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Medieval Wall Painting
in the
English Parish Church

Hardham, Sussex (†Chichester) C.12

The Flight into Egypt, Fall of the Idols, Dispute with the Doctors, Baptism of Christ

Flight into Egypt, Hardham

At the right is the Flight into Egypt. Always a poignant part of the Infancy story, it is given a further dimension at Hardham by the addition of the apocryphal story of the Fall of the Idols. These are the small figures arranged in a block of four at the far right of the photograph – at the upper left is a figure with splayed legs in a posture suggesting lewdness, or at least sexuality – while at the upper right is another, rather faint, but showing one discernible horn on its head. At the lower left is the clearest figure, toppling head downwards as the Holy Family approach, while the figure at the lower right is completely obscure now.

Beyond the idols and to the left of this photograph, Mary is mounted on a lean and rangy horse (or donkey – it is difficult to be sure), holding the Christ Child, while Joseph, on foot, leads them. The Fall of the Idols is an exceptionally rare subject, and I know of only one other surviving in the English parish church. This is at Brook, in Kent, and this link will take you to the relevant page, where there is a fuller discussion of the apocryphal story of the Fall of the Idols.

Hardham, the Dispute with the Doctors

At this point in the Christian story the ‘silent years’ begin, and the next time we hear of Jesus and his parents they are back in Palestine, where the young Jesus is found by his parents in the temple, engaged in theological debate with the elders there. This scene, usually called the Dispute with the Doctors is at the right.

At the left of the photograph, beneath an elaborate cross-hatched canopy that crowns the scene, Mary and Joseph stand in a round-arched doorway. Both figures are unfortunately extremely unclear now, although they are a little clearer in Tristram’s drawing¹. Further right, against a golden background, the youthful Jesus sits, his pale halo clear against the background. His right hand is raised to signify speech, although this is barely visible on the wall now (again, it is clearer in Tristram’s drawing) and his lower legs and feet dangle, emphasising his youth. Further right, two Doctors in red robes stand discussing this infant phenomenon, one indicating the young Christ, the other with hands spread in amazement (a third figure has effectively disappeared since Tristram’s day).

Hardham, Baptism of Christ

Finally, the Baptism of Christ completes the Infancy Cycle (photo, below left). At the left is the unpainted round arch of the stonework which forms the edge of the opening from the nave into the chancel. Painted around the outer edge of this are some scenes remaining from a series of the Labours of the Months. Only one, at the top, is even tolerably clear – it shows a bending figure with some kind of implement raised over his shoulder, and what month of the year it might represent is frankly, anyone’s guess. Further right, under an illusionistic painted arch, John the Baptist, his blue shoes faintly visible at the lower edge of his robe, holds some kind of vessel above the head of Christ, who holds up his hands. These are very difficult to see, and the rest of Christ’s figure is hidden by the waves of Jordan, faded into blankness now but clearer in Tristram’s Plate 33.

Here are links to the other pages on the site for Hardham. In the nave: Annunciation/Visitation/Nativity/Annunciation to the Shepherds and Adoration of the Magi/Joseph's Dream/Dream of the Magi. In the chancel: The Fall and its aftermath

The layout and disposition of the Hardham scenes is interesting. To some extent this was probably dictated by considerations of space available, but even allowing for that, the wider functions of chancel (domain of the priest) and nave (domain of the people) are cleverly knitted together as the Genesis story segues into the Christological series.

You can see a 360° panoramic tour of the interior of the church here.

Website for St Botolph’s, Hardham

¹Tristram II, plate 32
²Tristram II, plate 33

Photos © Roy Reed 2019