New light through old windows

For many centuries cathedrals and churches provided artists with the space to realise their most ambitious achievements. During the medieval period, ecclesiastical interiors were the most important showcases for outstanding painters and sculptors. Even during the Renaissance, when traditional ways of seeing were overturned, chapels inspired artists as revolutionary as Giotto, Masaccio and Caravaggio to create masterpieces. Far from insisting on tame and predictable piety, the more enlightened church commissioners welcomed painters capable of challenging viewers’ expectations. Hence the revelatory impact of spaces such as the Sistine Chapel ceiling, where the Pope allowed Michelangelo to astound everyone with his vision of God’s universe.

By the time the modernist era arrived, however, church art had become associated with enfeebled timidity and dullness, and most full-blooded artists avoided religious
commissions altogether. But attempts are now being made to revive it with new meaning.

This weekend a new work by Antony Gormley called “Transport” will be unveiled at Canterbury Cathedral. Hanging above the site of the first tomb of Thomas Becket, the archbishop who was murdered at the altar in 1170, Gormley’s uncompromising sculpture explores mortality with the help of iron nails taken from the cathedral’s repaired roof. They pierce the piece’s body and head with painful precision, as if re-enacting the agony suffered by Becket when King Henry II’s knights hacked at him with their swords.

“The body is less a thing than a place; a location where things happen,” Gormley explains in a press release. “Thought, feeling, memory and anticipation filter through it, sometimes staying but mostly passing on, like us in this great cathedral.”

Not to be outdone, Salisbury Cathedral has embarked on a series of installations, none more spectacular than the current work by Bruce Munro. In the area where the transepts intersect with the nave, visitors can encounter his “Light Shower”. It sends 2,000 optic fibres, ending in clear diffusers shaped like teardrops, cascading from the spire crossing. Admirably site-specific, it encourages us to respond to the gothic architecture in a fresh way.

Out in the cloisters, Munro has installed a maze of large “Water
Towers”. Each one is made of 216 stacked, recycled water bottles illuminated by optic fibres. As the visitors walk among the towers, choral music plays and the fibres respond, suffusing the installation with a synchronised rainbow.

New art in religious settings can draw inspiration from a few exceptional works created when 20th-century innovation was at its height. In the late 1920s Stanley Spencer accepted the Behrend family’s invitation to make a sequence of paintings for a war memorial chapel at Burghclere in Hampshire. He based the chapel paintings on his own deeply meditated experiences of the first world war – serving first as a medical orderly and then in the battlefields of Macedonia. Spencer’s vision reaches its climax on the great resurrection wall above the altar, where slaughtered young soldiers arise from their graves.

Even more remarkable is Matisse’s sublime Rosary Chapel, transforming the ancient hilltop settlement of Vence in the south of France. Here, the ageing artist offered to create a new oratory for the Dominicans and spent the best part of four years planning everything from the tall, flamboyant cross on the tiled roof to the chalice and altar-cloth. The glass designs for the south wall were triumphant and they flood the white chamber with limpid colour. A chaste Dominican refuge is invaded by sensuous growth redolent of a tropical heaven.

For many years the Matisse chapel stood out as a brilliant exception to the rule that most modern church art was dismal. Today, however, changing attitudes can be detected in a whole range of religious buildings. In 2007 Gerhard Richter surprised his admirers by redesigning the southern window of Cologne’s gothic cathedral, which had been destroyed during the second world war. He set about designing no fewer than 11,500 squares of glass in 72 colours. Although the outcome is far from conventional, its radiance has been widely applauded.

A decade ago the British sculptor Anthony Caro was invited by the French ministry for culture to make a permanent installation in the 12th-century Eglise Saint-Jean Baptiste in Bourbourg, northern France, which had been severely damaged in 1940 when a British pilot in a burning plane smashed through the roof. Caro’s extraordinarily ambitious series of sculptures and architectural features was finally unveiled in 2008. Although he sees himself essentially as “an abstract sculptor”, Caro decided at Bourbourg to “think about how to tackle figurative art” and the Chapel of Light he created is an epic work dealing with the Creation and culminating in Adam and Eve. “I’m not religious,” he admits, “but I’m not anti-God. We leave out all the spiritual thing at our peril.”

Since then, the pace has quickened. At St Martin-in-the-Fields, an outstanding 18th-century church designed by James Gibbs in London’s Trafalgar Square, the Blitz-shattered east window has finally been replaced by an inspired alternative: Shirazeh Houshiary’s spare, linear evocation of light. Subtly suggestive of both wartime violence and consoling radiance, her twisting, weblike structure is uncompromisingly modern yet chimes well with the Gibbs interior.

Not far away, at St John’s church opposite Waterloo Station, the Rev Giles Goddard has also become involved in a searching dialogue with contemporary art. He recently displayed a large sculpture by Ana Maria Pacheco, whose “Shadows of the Wanderer” showed over-life-size figures crowding nervously behind a young man struggling to carry a gaunt, elderly figure on his back.

Reminiscent of Aeneas, who carried his father Anchises from the ruins of Troy, this haunting sculpture also reflects the plight of displaced people across the world today. “Responses at first were anxious,” says Goddard. “People saw the piece as quite scary. But once the piece had been explained – as being about the fears and anxieties which go with war, displacement and journeys into unknown places – an affection developed.” In the end, he says, “We built relationships with it, so that we were sorry to see the Wanderers leave.”

Similar sentiments explain why St Paul’s Cathedral wants to have its major Bill Viola commission displayed there permanently. Sustained efforts are now being made to raise funds for Viola’s two video installations to be placed in March 2012 at the end of the north and south quire aisles behind the high altar.

Sandy Nairne, director of the National Portrait Gallery, is a key member of St Paul’s Fabric Advisory Committee. He explains that six years of development lie behind the project, which will be the first permanent installation of a video work in any British church. “There’s no point in rushing Bill Viola, who aims at a ­feature-film standard,” says Nairne. “You have to take the long view.”

The works’ twin themes are Mary and the martyrs. According to Viola, they “symbolise some of the most profound mysteries of human existence. One is concerned with birth and the other with death; one with comfort and creation, the other with suffering and sacrifice.”

No sound will be used and anyone worried about their visual impact at St Paul’s should find reassurance in Viola’s own words: “The presence of the electronic moving image, normally designed to distract, coerce and overstimulate its audience, will here be used for precisely the opposite ends,” he says. If his work fulfils all his hopes, it will surely stimulate an appetite for adventurous new art in many other religious settings as well.

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