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11 June: The Holy Trinity – still a bone of contention!

In an earlier post about the art at Chichester, I discussed some of oldest works in the Cathedral – the Romanesque reliefs depicting scenes from the raising of Lazarus. This post brings us forward, to the twentieth century, and a work which celebrated its fiftieth anniversary last year – the tapestry by John Piper at the high altar. A photograph of the piece is available on the Cathedral’s website.

 

Known simply as ‘the Piper Tapestry’, this piece was commissioned by Walter Hussey, Dean of Chichester (1955-77). As parish priest at St Matthew’s in Northampton, and then as Dean of Chichester, Hussey was a great champion of the arts in the round – commissioning works of art and musical compositions, and inviting figures such as writers to give sermons.

 

The Piper Tapestry was part of a reordering of the quire in the 1960s. Hussey decided that an injection of colour was needed at the high altar and in 1963 approached Piper to produce a design to adorn the sixteenth-century Sherbourne screen. Hussey insisted that whenever something was added to a church in centuries past, it was executed in the contemporary style, and so it should be in the modern age.

 

Piper explored a number of different mediums before deciding upon tapestry – a medium which would sit comfortably alongside the screen, but which he could make his own. In fact, the piece consists of seven tapestries, hanging in each of the bays of the screen, which are read as a continuous design. This was Piper’s first work in this medium.

 

The subject of the tapestry also went through various iterations before the final conception, consisting of symbols of the Trinity (the dedication of the Cathedral) in the central portion, and on either side depictions of the four classical elements (earth, air, fire and water) and the beasts associated with the Evangelists (the man for Matthew, the lion for Mark, the ox for Luke and the Eagle for John). Piper had prepared a version of this scheme by the end of 1964, but at this point Lancelot Mason, Archdeacon of Chichester, raised an objection: in the central portion, Piper had included a Tau cross for the Son, a flame for the Holy Spirit, and a triangle for the Father. Mason objected that the triangle was a symbol of the Trinity and could not represent the Father; Piper would, Mason insisted, need to add another symbol.

 

Piper was unhappy about this request at a late stage in the process, having felt that the design had reached final form, but eventually he decided to add a white light, in addition to the triangle, giving the composition of elements that we see in the final design.

 

The tapestries were woven by Pinton Frères in Felletin near Aubusson in central France and installed in 1966. Their dedication took place at Evensong on 20 September. Hussey had certainly achieved his desired injection of colour into the space, but although he was delighted with the result, the public reception was rather mixed.

 

Both Hussey, and the local press, received numerous letters about the tapestries – some delighting in this bold introduction to the Cathedral interior, but others claiming that it was too garish; some even wrote that they could not take Communion before it. Perhaps the most famous objector was Cheslyn Jones, Canon Chancellor at the Cathedral, who reportedly wore dark glasses to the dedication service.

 

Fifty years later, in September 2016, the anniversary was marked with a prayer from the dedication service being read at Evensong, which was followed by a talk in which I told the story of the tapestry and shared some contemporary responses to it. The current Chancellor, Anthony Cane, dug out his own dark glasses for the occasion in a nod to his predecessor.

 

The occasion brought to life the richness of this piece and the regard in which it is held by the Cathedral community; at the end of the talk, I invited the audience to share their own thoughts on the tapestry.

 

A popular interpretation of the ‘air’ motifs – the most difficult element to depict in visual form – was that there is something of Sputnik I (the first artificial satellite, launched in 1957) in Piper’s choice of forms. Although I have not come across Piper mentioning this inspiration, this interpretation certainly resonates with the era of early space exploration at the time when the tapestry was created.

 

A memorable impression shared by another person was that the dramatic shard of red background in the central portion of the design can be seen as the opening of the veil in the Temple in Jerusalem, torn in two at the moment of Jesus’ death (Matthew 27:51; Mark 15:38; Luke 23:45). This biblical moment represents God’s presence bursting forth into the world, and the speaker who proposed this interpretation of the tapestry felt that the symbols in the central portion seem to burst from the surface of the hangings. Extending this reading to consider the other symbols included in the tapestry, we have a vision of God’s presence embracing all Creation – the world, beasts and humankind.

 

After fifty (one) years, Piper’s tapestry still feels daring and challenging, and doubtless does not please all. But, to paraphrase a participant in a discussion group I held about the tapestry, Christianity is not safe and wishy-washy, and so the tapestry continues to do important service to the Cathedral.

 

Further reading

 

Naomi Billingsley, ‘“A Magnificent Adornment to this House of God”? The Piper Tapestry at 50’, Lecture at Chichester Cathedral (22 September 2016).

 

Paul Foster (ed.). Chichester Tapestries. Lurçat – Piper – Benker: A Sequence of Exploration (Otter Memorial Paper 7) (Chichester: Bishop Otter College, 1991).

 

Walter Hussey, Patron of Art: The Revival of a Great Tradition Among Modern Artists (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1985).

 

Simon Martin, John Piper: The Fabric of Modernism (Chichester: Pallant House Gallery, 2016).

 

Frances Spalding, John Piper. Myfanwy Piper. Lives in Art (Oxford: OUP, 2009).

 

A version of this post was published by Transpositions on 23 November 2016. 

NAIB.

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2 April: Jesus Wept.

Chichester Cathedral is famed for its modern art – especially the prominent commissions of the artists Graham Sutherland, John Piper and Marc Chagall by Walter Hussey during his time as Dean (1955-1977). It is also home to some fine works of art from earlier periods, and there have been a number of important acquisitions since Hussey’s time as Dean.

 

During 2016, as part of my work as Bishop Otter Scholar for Theology and the Arts in the Diocese of Chichester, I was researching the art in the Cathedral, and leading a series of discussion groups through which I gathered some contemporary responses to the works.

 

 

Among the oldest treasures in the Cathedral are two reliefs, thought to date from the twelfth century, depicting scenes from the Lazarus narrative in John’s Gospel: Martha and Mary going to meet Jesus (John 11:30-32) and the raising of Lazarus (John 11:33-44).

 

These are rare examples of Romanesque sculpture in Britain, and a remarkable survival. Resonating wonderfully with their subject-matter, the reliefs were hidden for centuries, and rediscovered, behind the choir stalls, in 1829. Other fragments of carvings were discovered along with the reliefs, and it is thought that they formed part of a larger scheme in a chancel screen. When rediscovered, the reliefs were moved to their present location in the south aisle, which saved them from another risk – the collapse of the Cathedral spire (into the quire, where the reliefs were found) in 1861.

 

One of the most striking features of the carvings is the emotional intensity in the faces of the figures, and this was the first thing that was commented on during the discussion session about the reliefs; as one participant put it simply: ‘they look so sad’. Jesus’ face in the raising of Lazarus is particularly powerful – a very striking rendering of the shortest verse in the Bible, John 11:35, usually rendered ‘Jesus wept’.

 

There is a wonderful drawing of the face of Jesus by John Piper in the collection at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, where Dean Hussey bequeathed his personal art collection (further links between the Cathedral and the gallery will be mentioned in future posts). Piper is one of many artists inspired by the reliefs; another was Eric Gill, who grew up in Chichester, and enthused about the reliefs: he borrowed the composition of the sisters meeting Jesus for Jesus meeting the daughters of Jerusalem in his Stations of the Cross at Westminster Cathedral.

 

Part of the appeal of the reliefs lies, as one participant highlighted, in the very human presentation of Jesus here. According to the contemporary custom, we are left in no doubt that Jesus is the most important figure in the reliefs by his exaggerated height. But at the same time, this is a figure who has friendships and emotions, and whose grief-stricken face inspires empathy from viewers many centuries after it was carved.

 

Indeed, for me, the fact that the reliefs were carved many centuries ago heightens their impact – partly because their very survival is so remarkable, but more so because their emotional immediacy speaks across the centuries. And because most of the ‘facts’ about these carvings are lost in the mists of time, the viewer is liberated from becoming bogged down in analysing details such as the artists’ intentions and instead is given, as one participant put it ‘a blank page’, inviting ‘an immediate, emotional reaction… [rather] than something which is more intellectual.’

 

On the other hand, Linda Brown highlighted that we can also view the reliefs as giving us an insight into twelfth century perceptions of the Lazarus narrative, and, in the architectural features in the sisters meeting Jesus, impressions of the Holy Land in this period. This thought prompted a discussion about travel and pilgrimage in this period, and in turn made me wonder if we might view these works like the mediaeval church labyrinths which allowed the faithful to make a surrogate pilgrimage. Perhaps the twelfth-century viewer of the reliefs (or indeed the twenty-first century one) could (and can) imagine him/herself standing at the gateway and the graveside in Bethany, with Jesus, Martha and Mary, and sharing in their anguish.

 

Thank you to Linda Brown, Margaret Baugier, Fran Box, Tessa Cox, Rebekah Hanson, Jennifer Sandys and the participants who asked to remain anonymous for their contributions on this topic.

 

Further reading

 

Trevor Brighton, ‘Art in the Cathedral from the Foundation to the Civil War’ in Chichester Cathedral: A Historical Survey, ed. Mary Hobbes (Chichester: Philimoe & Co. Ltd, 1994), 69-84: 72-73.

 

Chichester Cathedral, ‘Delve Deeper: The Chichester Reliefs’, Chichester Cathedral website, 2016. Accessed 27/12/2016.

 

Alan Saunders, The Chichester Reliefs (Chichester: West Sussex Institute of Higher Education, 1989).

 

 

A version of this post was published by Transpositions on 3 October 2016. 

 

NAIB.

 

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12 January: Open Heart, Open Mind III: To see more clearly: looking at our art

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Before leaving Chichester Naomi published this resource for anyone looking at Christian art in Churches and elsewhere. Make it a new year’s resolution to spend quiet time in front of a work of art, perhaps using some of the questions in the resource this post links to.

To see more clearly: looking at our art

Reflecting on art in a religious context: A resource for churches in the Diocese of Sussex and beyond

There is a rich tradition of art in churches in Sussex – from the mediaeval frescos at St. John the Baptist, Clayton, to twentieth-century works commissioned by Dean Hussey at Chichester Cathedral, to contemporary commissions such as Maggi Hambling’s The Resurrection Spirit at St. Dunstan’s Mayfield (2013). Our art is a wonderful resource for helping us to understand and reflect upon matters of faith.

We can also draw on the rich history of religious art in museum and gallery collections in Sussex, and further afield – whether by visiting these collections, or viewing images online or in books.

These notes and questions are intended to encourage individuals and groups to engage in a contemplative way with works of art in churches and elsewhere. It suggests a series of questions to prompt reflection and/or discussion of different types of works of art.

As we begin the Year of the Bible in the Diocese of Chichester this Advent, our art can provide a powerful focus for reflection on biblical narratives. Within these pages, you will find some specific guidance for looking at biblical art, as well as for other types of art you might encounter in a religious context.

No expert knowledge is needed to appreciate art – just an openness to look and to ask questions. Through spending time looking at the art in our churches, we can not only see it more clearly, but also in doing so, as St. Richard prays, know Jesus Christ more clearly.

Naomi Billingsley, Bishop Otter Scholar, the Diocese of Chichester, Advent 2016.

Statue of Saint Richard outside Chichester Cathedral.

 

Download the resource here: looking-at-religious-art-_-otter-scholar

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30 September – William Blake’s ‘The Agony in the Garden’

The Agony in the Garden c.1799-1800 William Blake 1757-1827 Presented by the executors of W. Graham Robertson through the Art Fund 1949 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N05894

William Blake, The Agony in the Garden, c.1799-1800. Tempera on iron. Tate Britain. Image released under a Creative Commons license.

 

Blake’s The Agony in the Garden is a highly original take on this scene from Luke’s Gospel. According to Luke 22:41-45, Christ kneels, praying to the Father to ‘remove this cup from me’; an angel appears to strengthen him, and as he continues to pray, ‘his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground’. Artists depicting this subject are usually faithful to the details of Christ’s kneeling and the presence of an angel (sometimes more than one is included), often holding a cup.

In Blake’s version, Christ is kneeling and his eyes are open, but he is falling backwards and being caught by an angel swooping down from above. There is a strong sense of intimacy in the interaction between Christ and the angel – the direct alignment of their faces creates a mirroring, and the embracing reach of the angel and Christ’s open arms are offers of union.

Our eyes may not immediately tune in to notice the sleeping disciples in the shadows among the trees in the background. They have been relegated to this place of semi-darkness in stark contrast to the angel who appears in answer to Jesus’ prayers.

The strangeness of Blake’s interpretation of this scene might emphasise the question of how we are to read the angel in this story? I wonder if Blake has presented us with a (rather unorthodox) depiction of the Trinity, with the angel representing the Father, responding to Jesus’ prayer, and the strange blast of red light above it as the Holy Spirit.

What we certainly have is a powerful image of an angel as a positive, sustaining presence in answer to a prayer.

NAIB

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29 September – William Blake’s ‘Angel Appearing to Zacharias’

William Blake, The Angel Appearing to Zacharias. c.1799-1800. Pen, ink, tempera and glue on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image released under the Metropolitan Museum’s Open Access for Scholarly Comment scheme.

 

The pictures posted today and tomorrow are from another series of pictures of biblical subjects painted by William Blake for the civil servant Thomas Butts. Before Blake made Butts the watercolours of which we saw one yesterday, he painted fifty small temperas of biblical subjects.

Within this group of paintings, Blake’s Nativity pictures seem to act as a distinctive sub-group with a strong sense of series – an unfolding narrative which reflects the artist’s conception of Christ’s identity as the source of Vision and prophecy. Christ’s advent in Jesus is part of an ongoing process of revelation.

The New Testament sequence in Blake’s biblical paintings opens with The Angel Gabriel appearing to Zacharias. This is an unusual subject: I have not come across other examples by Blake’s contemporaries, but it is possible that Blake had seen prints of Old Master versions such as Ghirlandaio’s fresco in the Tornabuoni chapel, Florence.

The angel is bringing news of the birth of John the Baptist, the prophet of Christ and a figure with whom Blake himself identified (because Blake saw himself as a prophet).

Blake strips away the temple architecture which tends to dominate images of this subject and contrasts the priestly trappings of Zacharias and the temple with the simple white garment of the angel – the herald of the prophet who points to the blast of light coming from above.

Zacharias doubts Gabriel’s prophecy and is struck dumb in punishment until the child is born (Luke 1:18-20), demonstrating that doubt hinders prophecy, although this blast of light outshines the menorah (the seven branched candle-stick) and the fire on the altar. Blake, who saw angels in a tree on Peckham Rye, and on the beach at Felpham uses this story to encourage his viewer to trust in the messages of angels.

NAIB

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28 September – William Blake’s ‘Jacob’s Ladder’

William Blake, ‘Jacob’s Ladder’, c.1799-1807. Pen and grey ink and watercolour. © The Trustees of the British Museum. Image released under a Creative Commons license for non-commercial use.

 

William Blake’s (1757-1827) watercolour of Jacob’s Ladder is one of about eighty watercolours which Blake made between about 1800 and 1806 for his loyal patron, the civil servant Thomas Butts (more of Blake’s works for Butts follow in tomorrow and Friday). In Genesis 28, Jacob has a dream in which he sees a staircase between heaven and earth with figures ascending and descending on it.

 

We do not know the precise date of this watercolour, but it may well have been inspired by a vision which Blake had shortly after he moved from London to Felpham, West Sussex in 1800, which he described in a poem addressed to Ann Flaxman, wife of the sculptor John Flaxman:

 

Away to Sweet Felpham for Heaven is there

The Ladder of Angels descends thro the air

On the Turret its spiral does softly descend

Thro’ the village then winds at My Cot it does end

You stand in the village & look up to heaven

The precious stones glitter on flights seventy seven

And My Brother is there & My Friend & Thine

Descend & Ascend with the Bread & the Wine

(‘To my dear Friend Mrs Anna Flaxman’)

 

The poem suggests that Blake felt that there was a connection between heaven and earth in Felpham. Having only known the smoggy air of London for the first 43 years of his life, one can well imagine that Blake felt that the veil between heaven and earth was thinner in Felpham – the kind of place one might encounter angels.

 

NAIB

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Study Day: Art and Christianity in Chichester, All Saints’ Day.

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We republish this message from NAIB in Chichester for all interested in Art and Christianity. It looks like a good day!

I’m delighted to be working with the Art & Christianity Enquiry (ACE) to host a regional meeting at the Bishop’s Palace for ACE members and others interested in Art & Christianity:

A day of discussions and presentations to share best practice, projects and networks. The day will include tours of the Cathedral’s art as well as an optional visit to Pallant House Gallery.

Speakers include: Naomi Billingsley (Bishop Otter Scholar), Anthony Cane (Canon Chancellor), Simon Martin (Artistic Director, Pallant House Gallery, Martin Poole (St Luke’s Brighton) and Bishop Martin Warner.

Tuesday 1 November 2016 10am – 3.30pm

The Bishop’s Palace, Chichester

Tickets £7 for ACE members, £10 for non-members, includes lunch
Tel 020 7033 9481  enquiries@acetrust.org

 

There will be an optional visit to Pallant House Gallery to see The Mythic Method: Classicism in British Art, 1920-1950 following the meeting (see website for admission charges).

NAIB.

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Interruption – Art and Faith: Representations of St Richard

On Saturday 11th June a group met to discuss representations of St. Richard at Chichester Cathedral. Sussex’s saint appears a number of times in and around the Cathedral. Our main foci were the two most recent such works to be seen at the Cathedral: Philip Jackson’s exterior sculpture (2000) and Sergei Fyodorov’s icon at the shrine of St Richard (2003). We also looked at W.H. Randoll Blacking’s 1951 statue, also located at the shrine; the Chichester Cathedral banner (c.1900), designed by Ernest Gilbert and made by Miss H. Harvey, which hangs in the north aisle; the portrait in Lambert Barnard’s ‘Catalogue of Bishops’ (c.1536) in the North Transept; the statue above St. Richard’s door (in the Western arm of the cloisters, leading into the Cathedral). We also looked at an image of the St. Richard window at nearby St. Richard’s Roman Catholic parish church.

We began with a brief introduction to the life of St. Richard (1197-1253), Bishop of Chichester (1245-53). Richard is remembered for his good works and humble lifestyle. He travelled across the Diocese preaching, and it was at the end of his preaching tour, in Dover, that St. Richard died on 3rd April 1253. His body was translated to a shrine in the Cathedral on 16th June 1276 – now celebrated as St. Richard’s Day. The shrine was destroyed at the Reformation, but was restored in the twentieth century. There is a helpful summary of the life of St. Richard available from Chichester Cathedral’s website.

The various artists we looked at adopted a variety of approaches to depicting the saint. He is usually shown in episcopal dress, including a mitre. All of the pre-21st century examples include a chalice at Richard’s feet – a reference to a story that he once dropped a chalice whilst celebrating the Eucharist but not a drop was spilt.

Philip Jackson chose to strip away all the accoutrements normally associated with St. Richard to show him wearing a simple cope, with a bare head. Jackson wanted to reflect the austerity of Richard’s life, rather than the idealised depictions of the saint wearing gold and so on in some of the other examples in the Cathedral. Jackson also gave his figure a stern expression, in keeping with the saint’s character.

I have spoken to a number of people – and count myself among them – who find Jackson’s austere portrait of St. Richard somewhat spooky, even sinister. I particularly feel this when I see the sculpture lit up at night, glooming over the approach to the Cathedral, giving it an almost gothic feel. I therefore found it very refreshing that participants in the discussion responded very positively to the work, reading it as an image of the saint facing out from the Cathedral, towards the town, with a gesture of blessing in motion (thus he is not looking in the same direction as his extended arm, which others have told me they find impersonal).

The Fyodorov icon prompted a lengthy discussion about the role of icons more broadly, and their increasing presence in Anglican churches. Fyodorov trained in Russia but is now based in Britain, and adapts his style to the context for which he is working (a Moscow Times article which one of the participants brought to the session contains some helpful insights into Fyodorov’s work). Some people felt that by portraying St. Richard in a more naturalistic style than is traditional in icons, the work has less impact as a focus of meditation. However, we also noted that the inclusion of St. Richard pointing to Christ is an eloquent visual expression of the sentiments of St. Richard’s prayer:

Thanks be to you, our Lord Jesus Christ,
for all the benefits which you have given us,
for all the pains and insults which you have borne for us.
Most merciful Redeemer, Friend and Brother,
may we know you more clearly,
love you more dearly,
and follow you more nearly,
day by day.

As in all things, different works of art will appeal more to some individuals than others, but one thing that repeatedly comes out of the discussion groups is that when a work of art does resonate for an individual, it can, like St. Richard’s prayer, redirect one’s attention to God.

There are two sessions left in the series of discussion groups; details here.

Copied from: Arts and Faith in Sussex .

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Interruption: Calling artists in Sussex

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If you are an artist in any discipline working in Sussex: read on! Naomi Billingsley, the Bishop Otter Scholar, has published this appeal.

Call for entries. 

Calling artists, academics, musicians, thespians in Sussex interested in working with parishes and groups in the Diocese of Chichester!

I am launching a new directory of Sussex-based specialists in faith and the arts for the Diocesan website.

Based on a similar model to the Diocese of Chester’s Arts & Faith Network, the directory will list details of specialists interested in providing workshops, talks and other activities in faith and the arts for groups in the Diocese of Chichester.

Please submit your details for consideration for inclusion in the directory via this survey and do share with others who may be interested in being included in the directory.

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Interruption: Forthcoming events at Chichester Cathedral

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