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Artist takes the path to Pentecost

16 May 2012

Roderic Dunnett looks at an Eastertide sequence

"Throwing paint around": 9. "The Ascension"

"Throwing paint around": 9. "The Ascension"

IT WAS the Revd Bryan Hackett, Priest-in-Charge of St Mary’s, Prest­wich, who had the idea of mounting a series of Stations of the Resurrec­tion around the nave of one of the oldest, most atmospheric medieval churches of the Manchester diocese. Casting around for an artist of similar vision, he stumbled across just such a series painted by the Malvern-based artist Nigel Groom.

A glance at the internet showed Groom’s paintings to be perfect for the task. First displayed at Buckfast Abbey in 2010, and conceived from the outset as a sequence, his Stations of the Resurrection are evocative, beautifully compact, and strikingly contrasted: icons in their way, each a tiny window into some aspect of the events between the resurrection and Pentecost, as evoked in the Gospels and Acts.

It was Sister Laurentia of Stanbrook Abbey, then based outside Worcester before it moved to the North York Moors, who first sug­gested to Groom, a former member of an Augustinian community, African lay worker, retired Jungian therapist, and now a spiritual adviser as well as visionary artist, the idea of following his 2009 Stations of the Cross sequence with Stations of the Resurrection — a kind of via lucis to take up from the via crucis: an idea explored by a number of earlier artists looking to devise, with vary­ing selections, an informal “se­quence”.

The suggestion sent Groom back to rereading later parts of the Gospels with a fresh eye. The results, as witnessed at St Mary’s, are striking. Each of the 12 images catches the nave’s shifting light in an appealing way; each draws the eye inexorably to prise out a text-related message. All are in acrylics, but the methods vary, suggesting perhaps half a dozen basic root ideas.

A candle-like Pentecostal flame, red and yellow, licks round a firm, rather dominant white cross in a side aisle: abstract, but urgent and alive. A comparable abstract — blocks of scarlet and black, solid, reassuring — represents “He is not here, he has been raised,” the first in the sequence. By contrast, “Then their eyes were opened”, a strongly lit white Christ presiding afresh as at the Last Supper, is set against beguiling, calming blues, which reappear for a comforting but mysterious companion piece “Come and have breakfast” (John 21.9-14). The former presides prominently above the chancel; the latter (no. 8) lures you to the north-west corner.

Dominating the west (tower) end of St Mary’s is Groom’s response to the ascension, one of three paintings where he has not been afraid, as he puts it, to “wield the palette knife and throw paint around”. The flurry of whirling, many-coloured acrylics put me in mind of my first visit to a major Gallery of Modern Art, in Basle, countless years ago, where Legers and Miros and Kandinskys left one goggle-eyed with youthful amazement. What is exciting here (as also in no. 12, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”) is the way in which Groom contrives amid the elaborate tracery, tumbling and cascading, to let the figures of Christ and Paul peer eerily through the efflorescence of colour.

A similar eeriness peoples three images (the entire sequence is done on 3ft-square canvases) in which warm layerings of blue, yellow, and orange skies (as in no. 10, “Re­member, I am with you always”, or no. 4, the Road to Emmaus sequence from Luke 24) rise above purple or, in the latter, shadowed land­scapes.

Groom goes one further in “Do not hold on to me”, in which the risen Christ warns the reaching Mary Magdalene that he is not yet ascended. The geometric way in which a rectangle houses the two figures, and their silhouetting against a serenely layered sky that seems to proclaim hope and renewal, is typical of the reflection and insight of Groom’s work.

My own favourite pair were in a different vein yet again. “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” — the angels’ response to the women bringing spices — catches in the browns and the lemony yellows that the artist favours the feeling of space (the tomb is open) and yet also constriction, which matches the slightly expressionistic elusiveness (compare no. 8) of some of the figures.

“My Lord and my God” (Thomas’s confession, John 20) shows a pair of purple hands almost sprouting from a swathed cross, a bit like a burning bush. The effect, as with so many of this series, and with Groom’s Stations of the Cross, is both beautiful and thought-provok­ing.

At St Mary’s, Prestwich, until Pente­cost; then, from 7 to 16 June, part of “Faith Through Art”, in the Hub Gallery at Christ Church, Chelten­ham.

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