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‘And the child grew . . .’

20 December 2013

Pamela Tudor-Craig finds seasonal truths in a sculptor's work

Peter Ball's Grounded Airman

Peter Ball's Grounded Airman

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 Colleges.

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 his ministry.

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 cathedrals.

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 hazards ahead.

Still, hope is irresistible, and Christmas is the birth of hope.

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