Saturday, 31 October 2009

Priory Church of St Mary and St Blaise, Boxgrove

Boxgrove Priory is a magnificent church for such a small village. It was built soon after the Conquest by the Benedictine monks of Lessay in Normandy, and became the parish church at the dissolution of the monasteries in 1536.
All monastery churches that also served as parish churches were divided into a part for the exclusive use of the monks, and a separate area for the laity. At Romsey Abbey, the parishioners used a north aisle and in Chichester Cathedral the locals had to make do with an altar in the north transept. At Boxgrove, the parish had most of the nave but were separated from the chancel, tower crosssing and transepts by a stone screen called a pulpitum which enabled the monks to keep their seclusion.
At the dissolution, the parish moved into the grander chancel, the pulpitum was built up to the vaulting and the old nave was mostly demolished. Today, only a few bays exist, dating from about 1170.
The old chancel, built in about 1220, is a cathedral in miniature with stone vaulting and elaborate stonework. Outside, flying buttresses prevent the vaulting from spreading outwards and collapsing, but they are also very impressive in their own right - almost like sculpture.
The chancel arcades are arranged with two arches inside a bigger arch. Above, a lancet window and two blank arcades are squeezed under the stone vault. The arrangement is very unusual, only seen elsewhere at the retrochoir in Chichester cathedral and the chancel of the church that was to become Portsmouth cathedral.
The details are pure Early English, dating from about 1220. The mouldings on the arches are deep and complex, and some of the columns have become clusters of slender attached columns of Purbeck marble.
Another link with Chichester is the floral decoration on the vaulting, which was painted in the 1550s by Lambert Bernard, who did a similar job in the Lady Chapel at Chichester as well as the huge paintings in the transepts.
Boxgrove is reaching the end of a huge restoration programme and is expected to be re-opening in the middle of October.