THIS year has brought forth two new important contributions to
the stock of imagery concerning the formative years of all our
lives: one from the late Middle Ages, and the other in a
late-medieval setting. They spring from Eton and Winchester
At Eton, a rare, to the point of unique, wall-painting of the
first years of the 16th century has been discovered, and now
lovingly studied and conserved. It shows the master, a large and
looming figure, at his desk with his assistant beside him, and rows
of obedient boys at work. It was found in the Head Master's
Chambers at Eton.
The other event was laid out in the little Fromond's Chantry, in
the inner cloister at Winchester: an amazing exhibition of Peter
Eugene Ball's recent work. No one who has followed his career as a
contributor to the arts in our churches will be unfamiliar with his
special way with sculpture. In one sense, he is unmistakably of our
time. His people have an almost defiant spark of humour, of
innocence, of delight. There is nothing careful about them, not
because all their problems have been sorted out, but because they
have jettisoned problems.
Showing scars of some of the most horrible disadvantages life
can throw on anyone - disease, loss of limbs, bodily distortions -
they are dancing through their lives. They have so little to offer
the force of gravity that they are almost airborne: fireflies
before the altar. Among this motley of ragged angels, tumblers,
dancers, beggars, airmen, prophets, and clowns, there are four
specifically religious figures.
Two are of the Virgin and Child, one of a mother so
starvation-thin that it would seem that her totally calm and secure
scrap of an infant must slide down her fragile hip to the ground.
Who has not seen that expression of complete confidence, almost of
triumph, on the face of a newborn, perfectly secure, provided the
arm of his mother is around him and her breast within reach? The
second is of the seated mother with her babe on her knee, more
conventional in pose.
The other two explore territory new to Ball and very anywhere:
Scholar Christ, the Virgin offering her 12-year-old son to
the years of study; the other, a Scholar, calm and
contemplative, standing on a great leather bound and gilded volume,
his right hand holding a scroll, his left palm open, in a gesture
of self-giving to his destiny. His face is alight with
contemplation. Only one disarming touch suggests a confidence not
yet quite complete: his toes are turned in.
The liturgical year is arranged on a double pattern. St
Nicholas, more familiar nowadays as Santa Claus, has his feast day
on 6 December. The life of Christ, on the other hand, is placed
around the first quarter of the solar calendar, with Christmas at
the winter solstice.
Have you ever eaten Christmas pudding on an Australian or New
Zealand beach? My sister tells me that it can be a curious feast.
Easter at the spring equinox in this country has all the glory of a
conjunction on Easter morning of the acclamations ringing out as
the rising sun strikes through the east window.
The slight variations in orientation of some of our village
churches can be due to keeping an allegiance to their patronal
feast days instead of Easter for the alignment. But the eloquence
of Christmas celebrated in the middle of (approximately) the
longest night of the year is a part of our northern context. In
this keeping of our faith in tune with the sun, we are at one with
our ancestors who built Stonehenge.
The result of this annual pattern is that after the tragic feast
of the Innocents, and the splendid Christmas finale of the magi on
6 January, dovetailing with Orthodox Christmas, Christ's Baptism is
upon us before we have left Epiphanytide, and then we turn
reluctantly towards Lent. That penitential commemoration of the 40
days spent by Christ in the wilderness runs straight into Palm
Sunday and the Passion. The result is that we have no calendar time
set aside anywhere to ponder the hidden years of Christ's childhood
and adolescence, of which we have but one amazingly revealing
biblical anecdote, of his visit to the Temple. Nor is there space
to celebrate his silent twenties, or even the joyous three years of
There is one feast that escapes this chronological pattern, and
that, the Transfiguration, did not enter the Western calendar until
1457, when it was chosen to mark a stalled invasion of Europe by
the Turks at Belgrade on 6 August the year before. But what of the
joy of his miracles, the feeding of the five thousand, the glory of
his preaching, the Beatitudes?
In that exhibition in Winchester College, the whole central
space was taken up by a whirling dance of the deprived, the
underprivileged, the refugees, the undefeated. The people who
cannot be crushed by the cruellest misfortune, for whom the Sermon
on the Mount is the best news ever written, and for whom the city
of God is round the next corner.
How is it that Ball, through some dour decades of our recent
history, has fostered that impish reversal of human values, that
unquenchable spiral of laughter that speaks of an unimaginably
joyous life beyond our human coil? How is it that his work has
found its way into the homes and village churches of English
Christianity throughout his working life? You will find his roods
and his Virgins flickering like candlelight in convents and
cathedrals, from Southwark to Southwell and Birmingham, from
Salisbury to Winchester, Ely, and Chelmsford. He is working on a
piece for Merton College, Oxford, at the moment.
Why do his sculptures feel so inevitably at home in our ancient
holy places? Most of the reasons are intangible, of course, but one
is practical. His chosen medium is driftwood. He will take a
battered bough that has endured the weight of a roof for 400 years,
and it will lead him to discover within it, within its strongest
surviving section, its dwindling extremities, the elements of a
human form. He will add, if need be, a head, a hand, a leper's
bell, maybe clad- ding in fretted metal, a touch of colour.
The heart of his sculpture is an ancient tree that has endured
beyond its rooted life as a forest endures beyond a gale. After he
great storm of the autumn equinox 1987, the woods and coppices that
repaired their losses best and fastest were those where nothing was
done to tidy them up or replant. At the heart of these sculptures
lies the wisdom of ancient trees, and the sculptor has listened to
it. No wonder his figures are at home in our enduring
Winchester College has retained Peter Ball's group of the Virgin
and her Son as he stands before her, looking wide-eyed at the years
of his development before him. This statue describes the moment
when parents bringing sons to this place of education leave them
here. With one hand she supports him as he shrinks back into her
protective strength. With the other hand she lets him go. Every
woman who has known the animal strength of mother- hood knows the
cost of letting them go.
So this year, as we turn once more to the baby in a crib, warmed
and protected by gentle ox and ass, all sweetness and light, we
might throw our minds forward to his 30 hidden and dangerous years
ahead, and particularly to the choppy waters we remember from our
own teens and twenties when we were exceptionally likely to get it
all wrong: so long, so confusing, and with a mission so apparently
impossible. Herod's swords at the gate were only the first of the
Still, hope is irresistible, and Christmas is the birth of