In the steps of the Master - with a sketchbook

by
02 November 2006

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IN 1839, David Roberts was the first-ever European to travel through the Holy Land on an artistic pilgrimage. The dispute over Russian guardianship of the religious sites in Jerusalem, leading partly to the Crimean War, had not yet surfaced, and the Holy Land lay depressed under the decadent rule of the Turkish Ottoman Empire.

These haunting beautiful images have been used for some time by the charity Biblelands for Christmas cards and posters, but more recently they also wanted a more up-to-date image reflecting the conflict and suffering and to reach a wider audience. They therefore invited three artists, Mark Cazalet, Alexander Pemberton, and Adam Boulter, all highly thought of and all in sympathy with the Holy Land ethos, to accompany different pilgrimages to the Holy Land and paint what they saw.

Each looked on it as a fantastic opportunity for work and spiritual renewal, albeit a serious challenge; for, as well as being a pilgrim and experiencing the pilgrim's awe, spiritual discomfort, and (it is to be hoped) joy, the artist is also charged with communicating his own impressions of the place and people in a visual depth that photography or words cannot always reach.

As Mark Cazalet says: "We carry a deep desire to trace the authentic roots of our faith, and to be transfigured by a direct encounter with the geography of the Bible. But what you get is messy, ambiguous, and horribly political."

In his work, which is bold, colourful, and uncompromising, he uses images as a means of teasing out the paradoxes and wisdom of the scriptures. Often, it is not the story or protagonist that concerns him so much as the dilemmas personified. His biblical figures are of our time within a present-day context geographically and politically. The horror of the Bethlehem wall, 25 feet high, cutting the little town off from Jerusalem, figures largely in his work of that area.

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Horror of the separation barrier: Bethlehem A Wasteland by Mark Cazalet, whose paintings weave biblical and political themes

To Bethlehem is a heavily pregnant Mary, sitting uncomfortably on the donkey and being led by a weary Joseph, who holds a passport as they go into Bethlehem through a checkpoint in the Bethlehem wall. Bethlehem A Wasteland focuses totally on the wall and barren ground around it, with a few distressed people near by. Having seen this wall, I feel the painting captures this creeping constriction perfectly. Another, The Holy Family Arriving in Egypt, shows Mary and Joseph as a couple of backpackers fleeing into Cairo station with Jesus in a baby sling.

Alexander Pemberton, a more impressionist and traditionalist artist, works from observation, and feels his work has usually been rooted in places - using colour and light and indistinct figures to convey the mood of the place and situation. He admitted that, although the tension and sense of tragedy was around them, he could not find what he felt was a right way of expressing it, nor had he since.

Despite bombs exploding in the streets of Jerusalem and a woman suicide bomber attacking near where the pilgrims were holding a service and he was painting, everything seemed to continue as normal. People everywhere were trying to conciliate and create places of safety and quiet, and were so graceful and humane. His Old City and Galilee with Eucalyptus reflect these impressions.

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Biblical symbolism: Temptation of Christ in the Desert by Adam Boulter, training to be a priest

Adam Boulter uses symbolism and abstract forms to express biblical truths, using the background of the Holy Land. His Temptation of Christ in the Desert, with a knotted black figure alone in the sand, and The Trinity, with the outstretched arms forming a triangle with the feet, and the head mystically turned up to heaven, are two of his simple and effective interpretations.

The pilgrimage moved fairly swiftly from one place to another, each artist carrying his tools on his back - be they pastels, acrylics, gouaches, crayons, chalks and inks, or a camera. When the group stopped at holy places for worship, Alexander preferred to opt out, and sat apart, painting. He felt he was a stranger, preoccupied with his work. He used gouache paints, and completed ten or 12 works done in this way. Later, in the UK, he used this material to work on about ten oil paintings and more gouaches.

Mark Cazalet worked in pencil and felt-tip in a sketch-book for immediacy - also on paper pre-torn for the frames in the UK - but found he needed another ten days to stay on and progress with his work.

"Spending time to allow a scene to seep into one's consciousness was not always easy in the time available or in the group context," Mr Cazalet told me. "Finding imagery that would not come out as kitsch topography jostled with the sacred nature of pilgrimage."

Adam Boulter found he could take part in all the worship and discussions, and, as he sat down and painted wherever they went, people came and sat and talked with him; so he integrated with the group.

The pilgrimage had a profound effect on all three and their work. They feel they have a special bond, although they rarely meet. Mr Boulter was inspired to see the connections between faith and art more clearly, and draw them out in his work. He continues to paint and photograph, and is training to be a priest at Westcott House, Cambridge.

Mr Cazalet had previously broken his resistance to using the Bible as a source for his work, but he returned deeply changed and troubled by what he saw, especially in the occupied territories. He has recently completed a chancel ceiling mural for St Alban's, Romford, and started a triptych for Hackney Free School's quiet room.

Mr Pemberton was powerfully moved by the physical beauty and profound associations of the Holy Land, the hallowed quality of the place, its precariousness, and its sense of urgency, which has become something he looks for in new subjects.

Alexander Pemberton is exhibiting Holy Land pictures and others at the Chappel Art Gallery, Colchester Road, Chappel, Essex, until 23 April. Email info@chappelgalleries.co.uk.

Adam Boulter has a photographic exhibition on the theme of prayer at the Chelsea Methodist Church on the Kings Road during the Chelsea Festival in London in the last three weeks of June.

Mark Cazalet is having an exhibition including Holy Land work at Catmose Gallery, Vale of Catmose College, Oakham, from 29 September to 28 October; phone 01572 722286.

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