THE artist Lesley Sutton had a wish-list of venues for a Holy
Week and Easter art trail across the centre of Manchester, a city
where she has lived and worshipped for 27 years.
It included the prestigious Manchester Art Gallery, and the John
Rylands Library, and when both of these - "to my absolute shock" -
willingly said yes, she realised that something born out of a
modest desire for building bridges between contemporary art and the
Church was actually going to happen.
And it has, with a Lenten, visual pilgrimage encompassing more
than 60 traditional and contemporary works of art, some in the
permanent collections of the six host venues, others loaned or
created for the trail. All reflect the universal Easter themes of
grief and loss, love and kindness, and the longing for hope.
The PassionArts Trail is set at the heart of a city that has a
vibrant arts scene, and which has itself experienced resurrection
after the IRA bomb that destroyed a sizeable area of central
Manchester in 1996.
The starting-point is the Art Gallery on Mosley Street,
currently drawing the crowds with a monumental textiles work by the
Portugese contemporary artist, Joana Vasconcelos. Three paintings
by Holman Hunt - The Scapegoat, andversions of The
Light of the World and The Shadow of Death - are part
of the gallery's permanent collection, as is Henry Moore's muscular
Mother and Child, a compelling look into the strong,
unflinching gaze of Mary with the infant Christ.
Other contemporary works on the themes of the Easter journey
have been slipped in, too, surprising the pilgrim on this trail. Is
that a plateof chips and gravy among the 17th-century Dutch
still-life paintings of overblown flowers, dying flowers, reviving
MAT COLLISHAW, a Brit Art luminary, has photographed the final
meals of prisoners in Texas whom he visited on Death Row, and set
them up in the style of the Dutch painters.
His series Last Meal on Death Row invites comparisons
and reflections on the Last Supper, and, perhaps most movingly of
all, includes the last meal of Jonathan Nobles, a 37-year-old who
found faith while in prison and, on the day of his execution, asked
forgiveness from his victim's family, and took bread and wine. The
ruby glass looks three-dimensional, as though you could open up the
picture, and lift it out.
Transformation is also the theme of metal work by Claire Malet
and Cornelia Parker, in which beauty emerges and shimmers from
So close are the venues to each other that half an hour is all
it would take to walk between them without stopping. The next stop
is St Mary's, a Roman Catholic church on Mulberry Street,
"Manchester's Hidden Gem". It is signposted as such, but you could
still miss this stunning post-Reformation building, its tower lost
among the tall office blocks that replaced the city's slums.
Inside, a sea of white marble takes the breath away. Apparently,
the artist Norman Adams considered his 14 Stations of the Cross
commissioned for St Mary's in 1993 by the parish priest, Canon
Denis Clinch, on the recommendation of Sister Wendy Beckett, to be
the greatest work of his life.
These great, bold, vivid pictures are also a favourite of
Sutton's. "Each of the Stations is based on the face of Christ at
one of those 14 moments. . . In every picture, Christ has flowers
in his eyes," she says. "In the final one, the resurrection story,
there is no face, no person, just a garden of flowers linking with
the flowers in everyone's eyes. The images are so strong and so
ON TO Deansgate now, across the great square in front of the
town hall, and to the neo-Gothic John Rylands Library. Every artist
exhibiting here has experienced grief in some way, and has woven it
into his or her work - literally, in the case of the textile
artists Jacqui Parkinson and Beverly Ayling-Smith. The magnificent
library, opened in 1900, could be mistaken for a church, and its
vaulted corridors, soft stone walls, and lattice windows merge
seamlessly into a newly renovated, stunning, contemporary part of
the building - all soaring white walls, glass, and chrome.
Parkinson is the widow of the Methodist evangelist Rob Frost,
who died of cancer in 2008. She has embroidered her loss into a
series of the Victorian handkerchiefs she collects, in what Sutton
suggests are almost "letters to God".
They reveal her grief, her fears about ageing on her own, the
struggle to sleep in the vast loneliness of a double bed, and her
need to hold on to memories.
The contemporary embroiderer Ayling-Smith is exhibiting two
life-size shrouds: one created from dried rose petals and lead
crosses, the other from fragments of prayer books and Bible
references stitched into dyed linen, buried in the ground, and then
Sculptural work by Maxine Bristow, an artist shortlisted for the
Jerwood Prize, features in the library, and also in St Ann's, in a
linked pair of rails in tapestry and powder-coated modern steel.
Their location in the two venues suggests that one might be a
barrier to God and one a communion rail - together an expression of
the complexity of feelings after loss.
And, on a Juliet balcony, in a quiet and breathtakingly
beautiful corner of a library corridor, is the emotional sound-work
by Jane Poulton andLin Holland - based on the disturbed heartbeat
of Poulton's dying mother, who herself suggested it be recorded,
and used, in some creative way, after her death.
Poulton worked with the composer Holland to create a series of
operatic arias based on the rhythm of the heartbeat, and on a
prayer of her mother's. The ten small arias - separated by two
bell-strikes - were played from the balcony of Liverpool Cathedral
each day for a month. Sutton, whose own contribution to the
PassionArts Trail is also in the library, says: "It's a really
The library has the biggest collection of Bibles in the world,
as well as the oldest extant fragment of the New Testament, the
codex Papyrus P52 - a piece of the Easter story in St John's
SUTTON has a tree of wire rising and extending out of an old
family Bible, bought through eBay. It is covered in more than 1000
paper butterflies - symbolising resurrection - all hand-cut, and
made from prayer books. There will be a book of remembrance in this
area, and prayer cards, discreetly placed. "I don't want people to
think we've lifted a whole load of emotions and they have nowhere
to go with it," she says.
Grace and forgiveness, leading to resurrection, are the themes
depicted in the 300-year-old St Ann's, ahaven off the busy shopping
thoroughfare, at the heart of Manchester. It is a building that the
figurative artist, Ghislaine Howard, often visits to sit in quiet
"Almost always there are other people doing the same," she says.
"And I'm struck by the unknowability of their secret histories, and
for what reason they have sought temporary sanctuary here."
A selection of her work here includes three studies directly
relating to her series The Seven Works of Mercy, but she
also wanted to produce a work specifically for the occasion: a
large painting, eight foot by six, for the Lady chapel.
It is The Prodigal Son, at the moment when, in Howard's
own words: "The son sinks to his knees, received by his father with
an unquestioning urgent and receiving embrace," and it was seen for
the first time when the trail opened on Ash Wednesday.
"The idea of painting the Prodigal Son was an enormous challenge
- how to recreate a subject already given such magisterial form by
Rembrandt, and the great Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky,"
"It is a subject that is perhaps at the centre of everything I
do. It goes straight to the heart of what it is to be human - our
weaknesses, and our strengths. It embodies the silence of the
moment of forgiveness, reconciliation, and redemption: in a word,
Also in this in this hushed and hallowed space are sculptures by
James Sutton, Lesley's son, which suggest the Host on the altar in
the Lady chapel, and the life-cycle of a child in the womb. And
there are 3000 origami butterflies, too, soaring to
THERE could not be a bigger contrast between St Ann's and the
great glass edifice that is the National Football Museum. This is a
busy, joyful space. Access is through the turnstiles, and ascending
the stairs has all the same sense of expectation as climbing up to
Michael Browne's The Resurrection of Eric Cantona,
wickedly imitating Piero della Francesca's fresco of the
resurrection of Christ, has a permanent and prominent place here,
on an upper level. Sutton's husband, Roger, a Baptist minister now
working for the Evangelical Alliance's unity project "Gather", was
chaplain to Manchester United when Cantona was there, and has
written the accompanying reflection.
The trail concludes in Manchester Cathedral, neighbour to the
Football Museum and Chetham's School of Music, across some
imaginatively landscaped public space. Here there are 20 enormous
contemporary paintings by a local artist, Rob Floyd, a set of new
Stations of the Cross that had already been commissioned by the
cathedral before Sutton's approach.
The final painting, the crucifixion, is life-size. The Revd Dr
Andrew Shanks, Canon Theologian of Manchester Cathedral, is
delighted to be able to publicise their presence in the cathedral
in this way. "They're large baroque works, in the sense that
baroque means theatrical," he says. "And yet this is ecclesiastical
baroque, largely purged of its standard clichés, or its usual
"It's a Passion play with a strong amateur-dramatics quality.
Rob's a very gifted portrait-painter. He paints his friends in the
sacred roles: his paintings come across, essentially, as
transfigurations of friendship. There's a beautiful
warm-heartedness about them."
Visitors will also be drawn to Mark Cazalet's altarpiece and
window, featuring the Trinity having fish and chips, with bread and
wine, among familiar scenes of Manchester.
Sutton has curated the PassionArts Trail and its associated
events programme on a shoestring: a £5000 budget (much of which has
gone on printing the free catalogue), and a further injection of
money from the couple's own savings.
Creating what she calls an "opportunity for sanctuary in the
midst of the busy-ness of modern life" has been a leap of faith,
and a labour of love.
The Passion Arts Trail runs until 21 April in Manchester