SIX years ago, in the tiny St Michael’s, Discoed, on the Welsh Borders, an artist, Charles MacCarthy, and the chairman of the Friends of St Michael’s, David Hiam, curated a Lent exhibition for which they invited 14 artists to paint or sculpt one of the Stations of the Cross, which were allocated by drawing lots.
This turned into an annual Lenten spiritual art event. It was not held last year, but has now returned in even greater diversity and size. Forty artists are taking part.
Four artists were allotted to each of ten subjects from the Passion and resurrection narratives, beginning with the Agony in the Garden and ending with the Supper at Emmaus. Quotations from the New Testament and Psalms narrate each image, except the Pietà. An additional aspect of the exercise was that the artists should choose the same title by an Old Master to inspire them.
While Daniel MacCarthy has followed the positioning of the Fra Angelico Agony in the Garden, with the sleeping apostles in the foreground and Christ in the distance, he has set it in a deep blue and crimson woodcut. Jacob Luke Hughes has also followed the Gauguin of the same name, but in Japanese ink stick on paper.
In contrast, Eugene Fisk re-imagines El Greco’s version in oil on board, using comparable transparent greens, blues, and pinks to portray a man with arms outstretched within a circle (reminiscent of Leonardo), with people sleeping outside the circle, and the cock yet to crow. Alex Ramsay’s inspiration is Mantegna’s version, also called The Will of the People, and his collage emphasises both the political and religious aspects.
Giotto’s Betrayal and Arrest has inspired both Susannah Fiennes and Allison Neal. Fiennes’s oil on board focuses on a girl boxing the ear of a boy, who tries to push her away. Neal, in graphite on paper, has a close-up of Judas’s intimate embrace. Guy Lester’s oil on canvas follows Goya’s dark version in subtle dark blues and illuminated central figure. The only abstract is by Carmel Stephens, who, influenced by Duccio’s early-14th-century Maestà altarpiece has produced, in marker and pencil on paper, a jagged purple centre of Christ’s energy opening out into orange, and then yellow and pink, representing the apostles and soldiers.
For The Mocking of Christ Roger, Luxton and Jane Tudge have chosen Fra Angelico for inspiration, but, while Luxton has virtually copied the original in mixed media, Tudge has used her favourite material, beeswax, to create a striking crown of thorns, with what appear to be tears and blood running down.
Christopher Kilmartin, in pencil and watercolour, has brought the Flagellation of Piero della Francesca up to date by cleverly introducing present-day objects into the scene while retaining the dramatic positioning. One of the few sculptures is the bowed patient head of Christ, in soft-pink alabaster, by Tania Mosse. It is based on a magnificent marble frieze in Pava by the Mantegazza brothers.
Another sculpture of a calm and stylised Christ in Portland stone, this time carrying the cross, is by Lottie O’Leary from a 16th-century painting by Lorenzo Lotto. In contrast, Hieronymus Bosch’s figures in his Jesus Carries the Cross are so grotesque that it is to Vivienne Luxton’s credit that she has softened the faces and made them seem real and rather “British”, while retaining the sinister feeling. Ciara Lewis has painstakingly copied Bruegel’s intricate version. Nicholas Bush effectively recreates the Troyes Altarpiece in charcoal, ink, and pigment.
The drama of The Crucifixion has led to a varied choice of Old Masters. Julian Bell reproduces in oil on panel a north Italian wooden crucifix carved c.1200. Inspired by Velázquez’s beautiful painting, Mary Ann Gelly has made a moving ceramic, 16 ft high, of the drooping head and torso, cutting off the arms and legs to show, perhaps, that, disarmed and disabled, the man remains strong and beautiful.
After more recent artists, Lois Hopwood has produced a beautifully choreographed Crucifixion scene from Jesus Christ Superstar in graphite on Gesso panel. From Eric Gill’s several studies of the Crucifixion, Ruth Cameron-Swan has chosen the one of Christ on the cross; but the flesh is removed and the jangling bones now resemble a writhing marionette.
If one did not know Raphael’s Descent from the Cross, Susie Cawley has produced a superb copy in oil on canvas, showing the disciples lifting the white limp body. Kate Milsom has taken an Italian 15th-century painting as inspiration to use mixed media to create a simple cross and ladders and white figure in winding cloth. Rembrandt’s version is dark and busy, and Carolyn Blake has taken more inspiration from Sir Anthony Caro’s metal installation version of Rembrandt; but her pastel on paper is softer.
Susannah Royle’s scene follows on from Maurice Denis’s Descent, with a mid-distant view of two women carrying the figure in a winding sheet, while the rays of the setting sun merge into the night sky: a sad and beautiful piece in oil on board.
Sophie MacCarthy uses quotations from The Cloud of Unknowing, Julian of Norwich, and Cardinal Basil Hume to accompany her Pietà. Nothing could make artists aware of their own shortcomings than Michelangelo’s famous marble rendering of the subject. But, in acrylic and collage on canvas, Bronte Woodruff produces her own colourful version, while Richard Bavin, in charcoal and crayon, sets the scene in modern times. Roger Percival uses the Van Gogh Pietà based on the Delacroix painting as his inspiration, while MacCarthy has translated El Greco’s oil painting into a fine terracotta sculpture, in which the grieving Virgin stands behind the two apostles holding the limp body.
The Entombment is a quiet subject. Though Titian’s version is full of colour, Nicky Hopwood uses clear glass, etched with black background, very effectively to suggest moonlight falling on the group as they carefully lay the precious figure in the tomb. It is a great learning and humbling process to try to copy a master’s piece. Although Gustav Klimt painted his entombment in the early 20th century, it has the appearance of being painted hundreds of years before, and Yvonne Crossley has copied this perfectly.
It is very moving that Charles MacCarthy has taken a faded 15th-century altar painting in glue-tempera on linen, by Dirk Bouts, and in his own oil painting has restored life and colour, focusing on the pale Christ figure and the Virgin and apostles in shadow, with the sun behind them.
Hope begins to emerge again in Noli me Tangere with inspiration from 20th-century America. Sandra Elliott has translated a naturalistic sculpture by Bruce Wolfe of Christ in a loose robe and Mary Magdalene on her knees into a two-dimensional acrylic on canvas. The stylised stained-glass window of the Philadelphia Quaker Glass Company in St Matthew’s Lutheran Church has inspired Megan Ellis’s gentle pencilled replica.
Pete Mackenzie has focused on a close-up of Caravaggio’s 1606 Supper at Emmaus, with Christ blessing the bread, while Julienne Braham has reproduced the earlier 1601 version with more movement, the apostles recognising Christ.
The moment when Christ disappears is dramatically reproduced in welded steel by Sara Bamford, with the empty chair and the two apostles reaching out to him. Ken Eastman has preferred to use Velázquez’s Emmaus supper as his inspiration — for a medium-size ceramic of adjoining shapes that appear to have no heads, perhaps to show how even those who think that they know him do not recognise him.
The exhibition catalogue, introduced by Sheona Beaumont, is excellent. A percentage of sales goes to Mid Powys Mind.
“40 Days, 40 Artists: Reclaiming and Re-visioning the Passion” runs at St Michael’s, Discoed, near Presteigne, Powys LD8 2NW, until 18 April. Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Phone 01547 560246.