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Arts celebrate Magna Carta

12 June 2015

Katy Hounsell-Robert finds cathedrals with copies doing their bit


Walk-through: Squidsoup's light installation in Salisbury Cathedral

Walk-through: Squidsoup's light installation in Salisbury Cathedral

IN THE centre of the ornate Chapter House of Salisbury Cathedral is a very small tent, and inside, on a table behind glass, is an 800-year-old one-page document written in tiny black Latin words in tight lines on parchment. It is Magna Carta. Insignificant as it may look, no medieval document has been so iconic and inspiring in supporting human rights.

When it was first written, it was an attempt, overseen by the Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton, on behalf of the Church, to make a legal peaceful agreement between King John and the English barons who had rebelled against his over-taxing and tyranny.

The King first offered it to God and sought the protection of the Pope, and the Archbishop wisely made the first clause to state: "The English Church shall be free and shall have its rights undiminished and its liberties unimpaired."

Although revised many times over the years, it could be said to be the old dried shell from which has grown a fair legal system sanctioned by the Church and acceptable to most people in most countries. It has influenced the wording of many constitutional statements, including the American Bill of Rights.

Over this weekend of 13 and 14 June and on Monday 15th, the anniversary of the actual sealing of Magna Carta, many churches and Christian centres are celebrating with bells ringing full peals, specially written music, including settings of Veni, Sancte Spiritus, believed to have been written by Archbishop Stephen Langton, A Letter of Rights, using quotations from Magna Carta written by the Revd Alice Goodman, with music by Tarik O'Regan (only tomorrow evening in Salisbury Cathedral), dedicated evensongs, pageants, exhibitions, plays, lectures, and discussion.

At the institutions that hold the four surviving original charters - Salisbury Cathedral, the British Library, and Lincoln Cathedral - there are more elaborate displays, which have been in preparation sometimes for more than a year, and will be on show over the summer months.

Salisbury has a very special interest in Magna Carta; for Archbishop Stephen Langton's right-hand man Elias de Dereham placed the parchment before the King to make his seal and then organised copies to be circulated throughout the kingdom. He brought the finest copy to Sarum and then later to the new Salisbury Cathedral, whose building he oversaw. It is the best-preserved of the four surviving copies, as it was written on fine well-scraped vellum in "book hand" ink from oak galls, used for books and manuscripts, instead of "chancery hand" ink, used for letters and documents.

At Salisbury, there are several moving and beautiful art displays reflecting the principles of Magna Carta, where people have worked together to create mutual understanding and artistic harmony. Jacqueline Cresswell, the cathedral's visual-arts adviser, and cathedral volunteers have been running regular workshops with groups of men serving long sentences at Erlestoke Prison to express in art how they saw justice and Magna Carta. The men were each given a sketchbook initially to write or draw their feelings. Then, inspired by the medieval tiles in the cathedral, they were helped to each make a terracotta tile using black or white slip to decorate and develop their ideas.

One man's tile represents King John sealing the charter with a dove of peace overhead; another, hands together in prayer; another, a chain; and another, Latin words from Magna Carta. They were glazed and fired in the prison kiln and then set into two frames shaped like Gothic church windows, grouted in the medieval way. They now hang in the south cloister until September, with a glass showcase laying out the sketchbooks.

Another innovative way of using clauses from Magna Carta is Squidsoup's use of modern digital installations in Power of Words in the Morning Chapel, where animated texts and quotations from Magna Carta are projected on to the wall and change as people react to them and give their comments. It is paired with another moving light installation in the north cloister, through which people walk and by doing so alter the light pattern.

The artist David Podger has also been working with a cross-section of ages from primary school to senior citizens on a community project to produce ten banners shaped like medieval standards and reflecting the clauses of Magna Carta. They are worked in mixed media - paint, collage, gold leaf, and embroidery - and illustrated with images of freedoms people enjoy brought about by Magna Carta. Each pair is dominated by a colour relating to Christian values, and they hang in the cathedral until September.

Alongside its exhibition "Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy" (which runs until 1 September), the British Library has chosen a more modern socio-political rendering by commissioning an embroidery of the Wikipedia Magna Carta page as it appeared on the charter's 799th birthday on 15 June 2014. The artist Cornelia Parker made a digital copy, and printed it on to 13 metres of half panama cotton, and invited 200 people closely involved with justice and human rights, including 40 prison inmates, to choose words or images from the printout and embroider them, using DMC Perlé cotton, on to the cloth. "I wanted to create a portrait of our age," Parker said. "Like a Wikipedia article, this embroidery is multi-authored and full of many different voices."

The more demanding images were embroidered by professionals, mostly from the Embroiderers' Guild, dedicating many hours to this detailed work: Anthea Godfrey took 450 hours to embroider the image of Pope Innocent lll. Wikipedia Magna Carta is on show in the entrance hall until Friday 24 July, and may later go on tour.

Lincoln Cathedral holds the fourth Magna Carta, which was brought back by Hugh of Wells, Bishop of Lincoln, who had also been a royal supporter, and it has celebrated with the opening of a new Magna Carta Centre in the Castle grounds and by holding an up-market dinner in the cathedral nave, reflecting, perhaps, the fact that Magna Carta was concerned with barons' rights rather than ordinary people's, including serfs.

Hereford Cathedral feels that it is also a "Magna Carta hotspot", as it holds the slightly later original Magna Carta of 1217 sealed by Henry III, and is holding an exhibition and activities throughout the summer, such as writing one's own Magna Carta clause, or (for children) putting on 13th-century clothes. Chris White, a well-known Hereford artist, has made Flags of Freedom, calligraphic banners inspired by some of the important clauses in Magna Carta which have had a lasting impact on our society and law. He used a traditional quill pen and inks to replicate the experience of a medieval scribe. They hang in the cathedral until December.

Some one-off activities are in later summer, including "Magna Cantata" from 7 to 10 July in Salisbury Cathedral: 800 primary- and secondary-school children from Wiltshire and Dorset taking part in a musical celebration of Magna Carta, freedom, and justice. It is directed by Ben Ochipiti.





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