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Where sacred art comes built in

28 November 2014

When Jonathan Evens set off on a quest to discover 20th-and 21st-century religious art, he found some hidden gems


Notre-Dame des Alpes, Le Fayet

Notre-Dame des Alpes, Le Fayet

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 extensive.


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 onwards.

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 Severini.

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 Hussey.

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 colours.


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 fervour.


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 Mynheer.

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 figurative.


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 building's life.

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 www.artway.eu.

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