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Sandwiches, a tough choice, and a bold new stimulus to devotion

11 March 2008

Hugh Belsey tells howa Suffolk church got its new Stations

“. . . dislodged the jagged crown”: the 13th Station, Jesus is Taken Down from the Cross, by Iain McKillop, a capable poet, who has also composed a sonnet for each Station, “because the themes are so traditional”. This one begins: “Emptied of all you gave they lowered you down”

“. . . dislodged the jagged crown”: the 13th Station, Jesus is Taken Down from the Cross, by Iain McKillop, a capable poet, who has also compos...

OWING to the far-reaching Millennium exhibition around the county, Bury St Edmunds has become synonymous with commissioning Stations of the Cross. St John’s Church in the town was one that exhibited a series in 2000, but for the long term Michael Kenny’s Stations didn’t suit and, happily, they are now part of the collection at the Royal Academy. But something was needed to replace them.

The exhibition of Kenny’s work had dictated a number of criteria: new Stations should be of high quality; they should not upstage the high altar; they must not be susceptible to damp; so, to avoid damage, they should be of sturdy materials. That was enough to write a brief.

As with any other job, advertisements inviting artists to submit applications were placed in the press. A full day of looking and assessing reduced 45 applications to half a dozen. Comments had to be kept positive, but some applicants had failed to consider the brief, and some work was unchallenging.

The process was perhaps more instructive for those who sat in judgement than for those that had made an application. The committee began to see what it wanted rather than what it didn’t. In October 2005, six artists visited Bury to be fed, watered, and grilled.

After a breakfast of bacon sandwiches, which hopefully helped to put the parish’s guests at ease and give them a flavour of the parish, there were, inevitably, five disappointments; but the intention was that the journey had been worth while for both parties, especially as all the selected artists had extended the possibilities of the commission. It was a representational artist, Iain McKillop, who best suited the requirements of the parish.

The problems of damp were overcome by using treated high-density MDF board. The proposed paintings were big enough to see, but small enough to remain intimate. The colour was muted to provide the right decorative hierarchy in the church, and discussion over subtleties of interpretation showed that the commission was already fulfilling a meditative function.

Iain’s work is bold, and strong on the suffering of Christ. The emotion of the individual panels bursts beyond the confines of the panels. Studies for each Station were hung during Lent 2007, which helped members of the congregation uninvolved in the selection process to reflect on the commission. Perhaps the most inspiring response — direct and uninhibited — was from a primary-school class. To provide some context, Iain has shown other work in neighbouring parishes. His bestiary is presently at St Edmundsbury Cathedral.

After seeing how the Stations were developing, a parishioner commissioned a Resurrection for the Lady chapel, ready for the dedication at Candlemas, and the Stations have now become a focused part of the parish’s devotions.

Iain McKillop’s exhibition at St Edmundsbury Cathedral runs until 2 April. An exhibition at Holy Trinity, Long Melford, of 32 meditations on the Passion and resurrection, runs until 4 April.


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