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Resurrection in Norfolk church

31 May 2013

Pat Harvey reports on East Harling's newly dedicated painting

Lamb for a wool church:The Harling Christby Maz Jackson

Lamb for a wool church:The Harling Christby Maz Jackson

THE Friends of East Harling Parish Church, Norfolk, headed by the then Rector, the Revd Nigel Kinsella, decided in 2007 to commission an altar frontal to accompany a new set of vestments.

The Church of St Peter and St Paul is an East Anglian "wool" church, built from wealth arising partly from the wool trade and partly from its proximity to King's Lynn, a major Hanseatic port. Best-known for its magnificent 15th- century east window, removed in the early 17th century as a precaution against Cromwell, and again in 1939 at the onset of war before being returned in the 1950s, the church is a treasure-house of art - a fact not lost on the painter chosen to carry out the commission.

Maz Jackson (mazjacksonart.com) is an internationally acclaimed artist who has exhibited at Florence and Venice Biennales; the Salon des Indépendants, Grand Palais, Paris; Chetumal Museum, Mexico; the Museum of New Art, Detroit; New York Arts Beijing; and many others. Recent solo shows include Norwich Cathedral Hostry Gallery and Basilica Lorenzo, Florence, featuring St Brendan (2010-11); and the "Censing Angel Project" (2012), in which she collaborated with the willow sculptor Joy Whiddett, the jeweller and enameller Sheila McDonald, Norwich Cathedral, two schools, and the University of East Anglia.

Jackson's chosen medium of egg tempera lends a surreal, spiritual quality to her work, which may be seen in museums and galleries worldwide. Born and bred in Norfolk, she remembers being taken around churches in the county by her father, a grocer and frustrated scholar, while he translated their Latin inscriptions, fostering an insight into their materials and craftsmanship which has never left her.

Excited by her new commission - she sees East Anglian wool churches as contemporary versions of London's "gherkin" - Jackson, a prizewinning member of the national drawing society the Society of Graphic Fine Art (sgfa.org.uk), embarked on a six-month "drawathon", steeping herself in the church's art and history.

Seen in the rood screen and wall paintings of the church, egg tempera has a noble lineage. Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Botticelli cut their teeth in it; Cennino d'Andrea Cennini's 15th-century manual The Craftsman's Handbook is still in print; and the glorious Wilton Diptych (c.1395-99) in the National Gallery is a high point of British medieval art.

Tempera painting is a complex and lengthy process involving carefully sourced oak; multiple layers of gesso made from whiting and rabbit-skin glue; and "bole": fine red Armenian clay mixed with rabbit-skin glue as a base for gilding.

Paint is freshly made each day using mineral pigments from all over the world, including lapis lazuli; ground with distilled water, and mixed with egg yolk. Egg-white is, apparently, best avoided, as it rapidly goes mouldy!

In The Harling Christ, Jesus stands in joyous resurrection pose, arms outstretched in support of his soon-to-be-commissioned apostles, while St Peter and St Paul look up attentively. The basket in the painting refers to "frails": simple rush baskets used by workmen to carry tools, and depicted throughout the church on tombs and monuments such as that of Sir Robert Harling and his wife, Anne.

The lamb is the symbol of East Harling, and recalls the Lamb Market held there from medieval times - source of the wealth Anne Harling used to embellish the church in the 15th century. Finally, the squirrel is the emblem of the Lovell family, whose coat of arms shows three red squirrels, and one of whose members, Anne, wife of Francis, is the subject of Hans Holbein's painting Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling.

According to the Rector, the Revd Sarah Oakland, the reception of the painting has been "really interesting", attracting comments such as "Wondrous"; "It does have a presence"; "Draws you in like an icon". Perhaps the greatest accolade is from the Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham James, who dedicated it in April, and who now uses it as an aid to prayer.

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