Rev Sue White
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Church Warden - Suzanne Carter (01304) 830394
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Extract from the Buildings of England, John Newman, 1983. For further information link to Friends of Barfrestone Church
Barfreston - St Nicholas
For sumptuousness of decoration the little church can hold its own with any C12 building in England. It has a nave and a lower chancel, and its total length comes to no more than 49ft 7in. The lower half of the walls is of flint, the upper half and all the dressings of Caen stone ashlar. The carving is excellently preserved, and very little renewed, for although R.C.Hussey’s restoration of 1839-41 involved the rebuilding of almost the entire chancel, which had slipped on its hillside foundations, he scrupulously put back almost everything, without disturbing the surface of the ashlar masonry. Many years later he published a detailed account in Archaelogia Cantiana, XVI, for 1886.
The S doorway of the nave confronts one at once with a prodigious display of carved surfaces. There are major and minor shafts, the capitals carved with animals fighting and men on horseback charging one another. Voussoirs give three orders of carving, a thin roll with leaves, a thicker roll for a dozen sunk medallions carved with animals playing musical instruments, a monkey riding a goat, and other inconsequential fantasies. At the apex, in high relief, a seated bishop. The outer row of medallions, these ones almond shaped, are cared more expansively on the flat of the wall, though still on voussoir stones. The subjects seem basically to be signs of the zodiac and labours of the months, but there are warriors at the bottom each side, and Samson one up from the r. The tympanum continues this confusion, for the seated Christ blessing in the centre, is surrounded not as usual by the four Evangelists, but loops of foliage enclosing half-length angels, human heads and amphibious beasts. What gives the doorway its unity is the treatment of everything as low surface relief, with small busy forms. Nothing is strongly emphasised and even Christ in the centre dominates only because a plain mandorla isolates him from the rest. His drapery, with close parallel folds drawn this way and that across his body, the convention of the second half of C12 in England, registers characteristically as hardly more than a series of incised lines. For closer dating however the tell-tale detail is the waterleaf on the shaft bases, a sign of the last twenty years C12.
The upper half of the walls outside, except the W wall, is treated with a more or less regular system of arcading, alternatively large arches which are blind and small arches pierced with windows. The rhythm of the nave S wall is upset by the grand doorway, and some of the arches are made pointed to squeeze the scheme in. The S windows in the chancel are Hussey’s, but not the recess with a fragment of sculpture, indecipherable now but for the architectural tabernacle. The priest’s doorway, with its tympanum, from the concave underside of which depend three heads, has a local parallel, at Brabourne. The E end gets the fullest architectural expression, with a splendid big wheel window in the gable. The spokes of the wheel are colonettes (cf. in France e.g. St Étienne, Beauvais). Winged beasts process round the rim, sometimes turning into leaves. To l. and r. there remain two of the four Evangelists symbols, in roundels, a third in high relief, and a mutilated figure in the l. recess, of a knight on horseback, the most noteworthy evidence, as Dr Zarnecki has pointed out, of West French influence on the decoration of Barfreston. The gable is trimmed below with a continuation of the corbel table, with grotesque heads, and to l. and r. are brackets bearing crouching lions. An C18 drawing shows a ruined turret above the r. lion. The window arcading comes below that, and then a big sloping set-off, under which the wall is framed by two segment-headed blank arches, an unusually concise and handsome method of buttressing against the slope. Simple N doorway, shafted, with zigzag pointing out.
Internally decoration is confirmed to an enriched band below sill level, and to the chancel arch and the blank arches to the l. and r. of it; recesses for alters these must have been. Zigzag in plenty here, overlapping a roll on the side arches, pointing ferociously out round the main arch. Zigzag shafts to this too, with carves shaft rings extended across the wall as a band, and leaf capitals no longer Norman, like the foliage every where else, but crockets thinking of turning to trefoil leaves, i.e. post Canterbury Cathedral of the 1180’s. The dogtooth round the rere-arches of the nave windows is an equally up-to-date detail. – WALL PAINTING. A few faded traces in the NE corner give little hint to the original splendour of the chancel, which before Hussey’s restoration was covered with an ambitious scheme of figure decoration. A set of coloured drawings of them is in the Society of Antiquaries. – STAINED GLASS. Wheel window, Early Victorian in an E.E. style. By W.Miller (TK). – PLATE. Elizabethan Cup, Paten Cover 1577. – MONUMENT. Thomas Boys 1599. Alabaster Tablet.
The Wyvern and lion licking the ground in the NE corner of the nave are C19 copies, based on the font at Newenden (w). The panels l. and r., however, with fox and rabbits, and a monkey blowing a pipe, seem genuine, though different in style from the other carving.