THE sudden burst of art in churches and cathedrals announces
that Lent is here with a clarion call almost as deafening (and as
shattering) in some cases as the Word going out at Jordan River. No
doubt, the call is in part from a newfound interest in the
interchange between spirituality and art.
But, as so often, sacred spaces are that and often no more; they
are built as auditoria in which to hear the Word and as theatres in
which to perform the liturgy. Turning them into art galleries is
more complex than simply putting a few works of art on display;
many listed buildings defeat the best intentions of curators.
That said, Ben Moore, who has again curated a Lenten show in St
Marylebone Parish Church, London, for Art Below, succeeds more or
less. Using the same distinctive logo as last year (Arts, 28 March 2014), he
has brought together some 20 works; but he is not offering to be a
Both the scale of some of the pieces and their subject defy
their being used more formally as Stations of the Cross. The apse
above the high altar is dominated by a clever piece by Paul Benney,
artist in residence at Somerset House: Speaking in Tongues
(News, 16 May 2014) plays with the idea of Pentecost, and depicts
contemporary friends who are artists and musicians as the Apostles.
Tongues of flame lick above them. At a distance, the surface looks
almost photographic, but it proves to be oil and pigmented resin on
Regardless of whether the work really fits the brief of the
exhibition I was unsure whether some of my unease was in seeing
recognisable faces in a "religious scene". That tension is nothing
new, of course, and is here brought to a head in For Pete's
Sake by Nick Reynolds and Tristan Schoonraad, which is
suspended from the ceiling.
It turns out to be a life-size depiction of the pop star Pete
Doherty posing as the Crucified Christ. The cast of the singer from
the Libertines was made in 2008 when Doherty's drug-fuelled
frenzies were the talk of the press. Doherty and Reynolds are old
friends, and the work marked the end of a period of successful
rehab for the singer.
The work prompted even a columnist in The Guardian to
ask whether this meant that the Church of England sanctioned
blasphemy. The Daily Mail's headline was predictable
The brouhaha over this is much like that Winston Churchill's
granddaughter Edwina Sandys provoked by displaying her naked female
figure on a cross (Christa, 1975) in the Episcopalian
cathedral in Manhattan in 1984. No doubt it will guarantee that the
work sells for the asking price of £33,000 for the Missing Tom
Fund, which Ben Moore has established in part to highlight the loss
of those who go missing, like his own brother in 2003.
But is it any good as art?
To my mind, neither Reynolds nor Sandys is the match of the
largest work in the show, Comrade of the Sky. This
measures ten feet by 12, and is a charcoal-drawn copy of one of
Michelangelo's drawings of the crucifixion by the British sculptor
Wolfe von Lenkiewicz (b.1966), over which is drawn an intricate
weave pattern of waves, like a vast duvet cover. It is hung high
above the south gallery and all but inaccessible; viewed from the
ground, it is a rich reminder of his hybrid work.
I had taken the artist Adam Boulter to the private view in
Marylebone. He is currently port chaplain in Jordan at Aqaba, and
tells me that the city's name means the steep ascent to the
wilderness. He was staying with me in London for the opening of a
show of his own work the night before at St Margaret's,
His seven recent works show scenes set in the biblical
wilderness, accompanied by sonnets written for them by Malcolm
Guite. They run from Abraham and Sarah at Mamre (Genesis 18)
through Jacob wrestling with the angel (Genesis 32) to the flight
into Egypt and the temptations in the wilderness. The series, if
such, ends with the leading of a blinded Saul towards Damascus, and
Abba Moses the Black, the Abbot of Petra (330-405), and a
contemporary refugee tent of the UNHCR.
In each painting it is the deserted wilderness that Boulter has
captured so deeply. The wrinkled light of distant rocks becomes the
Christ stands with us and withstands,
where we are,
His high commission, as a refugee;
To pitch his tent in our humanity.
"Stations of the Cross" is at St Marylebone Parish Church,
Marylebone Road, London NW1, until 17 March. Phone 020 7935 7315
Adam Boulter's exhibition "In the Wilderness: Preparing for
Public Service" is at St Margaret's, Westminster (next to the
Abbey), SW1, until 2 April. Phone 020 7654 4840 (Vestry