Our contributor Constantina has published an account of the Icon Workshops she recently led in Birmingham. Follow the link to Hidden Treasure .
The Christianity many of us grew up with was not big on laughs. My childhood parish priest seemed determined to make sure we were suitably miserable. Fun was equated with self-indulgence – all too likely to carry us away into the path of sin. The eleventh commandment was ‘Thou shalt not laugh, nor enjoy thyself’.
The hangover of that upbringing is that I have sometimes struggled to allow myself to enjoy life. The notion that God is a spoiler is not one I adhere to rationally but somewhere inside that image of God must linger. And yet when I remember some of the moments of deep fun that I have known I see how they abound with love, friendship, wonder, energy, and liberation: and as I put themselves back into those times I sense the presence, joy and life of God.
What moments do you remember?
Fun can have its downsides. Making fun of another at their expense is destructive. Thrill seeking can be addictive and self-centred. But these are perversions of what is essentially good and of God.
It is through fun that we lose our self-consciousness and allow ourselves to run free.
Walls of polite distance or even hostility between people evaporate in shared laughter.
Bonds of friendship are forged.
We stop taking ourselves too seriously – as if everything depended on our performance
We discover that we are creative after all – and all we needed was the opportunity and the courage to dare to express ourselves.
We delight in life, in the company of those with us and are completely held in the moment, putting aside our fears and preoccupations.
These are good moments, God moments.
In our churches and within our neighbourhoods,
in our tired lives, and amidst our difficulties
it is time to have fun!
John Masefield wrote a play in verse about Good Friday. In an exchange after Jesus was condemned, we hear Pilate and and his wife Procula, who famously warned him ‘Have thou nothing to do with that just man: for I have suffered many things this day in a dream because of him.‘ (Matthew 27:19)
Another charge was brought some hours ago,
That he was claiming to be that great King
foretold by prophets, who shall free the Jews.
This he persisted in. I could not choose
But end a zealot claiming such a thing.
It is a desecration of our power.
A rude poor man who pitted his pure sense
Against what holds the world its little hour,
Blind force and fraud, priests’ mummery and pretence.
Could you not see that this is what he did?
Most clearly, wife. But Roman laws forbid
That I should weigh, like God, the worth of souls.
I act for Rome, and Rome is better rid
Of those rare spirits whom no law controls.
He broke a statute, knowing from the first
Whither his act would lead, he was not blind.
Procula’s speech is as good an examination of conscience as any for today, but if you can find the text, the whole play is worth reading and pondering.
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.
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.
Will continues our reply to your lament.
Today I’ll start with your question: I couldn’t help but ask myself, as I looked around and saw several dozen teenage boys counting the ceiling tiles, looking as though they wanted to die…is our faith on life support?
My faith is on life support all the time. It’s called Grace. God’s breath within me. As Doug was describing yesterday, Grace cannot be defeated.
But as for the lads looking at the ceiling: I too sometimes switch off, especially from ‘cut and paste’ sermons, and compose my own thoughts. Not that that’s needed with Franciscan sermons!
I feel it’s a shame if all there is on the ceiling is tiles. Our ancestors decorated churches in more or less good taste, but there was always something to look at! I read this morning that one of the gifts the Church has given the world is colour. Maybe our ceilings should be colourful so that drifting eyes have something to look upon; the one above is from Zakopane in Poland.
Christopher M. Graney, professor of physics and astronomy in Louisville Kentucky reminds us: It is funny how we learn about our surroundings when we start looking carefully for something. Scientists have this experience a lot. He’s right, of course, but he would agree that Christians should look and learn about the beauty that surrounds us.
Seeing, noticing, beauty is part of Laudato Si’ – Pope Francis’s letter named after Saint Francis’s hymn of praise – bringing Creation into our prayer. Pictures are concrete prayer. Better to have something good to look at than bare ceilings and walls. We are body and soul: the body is called to worship by standing, kneeling, signing with the Cross, but also by receiving God’s gifts.
We should have something for each sense. A sermon and hymns for the ears, but please go easy on piped music when the Church is quiet; some of us like quiet. A handshake of welcome as well as the sign of peace for touch; an open and a warm building if it can possibly be afforded. Eye-to-eye contact at the welcome; the readers, Eucharistic ministers and priest looking at the people they are addressing. For taste: a genuine welcome to approach the altar, and communion under both kinds; then refreshments after Mass – we have a tradition of English mince pies and mulled wine after Midnight Mass. Maybe even some incense for the nose, but flowers make a difference too – and so does their absence in Lent.
All this is part of the welcome. But I have been in Catholic churches where I would hesitate to bring any non-churched friend to what I know would be a less than joyful and welcoming gathering. As Catholic Christians we are not called to worship in an 18th Century Lecture theatre, and not with our minds only.
Zakopane Ceiling by MMB; flowers by Karin.
We continue reading poems by Radclyffe Hall. A great deal of her work has not aged well, but we have collected these in Agnellus’ Mirror because they invite us to reflect.
This scrap of verse comments on giving the Human will full expression. Singers, dancers, writers, artists in any field; parents, teachers, carers: we will be more effective in our work if we combine mind and heart, intellect and soul; if we bring our whole selves to the work.
Sing with your intellect and soul combined;
Not all technique, nor yet all wild emotion,
Thus shall you touch the heart and please the mind,
Winning a real and merited devotion.
Radclyffe Hall lived in Sussex; this window of King David and others singing is in Sussex’s Cathedral at Chichester.
When we were first married we worshipped in a village Methodist Church near Margate; an austere little chapel it was, whitewashed walls and uncomfortable benches. Thank God we did not have to sit under hour long nineteenth century non-conformist sermons, but were fed with wise words from Fr Martin Symonds, of Ramsgate Abbey.
That was more than a few years ago, but the austere image of Methodism is fixed in my mind, which expects churches to be bathed in coloured light from stained glass windows and peopled by statues of the saints who have gone before us.
Not all windows or statues in English Catholic churches would merit inclusion in a travelling art exhibition.
The Methodist Church has built up a collection of modern art, largely looking at Jesus, in one way or another. You can view the works here: http://www.methodist.org.uk/prayer-and-worship/mmac/index . The website will lead you to videos and other resources around these images.
Instead of hanging on church walls, the collection is sent out to proclaim the Good News in its own way; through exhibitions around the UK and in the future to Dublin, Rome and beyond. Until Saint George’s Day 2017 it is in Canterbury’s Beaney Museum.
Not all the images inspire me to ‘prayer and worship’, but I am hard-wired to David Jones, represented here by a delicate woodblock of The Three Kings, passing a David Jones signature passion-resurrection image: a war-blasted tree-cum-cross, sprouting new growth. The Magi approach a starlit Bethlehem amid Welsh hills that bring to mind a woman’s torso and raised knees at the moment of childbirth: the star’s rays beam down like a searchlight upon the haven where the Child lies, under the hill within his Mother’s womb.
Next to Jones’s tiny, monochrome image hangs The Dalit Madonna, a big, bright work by Jyoti Sahi. While this glorious work picks up themes from Eastern and Western European tradition, such as the sun and moon in the sky, and the Babe blessing from the womb, the artist integrates these with his own Indian culture. The sun is represented by a marigold; the moon by a crescent, including Hinduism and Islam in this birth. Then the Infant is seated within an oval reminiscent of the traditional mandala of Eastern icons, yet despite his foetal position and naturalistic drawing, he is clearly blessing the viewer; he is strong but clearly dependent on his mother, who bends her body in worship and protection, her breast ready to comfort and nurture. Many Catholic preachers would tell you that Mary, who conceived Jesus before her marriage, would have been considered an outcast; an untouchable like this Dalit mother, a radiant human being who clearly loves her son, the centre of her world and being. And how many unwed mothers were condemned by the Catholic Church in recent times?
The one Old Testament story on view here is that of Cain and Abel. We could be among Jones’s Welsh hills, or the Lake District, or even the Downs of the Isle of Wight where John Reilly lived and worked. Cain is a stocky, almost Calibanesque figure, at work within the pale he has set around his neat, well-ordered, smallholding. He pauses in his digging to stare up at his brother, a slim, radiant type of the Good Shepherd, who like Abel would be killed by his own. Suddenly that spade looks menacing: a ploughshare about to become a sword. And yet one cannot help a twinge of sympathy for one who wants his world to be under control, without any disturbing incursions from his brother’s nomadic flocks; that brother who stands nearby with eyes for the far horizon, not for him.
The Lord’s eyes, too, are on a far horizon in Christ writes in the dust – the woman taken in adultery by Clive Hicks Jenkins. In a nightmare of blues, Jesus is almost cartwheeling as, with arms outstretched as on the Cross, he looks away from the scene, away from the woman and her accusers, away from us bystanders looking on. The woman, with her Magdalenesque red hair, high heels and little black dress, is bound, as Christ soon would be, a halter around her throat.The light that glows upon her skin is reflected from Christ, apart from the tiny white triangle of her underwear, visible beneath her skirt which she cannot pull down with her hands tied behind her back. It takes a few moments to see that her accusers already have rocks in their hands, awaiting the moment when Christ’s assent to her killing is given. A moment that never comes. Would we back these men up, if we were there? Were these the men who stoned Stephen? Was Paul among them? Was this the first step on the road to Damascus?
Go and sin no more, Jesus told that woman. A good motto for the Christian life.
Even in the first two pictures reviewed here, the effects of sin creep in: the tree from Flanders, the outcast mother. We see the sin in Cain’s illusory self-sufficiency and his inherent jealousy; loud and clear in those shadowy, self-righteous stones, poised for murder. But like Jones’s three kings, each of us can follow the star, which leads us to a fleshly, humble place. The damage of our sinfulness will not prevent the Cross from being the tree of Life.
If you get the chance to see this exhibition on its travels, do spend some time with a few of the works. Others among them may speak to you louder than these four have done to me. Stop, look, listen.
As I left the Crypt of Canterbury Cathedral today, I was drawn into the treasury room. Often there is one precious, ancient object to gaze upon. Today it was something old, something new.
The Church of the Incarnation in Dallas has commissioned from the Canterbury Cathedral glaziers, new windows taken from old – eight hundred years old – windows in Canterbury. A selection is now on display including this panel of the sacrifice of Isaac, the angel risking his hand and wing to withstand the blow Abraham is about to deliver.
The new windows, made using mediaeval techniques, are vibrant and unmarked by the centuries of weather and pollution that have damaged the originals. Unlike the old monks of Canterbury, the ministers at Dallas will be able to bring every detail of the windows to the scrutiny of viewers using modern IT. The monks would have embraced IT, of course, as an aid to spreading the Good News – as Agnellus Mirror does in our own small way.
I shall return more than once before the windows are parcelled up and dispatched to Texas: they are on display here until 22 February, closing at 16.00 each day.
Read and watch more at these links:
May I share a notice from our friends at the Canterbury Gregorian Music Society. You’d be made most welcome!
Saturday 25th February 2017 10-1
Canterbury Cathedral Lodge
(small audio-visual room)
A morning workshop of talks and chant around gothic cathedrals
Jeffrey Miller holds research and teaching posts at the University of Cambridge and the Bartlett School of Architecture in London. His principal interests are in Gothic Architecture in Europe, including its materialization and meaning in medieval communities. Our morning will consist of two talks and two singing sessions. The talks will look at how mediaeval architects related their vision of a cathedral to passages in the Bible referring to the Temple of Jerusalem. How were the decorations and adornments conceived and realized? Cathedrals were important places for the civic and spiritual life of cities. How did communities decide where these buildings should be and how they should relate to the layout of their cities? We might also have a sneak preview of the end of the world. Questions such as these will be used to frame the two talks by our guest. In between we will discuss and sing some chant for the consecration of churches (and the end of the world?).
Free for members £5 for non-members
includes hand-outs, music and light refreshments
Further information from: email@example.com