Sounds of a summer visual theology

Millet’s ‘The Angelus’, 1857-59

On holiday in France this year, I am staying with my family in an old 3-storied house in the Loire.  It is full of beams, right next door to a church. The village is quiet, the houses silent, the shop fronts closed.  The summer air hangs over the place, people aren’t around.

But the bells.  The bells ring out on the hour and every quarter between 7am and 8pm.  And, quite differently, ring out the Angelus at 7am, 12pm, and 7pm.  It is rhapsodic, an astonishing compound, reverberating sound like Millet’s liquid light spreading over the furrows.  I must have heard this call before, I must have been near bells when they’re rung, but somehow this feels new, magnifying, overwhelming.  And this was the angel come to Mary, the angel touching earth with providence and grace and blessing.  It connects the touch of God with the ripple effect into human lives and souls, and I truly felt it.  As if the church tower were a lightning rod.  It was specifically the swinging pendulum in the rocking bell, its ratcheted momentum releasing a pealing, repeat, and reflection on downswing and upswing, and caught irregularly at the pitch of both.  Not the sharp hard sound of a striking hammer marking the triple invocations ‘Hail Mary’.

I hear and see this in Millet’s painting.  The two figures who have stopped to pray mark the moment (that’s where the villagers are!). The reverence is not token, is of a piece with the land, the soil, the light, the church – and it is all held together in sound.  But it is also embodied differently, felt differently, seen differently.  The man is nearly full frontal to us, and bears the facing directionality with our frame, our personhood.  The woman is in profile, and faces the sun, her frame is her creaturehood in the landscape.  He has the vertical, darkly-outlined thrust of the fork; she has the horizontal, illuminated load of the barrow. This reminds me of last month’s reach for a description of difference. For now, it’s enough to perceive a complementarity, if not harmony, pervaded by a context of sunshine and prayerfulness.

The lenticular, the RA and me

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My second excursion from maternity leave finds me celebrating inclusion in this year’s Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy. I submitted my two lenticulars from Elemental in 2012. Genesis didn’t make the final cut, though May saw me carrying both pieces up to London on the train. The New Passage was created from 12 photographs taken at half-hour intervals from this spot on the Severn Estuary. The images are interlaced by a computer programme which creates a file for printing and mounting behind a Perspex lens. In this piece, the effect of animation occurs when the viewer walks past the image. The tidal difference is at its highest in the year and marks the point where John and Charles Wesley crossed from England to Wales in the early founding of Methodism. The parting of the sea evokes a sacramental theology, and bears obvious reference to the biblical account of the exodus of the Israelites.

At last week’s Varnishing Day for the artists, the exhibition was opened after we had had the Service for Artists at St James’s Piccadilly. A typical service in every respect, with hymns, prayers, liturgy, a sermon and a blessing. Yet I found it profoundly affirming, and resonant with everything I try to do in my work. I’ll be writing about this experience for an article in the next issue of Art & Christianity Enquiry, and asking who or what is served, even transformed, by this commemorative act.

Bath Abbey’s Odyssey into art

Patrick Haines, 'Perennial', 2009
Patrick Haines, ‘Perennial’, 2009

On until 6th May, Bath Abbey is hosting 7 works by contemporary artists under the heading ‘Odyssey: A Long Journey in Which Many Things Happen’. 7 pieces, on paper, doesn’t quite seem to add up to an odyssey, but surprisingly, such is their thoughtful placement in and interconnection with the abbey’s spaces that it feels expansive in the flesh: an opportunity to soak up the resonances of carved or pictured forms in the multi-level languages of ancient and modern.

In fact, such close attention is paid to the siting of the works, that the dialogue between church and art becomes quite a lively one – which is unusual when the context for contemporary work is more often than not a white cube, resistant or even hostile to any community, let alone one with gargoyles and rood screens. So David Mach’s Jacob’s Ladder, 2010, has a conversation with the stained glass window above it showing the ranked descendants of Jesse (as well as the famous sculpted ladders outside at the west entrance), and Damien Hirst’s Saint Bartholomew Exquisite Pain, 2006, is in a chapel dedicated to the martyr St Alphege. If the text alongside the work were overlooked in raising such connections, visitors may well find conversation is literally generated by the vergers or other staff present, whose engagement is a delight.

What seems most rewarding of all, however, is the chance to quietly discover one’s own relation to the works and in this case, for me, the three pieces by Patrick Haines steal the show. Steal the soul might be a more apt phrase. Perennial, 2009 (above), is a 12-foot disconcertingly spindly sculpture of a giant hogweed. With its roots bracing against the bare floor, resisting earth-bound anchorage, it has all the menace of a triffid-like presence (warranted, in fact, by hogweed’s extreme toxicity in real life), until you notice the goldfinch curled and encrusted at its ground-level root ball. It has the red marking, as well as a thorn in its gold beak, a relic of and sacrifice with Christ’s death on the cross. It is so mute, so poignant, that on kneeling at the altar rail to get a closer look, one can’t help being drawn into its story, its passing. Similar smallness is felt in both Grounded, 2013 and Chapel Flight, 2013, where a dragonfly on a service book and a miniature skeletal chapel frame evoke something like an interior fragility. The poise of organic and creaturely life is given poetic and spiritual celebration in all these pieces.

The two remaining works by Koji Shiraya (After the Dream, 2013) and Tessa Farmer (Voyager, 2013) are physically more demonstrative. The former fills the Gethsemane Chapel with dented porcelain spheres, which tumble across steps and altar and the latter has installed a swan in flight in the Birde Chantry whose wing-tips fan out nearly edge-to-edge with the walls. Both have a rapidity and a flow, a sense of life briefly halted, though channelled by the space: Voyager in particular seethes with parasitic ants and other animals. Like Haines’ goldfinch however, the swan and the delicate butterfly wings impressed on its beak, stand out regardless of scale as stubborn symbols of loyalty and love – all the more so in their sacred settings.

Mark Fairhurst review

Mark Fairhurst Gloucester CathedralThese 22 framed pictures of church/cathedral architecture open a world on pattern and symmetry. If I was to conjure up the heavy solid stone vaulting and the expanse of cavernous space that I feel in cathedrals, this is how I’d frame it. Kaleidoscope and repetition bring balance to something that’s as much about the experience as it is about the eye: it can’t be rigidly formal, but it can’t float away into ethereal emptiness either. The means of digital photographic collage here allows both. A bit like the title of Thomas Kellner’s book ‘Dancing Walls’.

Is there more to it though? What does the exhibition title ‘Deception’ suggest, along with the one or two pieces that incorporate other elements such as a skull, or the fragment of another piece of fantastical architecture, the Chrysler Building? The place for the sacred in these buildings becomes more a place for the unknown, or even something suspicious. There’s an interesting suggestion in the notion of infinity presented by the images – repeating pillars into darkness, for example – where the sense of ongoing harmony doesn’t seem to reach any conclusion. The scenes suggest to me a kind of sci-fi gaming platform, inviting a quest and encounter. I like this aspect of discovery, but I also think it lacks a sense of place described as revelation, as awesome connection with the divine. Yes, there is a ‘different universe’ here, which Mark relates to experiences of the first visitors to such buildings, but wasn’t there also a profound belief in God’s presence and power?

That said, it’s good to raise questions about the beauty in places of worship, it’s good that there’s active looking/feeling/sensing, rather than just disembodied contemplation. It surely opens the door on faith and a personal connection with the transcendent. Abstracted deity and wonder is not what the buildings are about, even if the material matter seems to say so – it’s a language of purpose and design that we may have forgotten too easily.

‘Deception’ is currently showing at the Corinium Museum until Saturday 1st October.

Mont St Michel

A mix’n’match of church styles clambering over the rocks. Piled upon stone in Norman shape of round and fat set in the armpit of tall and stretched and greying Gothic with crystal seams for the wind and windows. And a setting of cloisters open to the air with green garden on top of the world and walled arms scaling down the cliffs’ curling shoulders to the earth’s place as mountain-island.