Responses to the sacred season

by
06 March 2015

Nicholas Cranfield visits two London churches with Lenten contemporary-art displays

Charcoal Christ: Comrade of the Sky, 2010, by Wolfe von Lenkiewicz

Charcoal Christ: Comrade of the Sky, 2010, by Wolfe von Lenkiewicz

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 conventional stationmaster.

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 wood.

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 enough.

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, Westminster.

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 place where

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 (church number).
www.artbelow.org.uk 
www.stmarylebone.org

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 number).
www.westminster-abbey.org 

Church Times Bookshop

Save money on books reviewed or featured in the Church Times. To get your reader discount:

> Click on the “Church Times Bookshop” link at the end of the review.

> Call 0845 017 6965 (Mon-Fri, 9.30am-5pm).

The reader discount is valid for two months after the review publication date. E&OE

100 Best Christian Books

How many have you read?

Visit the 100 Best Christian Books website to see which books made our list, read the judges' notes and add your own comments.

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read five articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)