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At the last great Supper

27 February 2015

Katy Hounsell-Robert comes face to face with the Apostles, as interpreted by a group of artists for a rural church this Lent

Listed among the Apostles: Thaddeus by Simon Dorrell

Listed among the Apostles: Thaddeus by Simon Dorrell

THE Apostles are the most famous band of men in history, and yet very little is known about their particular characters or how they looked, except that most of them were fishermen and so would have been muscular, suntanned, and possibly quite patient.

At this year's Lenten art exhibition at the little medieval shepherd's church St Michael's, in Presteigne, on the Welsh Border, Charles MacCarthy, artist and curator, is making sure that each apostle is portrayed as a unique individual.

He and his fellow organiser David Hiam put the names of the 12 apostles in a hat, and then picked one out for each of the chosen 12 artists to draw or paint.

The altar has been temporarily moved aside to allow MacCarthy's 12-foot-long white plasterboard table to take its place, with plaster models of plates, cups, bread, and chalice illuminated by a spotlight. A black backdrop represents sky and space. On the table stands a globe, and MacCarthy has engraved on the table "That they may be one". Around the walls hang the contrasting 12 portraits, and MacCarthy sees this as reaffirming Jesus's prayer for unity, and as representing the peoples of the world united in Christ.

Bronte Woodruff has taken a traditional approach to Andrew, the brother of Peter. Using Van Dyck crystals as muted stain for his face and beard, and delicate aquatint blue for his headdress, she presents a gentle young middle-aged man, a quieter version of his elder brother, yet strong and determined.

Tony Hall has also taken a conventional view of Judas Iscariot rather than struggle with a personal interpretation. The apostle is instantly recognisable with his head covered in a prayer shawl, as he places the kiss of betrayal on Jesus's cheek. This is in pencil and white chalk on grey board.

Since almost nothing is known about Thaddeus, known also as Jude, Simon Dorrell has portrayed him in light-toned gouache and ink, in a confrontational but quizzical attitude. "I know who I am," he seems to say. "Who do you think I am?" Dorrell has used a special locally produced handmade hypericum paper, which is fragile and absorbent. The result is full of holes and tears, suggesting decay, and perhaps that the past can never truly be fully known.

We do know that James the elder (son of Zebedee) had a fiery temper and was one of the closer apostles to Jesus, and also one of the first to be martyred. Susie Cawley's portrait in bright watercolour and ink shows a man, dark hair and beard closely cropped, and looking as if he knows exactly where he is going. The background of sea and foreign lands suggests the journey that he is to make, and he wears the scallop shell on his cloak, the symbol of the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage.

Luckily, Sara Bamford was able to use the many biblical references to create her Thomas. He is young and beardless with wiry black hair, and is frowning suspiciously. To get this effect, she has used wire and solder on paper-covered board. She feels that he was passionate and impetuous, but once he had proved to himself that Jesus was alive, his faith became great, intense, and convincing.

Although there is no specific description of Philip, he seems to have been a quiet, patient, and organised man, who attended to the teachings of John the Baptist, followed Jesus loyally from the beginning, and brought his friend Bartholomew (also Nathanael) to meet Jesus. Silvia Pastore has made Philip a friendly, fresh-complexioned young man with loose grey hair and short beard, who could fit in anywhere in any age.

Jesus said about Bartholomew "Behold an Israelite indeed in whom there is no guile." It is also recorded that he was martyred by being flayed until all the skin was torn off his body. Dan MacCarthy has made a wood engraving of his father peeling all the skin off an apple, which, he says, is "bringing religious imagery into the domain of my own experience and that of the present day". It will be difficult to peel an apple again without remembering St Bartholomew.

Lois Hopwood sees James the Less as a young, beardless man engrossed in thought; but, as a mature man, he was highly thought of in the Jerusalem church. Like James, his brother John was known to be fiery, but very loving, and the only apostle known to have waited with Mary at the foot of the cross and to whom Jesus entrusted her care. Alex Ramsay has avoided a young version, and in a photo of a pigment print has framed John in profile as an older man setting off on his mission with short greying hair, a red cloak representing his hot temper, and a net slung over his shoulder.

Matthew (known also as Levi) was not a fisherman, but an unpopular tax collector working for the Romans, before he followed Jesus. Julienne Braham shows him with balding head half held in his hands at the point of realisation of the shame of his sin and the awakening of his true self, while cleansing light pours down on him. She has used mixed media with acrylic paint for the sun's rays, and at the bottom of her moving portrait she has written: "I came not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance" (Mark 2.17).

In opposition to the Romans and working for national independence were the Zealots, and it is thought that Jesus accepted not only Matthew, but Simon the Zealot, with their opposing political views, to show his love for all, whatever they stood for. Nick Bush decided to make Simon the Zealot a jovial sort of mature man with a short haircut, but, although the eyes are friendly, there is also a rather determined and ruthless look in them.

Peter has the best-known character, but Tania Mosse has overlaid a fine cloth imprinted with a bearded face over Japanese paper printed with a fishing net to suggest the mists of time and how things are preserved, changed, forgotten, and lost over the years.

Even if we know that the apostles' real characters are lost "in the mists of time", it is good to see them revisualised and remember how amazing they were.


"The Twelve: A Further Reflection on the Last Supper" is at St Michael's, Presteigne, Powys LD8 2NW, until 6 April. Open daily 10 a.m. to 5.30 p.m. Phone 01547 560 246.


All profits from the sale of the artworks go to St Michael's Hospice, Hereford.

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