“REVELATION contains some of the most visionary writing, some of the scariest, and some of the most confusing in the Bible,” Jacqui Parkinson says. In her touring exhibition, she follows the Christian tradition of artists in the Middle Ages and Renaissance who illustrated, colourfully and clearly, events from the Bible and Lives of saints, so that adults and children (then often illiterate) could relate to the message.
Many Old Masters brought their profound visualisation and skills in interpreting parts of Revelation, including Master Bertram in his 14th-century altarpiece, Michelangelo, and Rembrandt; but Parkinson was particularly inspired to embark on her own journey after seeing Marc Chagall’s huge paintings from the Bible in St Paul de Vence, France. She was also influenced by the medieval stained-glass windows that narrate a story. After their example, she uses strong bright colours with yellow gold, deep blue, and pure white and red predominating.
The first large panel to be seen on entering through the west door of Salisbury Cathedral illustrates Revelation 1-3. A beautiful figure in a bright-white gown has the double-edged sword coming out of his mouth, the seven stars and seven candlesticks round him, and the keys in his hand. St John the Divine has already explained that the seven candlesticks are the seven Churches that John is addressing, and the seven stars their angels, and the only person who can unlock the key to heaven is the Son of Man.
Artistic licence is not on Parkinson’s agenda, and she faithfully depicts to the last detail what is written. The exhibition progresses along the north nave aisle into the north transept, then across to the south transept, and then along the south nave aisle, reaching the great west door for the 14th and last triumphant New Creation (Revelation 22). Each panel has a short printed introduction. Parkinson wants her materials to reflect real life and its experiences, good and bad, and uses second-hand double cotton or linen sheets from charity shops to form her backcloth, which she then pads and paints.
The next stage is sewing on several layers of fine silk, some with different-coloured or translucent wefts to the warp, which she then selectively slashes to reveal the under-layers and painted base leaving the edges “naturally frayed — like life”, she says. She then uses appliqué of metallic leather or gold leaf to achieve a shining richness, as with the fruit on the tree of life in New Creation.
Photo ash millsA panel including the four horsemen of the ApocalypseIt took three years and three months and 12 million stitches to complete, and, in a reflection of the iconographic tradition, she prayed, meditated, or listened to soothing music or Radio 4 to help her through this monumental work. Throughout, she has been supported by more than 192 individuals and small trusts with prayers, funding, and faith.
She admits that her “Great Whore” or “Babylon” (panel 11, Revelation 17-18) caused a few smiles: a voluptuous lady, complete with fishnet tights, boots, and red-painted fingernails, rides the Beast, and holds a goblet of blood, before being reduced to bones; but this is beautifully balanced with “The Great Romance” (panel 13, Revelation 21) as the beautiful Bride of Christ descends, head first, swathed in white-silk gauze.
Parkinson shows artistic impartiality towards creatures usually represented as objects of loathing. The small piece in panel 4 (Revelation 8-9) represents the locusts with scorpion tails in a variety of greens with a touch of red, and stands on its own as a beautiful decorative design.
photo ash millsThe whore of Babylon (Revelation 17-18)God is always represented as a golden circle radiating a rainbow; Jesus is shown as the lamb; and the angels are either in a Greek-style shift or stars. The dragon and beasts are red or black, and, although the “multitudes” are silhouetted gingerbread men, each one is moving in an individual way.
It is a joyous celebration, absolutely right for the cathedral. Jacquiline Cresswell, the curator, is to be congratulated for selecting the exhibition and her sensitive positioning. Perhaps the greatest tribute is from a visitor to the exhibition who wrote: “The workmanship was extraordinary and I have begun to understand Revelation for the first time. I have always avoided it if I can, as I really don’t understand it, but now it has been brought to life and I may even go and read it!”
“Threads Through Revelation” is at Salisbury Cathedral until 5 November. In 2018, it will tour to Ripon Cathedral, 26 February to 13 April; Southwell Cathedral, 16 April to 16 June; and St Edmundsbury Cathedral, 19 June to 17 August.