THERE is a humility and understatement about the way, for its exhibition “The Art of Mary”, Southwell Minister has displayed these contemporary works, something that seems entirely appropriate. They are scattered unobtrusively throughout the cathedral space, simply inviting pause and reflection as part of a journey through the building. Perhaps that in itself is a facet of Mary.
The Minster is the Cathedral and Parish Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the exhibition is devised and curated by the Revd Matthew Askey, a painter and art educator, who believes Mary to be “one of the most significant but neglected figures in our shared cultural story”. There are few idealised images here, and not a lot of beauty in the conventional sense, though Lee Harvey’s beautifully gilded Icon of the Virgin Orans, painted in the Christian Orthodox tradition, is the most familiar in form, together with Hanna-Leena Ward’s Theotokos Icon, a study in scarlet.
Nicholas Mynheer paints 11 Scenes from the Life of Mary, from Annunciation to Dormition. In oil on handmade paper, they glow in the Marian colours of blue, peacock, and jade, used to particularly powerful effect in The Flight to Egypt. The figures are stern and primitive, looking as though carved from wood: the Passion is searing, as in Mary and the Mother of Judas Embrace, where we cannot see the faces at all, simply the women’s bodies entwined in suffering. In The Deposition, Mary staggers backwards, almost falling off balance with the weight of her Son’s body.
Iain McKillop has two of the strongest and most accessible works in the exhibition: Pietà and The Holy Family. In the former, a wrinkled and white-haired Mary cradles her Son by the hip and the hair. His body is strong and streaked and muscular, the broken legs unnaturally angled. She is looking upwards from the rocky ground on which the two are lying, a circle with the semblance of a round earth seen from above.
The Holy Family is delightful: a contented Joseph lolls comfortably as he whittles wood for carved animals with which his infant son is surrounded. Mary is plump and peasant and idle, propped up at her husband’s feet and fingering the animals for the baby.
In Susie Hamilton’s and the angel departed from her, the abstract figure of Mary sits alone, slightly hunched, hands clasped, feet planted squarely on the ground, deep in thought. There are dark elements in the background, but the bright orange and yellow of her robe and the brilliance of what looks almost like sand suggests that she has been suffused with light.
In contrast, Gill Sakakini’s Mary in Reflechie is an athletic, muscular girl, knees bent, arms outstretched, almost flying in abandon as she hears the news. Eclat then shows her naked, clasping her knees and deep-thinking as the portent of it all strikes home.
In Robert Wagner’s Stabat Mater, in ink, Mary is doubled up in distress at the sight of the soldier offering vinegar, almost as if about to vomit. Powerful, too, is his oil on canvas, Writing in the Dust: the men taken in hypocrisy, which does not depict Mary at all, but the beaten and bowed woman taken in adultery. A line of men is poised to throw more stones; other men are violently remonstrating with Jesus and a TV camera is recording the incident as he scrawls on the harsh and rocky ground.
From the private collection of Jane and Rowan Williams comes Celia Paul’s Etchings of Our Mother. The head is upright, the face somehow timeless and universal, marked with experience; the slightly hunched figure displays dignity and acceptance as well as vulnerability.
In the three thoughtful and moving portraits, Study for Mum’s Eyes, Elsie Howitt has painted her own mother’s face with photographic accuracy and in increasing close-up. She writes of the work: “Naïvely, I didn’t anticipate how deeply personal and moving it would be to paint Mum in a way that required me to study her in such detail. . . Each stroke of my brush is tender, reflecting the love I feel.”
Karen Thompson is inspired by the art of the Renaissance painters and Old Masters to produce a series of five photographs of mother and child and family. They are elusive, fleeting, shadowy, some figures more present than others, some bonds clearly stronger. Mothers clasping their babies to their bodies are a recurring theme: solitary and beautiful in Hester Finch’s Mother and Child; cheerful, tender and precious in Matthew Askey’s triptych, Mother and Child 1-111.
On the abstract side, there is shining radiance in the tessellated blue triangles and intense white light of Mark Cazalet’s Epiphany Star; the whirlwind of birth and creation that is Sophie Hacker’s First Communion of the Virgin; and awe and mystery in Rebecca Hind’s More Spacious than the Heavens. Jean Lamb’s womb-like wooden sculptures Our Lady of Mercy and Our Lady of Sorrows invite caress.
Surprisingly moving, too, in their dignity are the simple origami sculptures of the Art of Mary schools project, which is running alongside the exhibition.
“The Art of Mary: 22 Artists Consider Mary” is at Southwell Minster until 5 February. www.southwellminster.org