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Seeds among the stones

19 April 2013

Nicholas Cranfield visits Bath Abbey's art exhibition

Rising upward: detail of Perennial (bronze resin, 2009) by Patrick Haines, viewed against the vaulting of Bath Abbey

Rising upward: detail of Perennial (bronze resin, 2009) by Patrick Haines, viewed against the vaulting of Bath Abbey

CATHEDRALS and churches are not museums, although some might have it so. For the believer, they are places of encounter, where prayer has been valid, and where, in some traditions, the beauty of God has been celebrated in music and in art.

Each temple made by hands reveals more truths about its makers than about their Maker. The numinous sense that we can obtain from entering sacred space reflects as much about what lies within us as about what is to be found around us.

For many, galleries and museums have become the new churches. It is, therefore, no surprise that churches have rushed to offer their space to contemporary art installations, to attract a wider range of visitors than might normally cross the threshold.

"Crucible" at Gloucester Cathedral in 2010 (Arts, 8 October 2010) demonstrated that this can be surprisingly successful, as the contemporary converses with the traditional. The outgoing Dean selected some 70 works of contemporary sculpture with such assurance that there was no need to name individual artists such as Damien Hirst or David Mach to draw an audience.

But any such project requires more than just the staging of a modern piece of work in an old building. Celia Paul's The Separation Series was done few favours in the hang at Chichester Cathedral last year (Arts, 2 November 2012), but happily is now on show at Marlborough Fine Art; and, in Southwark Cathedral, Nic Fiddian-Green's head of Christ has recently reminded visitors how difficult even placing a single work can prove.

Fiddian-Green has worked on the subject of the Passion of Christ since his involvement with the Passion play at Wintershall in the early 1980s. Christ Rests in Peace is a monumental head crowned with thorns. Cast in lead plates and with a gilded crown, the head lies at an abrupt angle, asleep in death.

It was balanced on a large (and in itself beautiful) octagonal wooden table in the sanctuary. Any power that the work had to challenge was robbed at once by its almost-domestic setting, trapped in the sanctuary at the east end of the choir, which is scarcely visited.

Had it been placed centrally, on the floor of the crossing, where the modern portable altar and bishop's throne are set on a temporary platform, it could have offered a real stumbling-block: a forceful image of the authority of the Son of God to obstruct and draw all to himself.

No such charge of reticence can be laid against Maggi Hambling, whose sculpture The Spirit of the Resurrection is now suspended where once the rood stood in the medieval church of St Dunstan's, Mayfield (News, 5 April). At the unveiling last month, I overheard a gasped "Jesus Christ a disco ball"; but the syntax and intended punctuation was uncertain.

It reflects and refracts everything around it in the highly polished steel, as the wings shimmer by the light of the stained glass around it. This is a permanent monument, however, and not a temporary installation, to serve before God in 500 years' time.

At Bath Abbey, the clergy have deliberately followed the lead of "Crucible" and teamed up with Jemma Hickman of bo.lee projects to bring together just seven works as a meditation on the fragility of human creativity within sacred space.

The abbey itself is a virtual pantheon of the good and great of the 18th and 19th century, leaving very little room for any free-standing displays; but, as at Gloucester, the large Gothic windows let in all the spring light. John Flaxman, Joseph Nollekens, and Francis Chantrey all worked here, although great monuments are almost entirely absent.

The most impressive tomb sculpture, and the largest in the church, is that for the earlier benefactor, a former Bishop of Bath & Wells, James Montagu, who died 20 July 1618. It was designed by the Lon-don denizens William Cure and Nicholas Johnson/Janssen, and is one of the best Jacobean pieces in the land. He is vested as a Prelate of the Order of the Garter (he was later Bishop of Winchester), and his dignity is not yet damaged by its being used as a support for a camera and sound system in the north aisle.

The limitations of space have encouraged some clever and satisfying conjunctions: a stuffed swan in the Birde chantry chapel; Jacob's Ladder beneath the great Jesse window, installed in 1872 as a thanksgiving for the recovery of the Prince of Wales from illness; and a goldfinch, that most lovely of eucharistic symbols, all but hidden just inside the communion rails.

Damien Hirst's Saint Bartholomew Exquisite Pain (2006), which dominated the Gloucester Cathedral show, is here in a chapel dedicated (since 1997) to St Alphege, the Abbot of Bath (980) who became the first martyred Archbishop of Canterbury, when he was killed by the Vikings in 1012 at Greenwich. At his feet lie surgical instruments that have an almost abusive power to maim and to kill, as well as to restore and heal, while his left hand wields a pair of shears.

The hard lighting and the gleam of the Zambian cross behind on the reredos (a simple piece by Melanie Sproat to mark the diocesan link) conspire to make Hirst's figure a timeless admonition of man's inhumanity to man.

Also featured are works by the Bristol based Patrick Haines (b. 1961), who lectures in sculpture at Bath Spa University, and who has fabricated work for David Mach, Antony Gormley, and Marc Quinn. Years ago, he was part of the team that made Spitting Image so memorable; and then, for seven years, he worked with Aardman Animations on Wallace and Gromit.

I first came across his work earlier this year when bo.lee gallery showed it at the London Art Fair. He has said: "I like people to perhaps remember a past experience or reconsider an ingrained belief." There is something both unsettling and yet satisfying in Perennial (bronze resin, 2009), a giant stem with a full seed head swaying in an imperceptible breeze. It grows out of the sanctuary floor, the small bird of piety hiding in its roots, and brought to mind the suffering of Job under the gourd that withers, and André Gide's 1924 autobiography Si le grain ne meurt.

Of his two smaller works, Chapel of Flight is a little model of a half-built church formed of the wingbones of small birds, perched on a red-bound Victorian copy of Coleridge's Poetical Works, set in a niche at the door of the chantry chapel (1515), near the Tudor rose and pomegranate that celebrated the marriage of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon.

Like Haines, Tessa Farmer is another sculptor born in the west Midlands. She has often used microscopic insect parts to reflect on the created world. On her installation, The Voyager 2013, of a white swan in flight, caged in by the delicate folds of the Birde chantry, insects appear to attack the neck of the majestic fowl. For his bird Lohengrin might have a long wait.

As a ceramic artist from Tokyo, Koji Shiraya has previously made a series of rings and balls, pendulous cups, and oddly shaped boxes. Here he has scattered a number of dented spherical balls in the south chapel, both on the altar below the only surviving Norman window of Bishop John de Villula's original cathedral, and across the chapel floor. After the Dream, 2013, complicates the uneven floor, making entry all but impossible.

The last work is a picture by David Mach which comments on the vision for the rebuilding of the abbey in 1499, when Bishop Oliver King had a vision of angels ascending and descending a ladder. The great west façade of the abbey includes such a depiction of the vision in its stonework.

Dr Garrow has chosen Jacob's Ladder from Mach's 2011 project "Precious Light", which marked the 400th anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible. It is one of the 80 photograph collages of biblical scenes, and is given pride of place in the south transept, obscuring Sir William and Lady Jane Waller (d 1633), immured in death. Above the picture rises the tree of Jesse, another dreamer who looked to the future, in a flash of sun-filled light.

"Odyssey: A Long Journey where Many Things Happen" is at Bath Abbey until 6 May.

Opening hours: Monday 9.30 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Tuesday to Saturday 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sunday 1 to 2.30 p.m. and 4.30 to 5.30 p.m.


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