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The wounds visible

by
19 February 2016

Nicholas Cranfield sees the Lent exhibition of a priest’s paintings

Theme of the Rood: Unclean Cross, 2015, by Alan Everett

Theme of the Rood: Unclean Cross, 2015, by Alan Everett

THE Revd Dr Alan Everett is a priest in the diocese of London. In the summer of 2015, he took a sabbatical from his Kensington parish and explored painting. The result is an exhibition of 17 paintings on the walls of St Stephen Walbrook, one of the City churches.

His technique is to bring some definition to a range of splashed and thrown paint that explodes into shapes, some more legible than others, making marks that appear both out of focus and out of time and yet never stray far from the first idea.

The works themselves fall into several groups; two of them relate to recent martyrdoms of Christians in El Salvador (1980) and Libya (2015), while two refer back to ancient examples of violence to be found in the plays of Euripides (Alcestis and The Bacchae).

These last two, hung on the north wall, face across the Henry Moore altar to the south and respond to Palimpsest and Retro, paintings identical in dimension (101 x 76cm), which attempt to explore something of the constant flux in which we live out our days. Something of the lively colour and disorderliness of all four brings a sense of relief after the darker studies of the Cross.

Many visitors will feel more at home with those canvases in which the cross takes centre stage. Three, of four studies to judge by the enumeration, are entitled Rood, and consciously recall The Dream of the Rood, the Early English Anglo-Saxon poem that survives in a tenth-century manuscript (The Vercelli Book, folios 104v-106r), and some claim that it may date back earlier, to the eighth century.

In the poem, the Cross (the Rood) reflects on what it means to be the instrument of God’s death, while we dream of the Crucifixion itself. “Formerly I was the most fearful of torments.” Now the tree of shame has become the cross of victory.

There is something Mark Rothko-like in the way that the artist has explored the contrast between the coloured shape of the cross and the stark background of unrelenting darkness.

 

I was reared a cross. I raised up the powerful King,

the Lord of heaven: I did not dare to bend.

They pierced me with dark nails; on me are the wounds visible,

the open wounds of malice; I did not dare to injure any of them.

 

Powerless and yet powerful; I found this most readily expressed in Rood III, in which, against a purple background suggestive of Lent and also of Majesty, there is a turquoise cross tinged with blood red.

The background of Salvage, in which we see a blue cross atomised and being reformed, recalled some of Bill Viola’s underwater videos and the more notorious of photographs of Andres Serrano, his 1987 Piss Christ. Here the droplets and diffusion are being brought back together; just as the tree had to be felled in the forest to form the cross at Calvary, so the shattering of God alone on the cross brings new life.

From the other pictures included I particularly enjoyed Cosmic Cross, in which stars and nebula appear inside the shape of the cross, as if we are glimpsing the night sky through an open window. In the cross we see not just salvation, but the whole purpose of God’s creation, albeit darkly.

St Stephen Walbrook is an interesting venue, but, sadly, the wood panelling, which is stained near black and was carved for Christopher Wren by William Newman and Jonathan Maine, is too dark to show many of these works to any real advantage.

 

“Foundations of the City” is at St Stephen Walbrook, London EC4, until 4 March. Phone 020 7626 9000.

http://ststephenwalbrook.net

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