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Our Lady of Lincoln

04 July 2014

Glyn Paflin reports on the cathedral's bold new commission

peter burman

Towering: the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, with the Christ Child, in Lincoln Cathedral. The figure is 6 ft 4 ins. (1.97m) high, on a plinth

Towering: the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, with the Christ Child, in Lincoln Cathedral. The figure is 6 ft 4 ins. (1.97m) high, on a plinth

THE sculptor of Lincoln Cathedral's new statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, for whom the cathedral is dedicated, is Aidan Hart, from Shrewsbury. He has been a professional iconographer and carver for more than 25 years.

The sculpture, more than seven feet high including its plinth, weighs 1.5 tonnes, and has been carved, largely by hand, from a three-tonne block of limestone donated by Great Ponton Quarry in Lincolnshire. Influenced by the cathedral's original Romanesque architecture, the sculpture has taken more than three years, and has been polychromed, using traditional egg tempera with natural earth and stone pigments.

The sculptor is a Reader of the Greek Orthodox Church in Britain. Speaking at the dedication on the feast of the Visitation, he said that his and the reordering committee's aim had been to make the statue an "icon", "a door or window between heaven and earth, to be a place of meeting". He prayed that the chapel would become "a little Bethlehem"; for the statue was not only of the Virgin Mary, but of God Incarnate, which was why "The word was made flesh" was carved on the plinth.

The vision that had informed his design decisions was St Athanasius the Great's statement: "God was made man that we might be made God," echoing 2 Peter 1.4. "This theosis, as theologians call it, is fundamental to the Orthodox Church," he explained. And this teaching was also to be found inthe Anglican tradition, particu-larly in the work of Lancelot Andrewes.

Because God had become matter, he said, the material world was a help, not a hindrance, spiritually; and modelled matter could also be a prayer to God. "We can pray and praise in stone and colour as well as in word and song. This very cathedral is a hymn in stone, a Hosanna in the Highest."

As an iconographer, Mr Hart said, he did not sign his work; and he paid tribute to the many who had helped, from his assistants to the truck drivers, and Dr Peter Burman, who had made the first contact with him by email. "Liturgical artists are sacred joiners, carpenters of gates. Once the gate is made, their work is done and they withdraw, happy to know that it works and people are using it. . . In the Byzantine world,it is . . . the donors, and not I the carver, who are called the makers or builders of the work, the ktitores."

A particularly important influence was the icon-type Our Lady of the Sign, drawn from Isaiah 7.14.

"The Christ Child is surrounded by a vesica. This mandorla is a kind of halo, and represents the divinity of Christ. This little Child is the Second Person of the Trinity made flesh. As we affirm in the Nicaean Creed, Christ is 'God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father'. . .

"The Christ Child, who is depicted like an adult child, holds a blue sphere, inscribed with a golden cross and stars. This sphere represents the universe which Christ not only created, but also sustains and guides towards its fulfilment in the New Jerusalem. This Child is the Pantocrator, which means the All Powerful One, the one who holds all things in his hands.

"He raises his right hand in blessing, the two fingers together representing his divine and human natures united in the Second Person of the Trinity, while the thumb and other two fingers tucked togetherin His palm symbolise the Three Persons of the Trinity, three in one.

"A cross is inscribed within Christ's halo to show that God has entered our suffering. He has risen from the dead and conquered death by death. Inscribed in the vesica is the rainbow." This was the rainbow mentioned in Revelation 4.2,3. But, in the sculpture, it did not represent heaven only, but also the Virgin's womb, he said. By the incarnation, Mary had become more spacious than the heavens.

From you, O Virgin, God wasincarnate and became a child, our God before the ages. He made your body into athrone, and your womb He made more spacious than the heavens. All of creation rejoices in you, OFull of Grace! Glory to you!

In the sculpture, Mary was enthroned. "In fact, she has herself become the throne of God. She is the New Ark of the Covenant, the Mercy Seat of the Old Testament, through which God revealed his glory to the Israelites. The sculpture shows Mary depicted both as humble handmaid and also as the Queen of Heaven."

The aim of the sculpture was not to depict the incarnation as just a past event, he said. "More profoundly, its aim is to draw us into a place where Christ can be born in us today. For Mary is the type for all us believers; for we are all called to be God-bearers, Christophoroi, Christians."

In the carving, he said, "Christ looks at us, engages us. Mary on the other hand looks a little beyond us, and towards the far western end of the cathedral. She ponders the mysteries of God. I have noticed that the saints whom I have been blessed to know listen with two ears, see with two eyes. What I mean is that, while they were fully attentive to what I was saying, their hearts were simultaneously listening to God. As a consequence, whatever they said or did to help me bore God to me. So it is with Mary, whose contemplative nature make her deeds and words all the more pregnant with divine power."

And he had sought to unite stillness with dynamism. "We wantthe chapel to be a place where people can find stillness of heart, or hesychia as the Greek writers call it, that God might be born in their hearts afresh."

The earth-red inner robe of the Virgin represented her humanity, while her heavenly blue outer robe represented the divinity of Christ which she had received. "Christ's warm orange ochres are the colours of the sun; for he is Light and life- giver."

He concluded: "We want people to draw near to this carving of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Lincoln. We want you to touch the warm stone, to feel our Lady of Lincoln is close. We want people to light candles.We want people to make offerings to the poor and the suffering, people whom the Mother of God loves so much and feels for with a mother's compassion. We want this carving of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Lincoln to be loved to bits."


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