties of peasant life, you suddenly emerged into this blaze of colour and wonder that captured imaginations and lifted spirits. Fabulous.

There are a few more pics on Flickr.

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