ArtWay

‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord’ – that is what art does. Phyllis Novak

Art and the Church

England: Chelmsford Cathedral

Chelmsford Cathedral

by Jonathan Evens

Chelmsford Cathedral is familiar territory for me as it is the Cathedral where I was ordained as a deacon. Since then I have attended many Diocesan services, organised exhibitions and events, and have also spoken in the Cathedral on several occasions. Despite its familiarity for me, Chelmsford Cathedral continues to surprise and entrance.

On the occasion of this visit I was one of nearly 700 worshippers from across Essex and East London communities who joined Her Majesty The Queen and HRH The Duke of Edinburgh for a service to celebrate the centenary of Chelmsford Diocese. The Rt. Revd. Stephen Cottrell, Bishop of Chelmsford, said in his sermon:

"We bring good news. We sing the song of him before whom every knee must bow, and yet whose ‘coming alongside us and moving ahead of us’ gospel means, paradoxically, that he is the one who kneels before us, who comes, if you like, as a servant, a slave, washes our feet, offers broken bread, wipes every tear from every eye, longs for us to know that we matter, that we are loved, that we are precious to God. He is King of Kings and Lord of Lords, and yet, at the same time, he is servant and shepherd. He is light in the darkest hour. Hope in the bleakest despair. A reason for going forwards, when everyone else turns back. He is joy. He is peace. He is love itself."

Those paradoxes are imaged in the range of artwork commissioned for this church over the 100 years that it has been a Cathedral.

Peter Eugene Ball and Mark Cazalet are two names that those interested in the commissioning of contemporary art by churches in the UK will encounter again and again as they are among those contemporary artists who have most frequently been commissioned by the Church in the UK.

 

* Nave of Chelmsford Cathedral with Christ in Glory by Peter Eugene-Ball

 

Ball is a sculptor who works with found objects, predominantly wood, which he then embellishes with beaten metals such as gold leaf. HisChrist in Glory located high above the Nave with its outstretched arms is a welcoming image. On a smaller scale and possessed of a still serenity are his cross and candlesticks for the Mildmay Chapel and his Mother and Child in St Cedd's Chapel. 

 

Mother & Child (detail) by Peter Eugene-Ball 

 

Cedd is the subject of Cazalet's engraved glass window in the St Cedd's Chapel and he also has a part in Cazalet's Tree of Life, located in a blank window space within the North Transept and mimicking the mullions and tracery of the original window. The image of a single tree has been a recurring theme in Cazalet's work, influenced, as it is, by the sense of place found within the English Romantic landscape tradition. Cazalet's image of an Essex oak exemplifies lines written by his friend and fellow artist, Roger Wagner: "And that exulting love which made all things / Whose laughter is the ocean in a tree / That rustles like a thousand angels’ wings / Stirred by a wind no human eye can see." In a similar vein Wagner created his own Tree of Life image based on a single tree – a stained glass window entitled The Flowering Tree – for St Mary’s Iffley; a commission that as we will see has a link to Chelmsford Cathedral.

 

Tree of Life by Mark Cazalet

 

Earlier commissions were no less significant however. Georg Ehrlich's sculpture The Bombed Child in St Peter's Chapel and his relief Christ the Healer are particularly affecting. The commissioning by the Church in the UK of work from artists who were refugees from the Nazis is another recurring feature of modern Church commissions in the UK; Ervin Bossanyi, Hans Feibusch and Adam Kossowski being some of the best known among this group of artists. Former Dean, The Very Revd. Peter Judd, said of The Bombed Child: "A mother holds her dead child across her lap, and the suffering and dignity of her bearing don’t need any words to describe them – that is communicated to anyone who looks at her."

 

The Bombed Child by Georg Erhlich 

 

John Hutton's Great West Screen at Coventry Cathedral is one of the most notable works of religious art of the 20th century in Britain. It has been described as having strength, cragginess, clarity and yet also sensitive tenderness, gaiety and respect for beauty. All are also viewed as characteristics of Hutton himself. Here his later engraved window is an image of St Peter. Elsewhere in the Diocese Hutton's work can also be found at St Erkenwald's Barking and St George's Barkingside. 

 

Christus by Thomas Huxley-Jones 

 

The work of Thomas Bayliss Huxley-Jones also features elsewhere within the Diocese. His Woman of Samaria at St Peter's Aldborough Hatch and The Christ figure above the South Porch of St. Martin Le Tours church, Basildon are both fibreglass figures. At the Cathedral, Huxley-Jones' work includes a Christus in St Cedd's Chapel, a carving of St Peter on the south-east corner of the South Transept and 16 stone carvings representing the history and concerns of Essex, Chelmsford, and the Church. Similarly, in his sermon, Stephen Cottrell, spoke of "the faithful, tireless, tenacious, beautiful witness of Christian men and women continues to make a difference: in Chingford and Chelmsford, Harwich and Harlow, Becontree and Basildon and Boxted, right across this complicated and glorious diocese."

The number and variety of commissions which feature within this Cathedral mean that even in a packed service, such as that on May 6, when each worshipper will only see from their specific place within the space a very small proportion of the artworks within the building, they will, nevertheless, be able to view something of significance and depth to enhance their experience of worship. Among the range and variety of works to be seen - which include, among others, work in bronze, glass, steel, textiles, and wood - are finally a significant collection of contemporary icons many of which were created by nuns from the Community of St John the Baptist at Tolleshunt Knights. The Cathedral’s commissions have therefore also served to support the revival of traditional iconography which the iconographer Aidan Hart argues is a characteristic of twentieth century church commissions.

 

* Icon of Christ - anonymous icon writer 

 

All this indicates the care with which the many commissions here at Chelmsford have been undertaken and realised. As is often the case, specific individuals have played a key role in taking these commissions forward appropriately and sensitively. At Chelmsford that role was particularly played by Peter Judd, who in an earlier role as the Vicar of St Mary’s Iffley, oversaw the installation of a Nativity window by John Piper which was later counter-balanced by Wagner’s The Flowering Tree. A similar concern with balance can be seen at Chelmsford, in particular in the decision to commission Cazalet’s engraved St Cedd window in St Cedd’s Chapel as a counter-balance to Hutton’s engraved St Peter window in St Peter’s Chapel.

Commissioning several works from the same artists and positioning these at different locations within the space also indicates an awareness of the differing ways in which visitors and worshippers use and respond to the space. Artworks integrated within the life and architecture of a church are not viewed in the same way as works within the white cube of a gallery space and this needs to be understood and handled with sensitivity during the commissioning process. The result, as here, can be a sense of overall integrity and harmony within a space which holds great variety and diversity. Where this occurs the whole and its constituent parts image something of the Trinitarian belief – the one and the many - which is at the heart of Christianity.

Bishop Stephen concluded his sermon with these words: "In the midst of war, in the relative security of peace, in hardship and in plenty, in village, suburb and inner city, today we thank God for the church, which is the body of Christ, the sign of God’s loving presence and God’s eternal purposes for the world." The artworks found within this CathedralChurch are also signs of that loving presence and his eternal purposes for the world.

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Chelmsford Cathedral, New Street, Chelmsford CM1 1TY England. Tel: +44 (0) 1245 294489 Fax: +44 (0) 1245 294499. Web:http://www.chelmsfordcathedral.org.uk.

Jonathan Evens is an Anglican priest who is secretary to commission4mission, which aims to encourage the commissioning and placing of contemporary art in churches as a means of fundraising for charities and as a mission opportunity for the churches involved. For more information see http://www.commission4mission.org/. Jonathan's journalism and creative writing has appeared in a range of periodicals. His co-authored book The Secret Chord is an impassioned study of the role of music in cultural life, written through the prism of Christian belief (http://www.thesecretchord.co.uk/). Jonathan Evens will shortly be on a sabbatical during which he plans to visit significant sites connected to the renewal of religious art in Europe during the twentieth century. His intention is to reflect on the visits he makes in terms of the significance of these sites both for art history and good practice for commissioning, as well as capturing his personal and spiritual responses to the artworks at the sites. He plans to photograph each site and its artworks, write journal entries (for posting to his blog -http://joninbetween.blogspot.co.uk/) and articles for the ArtWay website about his visits. He will also write a final report summarising his responses and general conclusions in terms of art history, commissioning good practice and implications for prayer/spirituality.