ArtWay

Art does not reproduce what we see. It makes us see. Paul Klee

Art and the Church

England: Lumen Reformed Church, London

Lumen United Reformed Church, London

by Jonathan Evens 

 

Lumen United Reformed Church is a church located in the heart of Bloomsbury in LondonEngland. The original Regency Gothic Church, which was a miniature version of York Minster, was seriously damaged by bombing in World War II and was completely rebuilt in 1965. Now that building has been completely remodelled and extended for a new century of service to a changing inner-city residential community, visitors to London and numerous institutions (colleges, hospitals etc.) in the neighbourhood. 

Theis and Khan Architects were commissioned in 2008 to redesign the existing 1960s church building in order to create a new church and community centre open to people of all faiths. Their design retains the original building’s volume and coherence, but adds new amenities – an entrance, a lift, toilets, offices, multi-use spaces and a courtyard garden planted with herbs and silver birch trees. The garden provides a modern form of a cloister with an arcade around the courtyard.   

A new conical shell-like 'sacred space' reaches through the full 11m height of the building to penetrate the existing church roof, primarily to receive direct natural light. The light inside alters with weather and seasons, which was intended to convey a sense of peace and separation from the bustle of the outside world. The position of this sacred space at the heart of lumen provides a secluded area for contemplation. 

Lumen also has a small gallery which showcases the work of local artists, photographers and students. On the day I visited, the exhibition was 'Within you Without you' which featured four artists (Angela Eden, Sandra Jacobs, Dorothea Magonet and Mary Ottaway) using sculpture, drawing, photography and installation to respond to the word “Lumen” and to the physical and spiritual space it inhabits. 

A 1966 stained glass window designed by Pierre Fourmaintraux was retained within the building by moving it from the west side wall to make it central to the church. This window contains over 1,000 pieces of one inch thick glass in 21 panels. Each piece was expertly cut by hand, by scoring the glass on the surface and hitting it with a hammer on a small anvil so the piece would break cleanly. The surface of the glass was chipped, so that sunlight striking the glass goes in all directions. 

The window represents the Resurrection and is based on a passage from the final chapter of Matthew’s gospel. It shows Christ risen from the tomb at the top carrying the flag of a red cross on a white background. At the bottom is a representation of spears and the bowed figure of Mary. It therefore evokes ideas from Renaissance pictures of the cross and resurrection.

Fourmaintraux worked for James Powell & Sons (Whitefriars Limited) between 1956 to 1969 as chief designer of slab glass and abstract designs. He was born in Northern France, where his father owned a ceramics factory, in which he initially worked.  He married an English wife, Rachel Winslow, who was an Impressionist painter and settled in England, ultimately in Harrow.  While in France he produced some conventional leaded stained glass, but he changed after World War II to a method known as dalle de verre, consisting of abstract designs, made of thick, small, dark pieces of glass set in concrete.  He produced such windows for Whitefriars and they were especially popular in Roman Catholic churches. 

‘Dalle’ is French for slab or tile. The window is made from by assembling small pieces of glass, about one inch (22mm) thick, which have been carefully chipped and shaped with a tungsten hammer, before they are set in concrete. The concrete is reinforced, vibrated and cured to make a resilient and secure frame for the glass. This technique is sometimes called ‘faceted’ glass. The effect is to create window panels of extraordinary brilliance and colour; jewel-like concrete-set stained glass which is eminently complementary to much of present-day architecture. Dalle de verre windows are widely used in the USA and in Continental Europe. 

Following an invited competition, Rona Smith and Alison Wilding were selected to create new site-specific works for Lumen as part of the rebuilding of the church undertaken by Theis and Khan. Smith’s North Elevation is an 8 metre tall bronze screen suspended within the alcove of the window, gently arcing into the interior space. The screen’s geometric spiral design is traditionally found in many sacred contexts including Christian, Islamic, Greek and Roman architecture as well as Hindu and Buddhist designs. Wilding created a trio of objects: a new font, a drinking fountain and a garden fountain. Fundamental to each of the works are the themes of ‘living water’ and light. 

The artwork for the building also reflects the United Reformed Church’s tradition of open, inclusive and accessible worship. Lumen’s small worshipping community is made up from people of different backgrounds, countries and ages who are open in outlook hoping that anyone from whatever background, religious or other, will feel welcome and at ease with them. As the church is used for Christian services as well as a variety of community activities, the commissions embody these values, being universal and accessible in both their design and imagery. 

The building, as a whole, is now a collage of styles and eras from its gothic basement to its 1960s exterior and on to its new contemporary spaces. Set within this architecture is artwork from each phase and age of the building’s life. In 200 years Lumen has had three buildings, belonged to four different churches, had five different names and 17 ministers. Similarly, the current building can be viewed as the work of several architects who each worked in very different times. 

The original church was Sir William Tite’s first big commission with its most striking feature being mini versions of York Minster’s twin towers. Courtney Theobald, the architect for the 1960s building, also built 50 bridges and the distinctive concrete arches used for the roof trusses probably owe their inspiration to his many bridges. Lumen was Theis and Khan’s first church project and they completely remodelled the 1960s building. Most churches are actually assemblages formed and reformed over many years, the success of this redesigned church has been to consciously build that assembling of fragments into the re-design. 

With such an approach, the space could feel like a giant jigsaw puzzle but the overall vision of integration and harmony is integral to the design of the building as well as to its use and this gives the spaces a sense of cool, calm cohesion. 

Lumen is an example of a church where the design of the space has encompassed the artwork included. In this context the art included has a purpose and position within the overall design as opposed to other settings where new commissions are accretions to the original design of the space. Art galleries are generally white cubes in order to give prominence and focus to the art displayed. The idea is that the art is displayed in a neutral context in order that it is seen for what it is. Church commissions, by contrast, are all about the interaction of the artwork with the context (space, use and tradition). Sometimes the argument is made that this reality subordinates the artworks to the context in a way that either neuters the art or pushes commissions towards didacticism. 

Postmodernism, helpfully, questions the supposed neutrality of the art gallery and, in particular, exposes the commercialism inherent in gallery settings. This means that as no context is genuinely neutral therefore no setting is better or worse, less or more appropriate for the showing of art. What is important is depth in both the artist’s and commissioner’s understandings of context and the degree of interaction achieved between the artwork and that context. As Lumen, demonstrates so well both the old and the new can provide an appropriate context and setting for art that that can be both from the past and of the present.   

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Lumen URC88 Tavistock Place WC1H 9RS, London. www.lumenurc.org.uk

Images:

* The conical 'sacred space' at the centre of the building;

* Pierre Fourmaintraux window and Alison Wilding font;

* Rona Smith's 'North Elevation';

* Alison Wilding's garden fountain alongside ceramic pieces by Dorothea Magonet.

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.