I SPENT three months on a sabbatical pilgrimage ealier this
year, visiting sites connected with the revival of sacred art in
the 20th century. Although many art historians have suggested that
there is a disconnection between modern art and the Church,
significant artists with a Christian faith have undertaken work for
churches. Also, churches have commissioned work from the secular
masters of their day.
My pilgrimage began with Eric Gill's Stations of the
Cross at Westminster Cathedral, and ended with Anthony Caro's
Chapel of Light at Saint-Jean Baptiste, Bourbourg. In between, I
visited a number of famous sites, including Notre-Dame de Toute
Grâce, Plateau d'Assy - which has works by Bonnard, Chagall, Léger,
and Matisse - and Coventry Cathedral to see the work of Epstein,
Frink, Piper, and Sutherland.
The commissions that I saw tell the story of a contentious and
contested but continuing engagement by the Church with contemporary
art. And the depth of this relationship is perhaps best shown, not
by the "iconic" examples, but by the hidden gems that I discovered.
These did not exhibit the work of renowned artists, but
demonstrated that the dialogue between Church and art is
NOTRE-DAME DES ALPES, Le Fayet, is set in the French Alps, and
served as inspiration for its better known neighbour in Assy. Both
were designed by Maurice Novarina and are built in his early
"Regional style", derived from Alpine chalets.
Le Fayet represents a high point in the first phase of the 20th
century's sacred-art revival. This saw Roman Catholic artists (such
as Maurice Denis, Georges Desvallières, Gino Severini, and
Alexandre Cingria) working in, or with, the Ateliers d'Art Sacré in
France, and the Group de Saint Luc et Saint Maurice in Switzerland,
which masterminded a renaissance in church art from 1919
These artists, and their commissions, received support,
practically and theologically, from the French philosopher Jacques
Maritain. The church at Assy, by contrast, represents the second
phase of the sacred art revival, in which the Dominican Friars,
Marie-Alain Couturier and Pie Raymond Régamey encouraged the
commissioning of work from modern secular masters.
NOTRE-DAME du Bon Conseil, Lourtier, is located high in the
Swiss Alps, and has been called the "forgotten church of Futurism".
It may have been a source of inspiration for Le Corbusier's
better-known pilgrimage chapel at Ronchamp.
Designed by Alberto Sartoris, it was the first church built to a
rationalist design. It originally incorporated work by the Futurist
artist Emil Filla, and still contains impressive stained glass by
Albert Gaeng, an artist from the Saint Luc Group.
Futurist sacred art, with Filla and Gerardo Dottori as its
principal exponents, became a surprising feature of the later phase
of Futurism, which, in its earlier phase, had been stridently
anti-clerical. Filla, in particular, was influenced by Maritain and
Such art caused controversy within the Roman Catholic Church:
Lourtier, because of its rationalist connections, was viewed as
scandalous by parts of the Swiss press; and Futurism itself, with
its links to Fascism, was censured by Pope Pius XI in 1931.
This was the second modern-art controversy within Roman
Catholicism, after the removal of the Stations of the Cross by
Albert Servaes from Luithagen, in 1919, and which was followed by
the removal of Germaine Richier's Crucifix from Assy, in 1952.
Servaes's expressionist, and Richier's semi-abstract rendering,
of Christ's agony on the cross were thought by some to insult his
majesty, and these protests led the Sacred Congregation of the Holy
Office to issue instructions that resulted in their removal.
THE chapel at the Bishop Otter campus of the University of
Chichester has a 1962 tapestry by Jean Lurçat, and sculptures by
Geoffrey Clarke and John Skelton.
These commissions, and others for the Otter Gallery on the same
site, were undertaken with support from the former Bishop of
Chichester George Bell, and the former Dean of Chichester, Walter
Bell and Hussey were the English equivalents of Couturier and
Régamey, commissioning, between them, for church settings, some of
the best artists of the time. These included: Clive and Vanessa
Bell, Duncan Grant, Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland, Marc Chagall,
Cecil Collins, and John Piper.
The current altarpiece in the chapel at the Bishop Otter campus
is a screenprint by students inspired by Lurçat's tapestry, which
is undergoing restoration. The accent in this screenprint is on
beauty and wonder, where seeds and birds soar in heightened
THE circular St Benet's Chapel, at Queen Mary University of
London, has apocalyptic murals in sgraffito (a technique that
involves carving into layers of freshly applied plaster) by the
Polish émigré artist Adam Kossowski, whose work can be found in
Roman Catholic churches throughout the UK.
Kossowski's murals - arguably the most significant example of
work in this style in the UK - fill the entire wallspace,
encircling and enveloping worshippers with their imagery.
The background to this commission is unusual: it was unhindered
by the usual committee or tendering process that attends such
initiatives. Kossowki's vision and technique seem to have been
entirely trusted by those who commissioned him. The extraordinary
result - which, I believe, works both artistically and spiritually
- would have been very difficult to achieve otherwise.
ST ANDREW BOBOLA, Shepherd's Bush, is a former Presbyterian
church that has been reordered for RC worship for the Polish
community in London. The decoration, primarily by the architect and
sculptor Alexander Klecki, forms a memorial to the victims of the
Katyn massacre, the Second World War atrocity in which thousands of
Poles were killed by Soviet forces.
The church has been a significant source of support for many in
the émigré community. Many Polish artists, such as Marian
Bohusz-Szyszko and Janina Baranowska (who designed a window here),
were forced to flee mainland Europe during the Second World War,
and became part of a consistent but under-recognised strand of
artists who pursued sacred themes.
Klecki's work at St Andrew Bobola - vibrant, colourful windows
plus agonised, sculptural reliefs and statues - is part of this
same tradition in which expressive gestures reveal spiritual
ST CHRISTOPHER's, Warden Hill, Cheltenham, is an inspiring
example of significant commissions by a parish church. It has ten
windows by Thomas Denny, and two etched windows by Nicholas
Denny's windows - each based on a parable from the Gospels -
transform the simple 1960s architecture by flooding the nave with
colour. Colours from each window are carried over into adjacent
ones to create movement and harmony within the overall design.
Mynheer's sandblasted windows, which straddle the entrance,
provide continuity with the use of parables, but in a contrasting
monochrome style. Denny and Mynheer, along with Mark Cazalet and
Peter Eugene Ball, are among those contemporary British artists
currently most consistently receiving commissions from churches in
the UK. In contrast to many - perhaps most - contemporary
commissions on mainland Europe, their work is primarily
THE restoration of the abbey church at the Swiss Cistercian
Abbaye de la Fille-Dieu, Romont, in the 1990s, was completed with
windows by the British artist Brian Clarke. These modern, abstract
windows have been designed to bring a new dimension to the building
by unifying the fragments retained from previous phases of the
In particular, murals from the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries
have been retained as part of the building's restoration by the
Swiss architect Tomas Mikulas.
As with much contemporary stained glass, the light and colour
from these abstract windows is intended to create spiritual space.
In the past, churches were centres for the drama of the visual -
the spectacle of the liturgy combined with the visual narrative of
scripture in stained glass.
Now, most people find their visual stimulation elsewhere -
primarily through the media - and, as a result, the visual element
of church architecture provides contemplation, and narrative takes
a back seat in favour of ambience.
My intention in focusing on the revival of 20th-century sacred
art during my sabbatical has been to explore and reveal the riches
of church commissions. They often speak powerfully and movingly of
the Christian faith, and therefore nourish the spirituality of
those who see them.
It is my hope that, if we recognise the engagement which the
Church has already had with modern and contemporary art, then this
might both encourage churches to commission work, and also provide
emerging artists from within the faith with role-models and
inspiration for their own practice.
The Revd Jonathan Evens is Vicar of St John the Evangelist,
Great Ilford. www.joninbetween.blogspot.co.uk