A sacred canopy in college

Image: Canopy Compass Rose installed in Trinity College, Bristol. Photograph by Sheona Beaumont.

NOTEBOOK SPOTLIGHT: Canopy Compass Rose

A church or chapel speaks of orientation.  Through the language of architecture, aspect, and direction, you are invited to reorient yourself with the divine.  Here in Trinity College’s Chapel, the late 18th century Grade II listed building only became a space for collective worship in the 1960s, and prior to this it was occupied either primarily by trees as an orangery or by water as a swimming pool.  Key to an understanding of how this space has been reimagined in 2015 is the holistic identification with its past: if it is obvious that the history does not include the (relatively) ancient landscape of pews and stained glass windows, it is equally apparent that symbolic harmony can be found and celebrated in more modern and also natural forms.

In contrast to the common horizontal orientation of sacred space towards an altar, here the Chapel emphasises worship ‘in the round’.  The unity expressed by such a layout is reflected in the painted ceiling and shadow pattern incorporated in the art work: a version of the Anglican Communion’s compass rose, which can be found inlaid in the floor of Canterbury Cathedral.  Along with the 12 lights, community is here expressed symbolically with both contemporary and biblical resonance.

More than this, the purpose of such a community is suggested through both the central ‘sky-light’ cross, and the framing of trees, which were photographed in the nearby dell.  In an image with an upward perspective, leaf and bough convey the unfurling canopy of spring.  Sky above and root below are the connecting extremes of spiritual growth from death to life, and in the centre, where the community gathers to celebrate communion, the wooden table serves as a reminder of Christ’s pivotal sacrifice on the tree.

The culmination of my residency was this commission as part of the Chapel refurbishment.  An opportunity to go singularly deep with one piece was an immensely rich and focussing experience, especially as the brief was to move away from the usual plane of a horizontal direction towards a separate altar. The tremendous gift of this building consists in its beautiful setting on the edge of a dell and in its former lives as both orangery and swimming pool: the piece therefore began with photographs taken in the College grounds at a point where the trees framed the sky in a circular grove.  Recreated canopy and root came together to form a proposal that envisioned a central skylight (incorporating a translucent image) directly above a section of glass floor (incorporating a tree root situated in the underfloor area). The final piece was a pared-down version of this vertical theology, with an emphasis on the physicality and symbolism of light.

Sheona Beaumont, in Eye See Trinity: Trinity College Artist-in-Residence 2014-15

As a follower of Jesus and a builder, managing the Trinity Chapel renovation project was the ultimate job. The whole project was conducted in an amazing spirit of prayer and worship which was great to witness. An encouragement for me was that the project had input from such a large section of the Trinity community and beyond. We were able to see students and staff volunteering their time and expertise as well as providing paid work for some of our part-time students. We used a social enterprise who employ ex offenders and provide work and mentoring for someone recovering from addiction. The art installation forms the main focal point of the chapel giving an amazing symbolism of God’s kingdom and focus of the cross. The blend of a creative visuals, lighting and new decoration feels very harmonious and creates a very inspiring place to worship. Trinity College’s vision of ‘living like the kingdom of God is near’ created a great canvas for this project and for me it felt like we were indeed conducted ‘a building project like the kingdom of God is near’.

Malcolm Bourne, Property and Facilities Manager

The crowning piece of the year has been the back-lit, perspex artwork Sheona has produced for our newly refurbished chapel, a photograph of the woods behind the chapel with a central cross shape, which adorns the celling space and draws gasps of wonder and appreciation from all who come into the space. It is truly a glimpse of the kingdom. Sheona’s presence amongst us over this year has been such glimpse in itself, a prophetic voice proclaiming the nearness of the kingdom and reflecting the values of humility, service, worship, courage, diversity, holiness, wholeness and justice that form the backbone of community life at college. 

Revd Dr Emma Ineson, Principal