WHILE the sculptor Ana Maria Pacheco has been in the travail of bringing forth a new work, her admirers have been wondering whether it will be as creative, meticulously crafted, earthy, and, above all, deeply spiritual as her earlier sculptures.
They will not be disappointed. The new piece is a polychrome wooden relief in seven parts, and of varying depths, inspired by the Seven Deadly Sins, under the more accessible title Be Aware. It is part of her new exhibition at Salisbury Cathedral.
This includes a rich display of many of her previous works, “installed with great sensitivity and a sense of quiet drama by the curator Jacquiline Creswell, and leads us through the building in a series of stations, as on a pilgrimage”, as Marina Warner said in her speech at the opening.
The reliefs are of a modest size, 45 x 35cm and placed in the intimate Morning Chapel. They empathise with humanity’s weaknesses and at the same time communicate a critical awareness of their outcome in excess. One, Sloth, shows a rather beautiful young man with a bare torso bearing an incredible resemblance to Hyacinth Bucket’s brother-in-law Onslow in TV’s Keeping up Appearances. Lost in his fantasy dreams, he is being carried on vulture’s wings, while one pretty female vulture hovers and claws at his genitals.
Another, Pride, shows an attractive young lady gazing adoringly at herself in her mirror, while fire burns around and the ground is littered with skulls and bones.
Wrath predictably portrays cavemen-like figures shouting and threatening one another with heavy sticks, trampling on an innocent child, while Gluttony shows several overweight men with flesh bulging out of their underpants, sitting happily in a basket and crushing people under them. They are attended by a man in a red cap and long black gown.
Lust suggests a high-class Paris brothel: voluptuous women in long white evening gowns laze on cushions, exchanging lustful looks with distinctly unpleasant men,
who leer at them through narrow grilles.
Avarice reminds one a little of the fool in the Tarot cards. He moves forward, weighed down with a bag containing all kinds of people packed together. He could also be the Pied Piper of Hamelin, who punished the avaricious Mayor for refusing to pay his fee for dispersing the rats by playing his pipe and leading all the children away.
Envy is the sin that Pacheco considers to be the most destructive, along with Pride, and portrays a woman in evening dress and long gloves apparently happily performing, unaware that she is sitting on a fire of silver birch and watched by several envious hags in black shifts holding bows of silver birch and besoms.
To balance all this, a beautiful rondo of the lamb set in gold and representing purity and innocence is placed protectively in a niche in the chapel.
Pacheco was already a very successful artist with prints and etchings and teaching high-level art in her native Brazil when she came over in 1973 on a British Council scholarship to study at the Slade. She was still searching for her own artistic way of reflecting the human condition, besides finding a more appreciative audience. She had put her Roman Catholic childhood behind her, but suddenly realised how much influence the painted figures and tableaux of Bible scenes in churches and carried in Holy Week in ceremony round the crowded streets had on her.
From then on, her favoured method of sculpture became carving in lime wood, making her figures slightly larger than life, painted and realistic, with eyes of onyx and real dentures; and her purpose has been to mirror profound truths about humanity.
The dramatic tableau Shadows of the Wanderer is installed in the south transept, the absolutely right position for it, giving lofty architectural enhancement and space without dwarfing it. First shown at the Aldeburgh Festival in 2008, it has been displayed regularly as an artwork representing the refugee crisis. It portrays Aeneas carrying his father Anchises away from burning Troy to find refuge elsewhere, and ultimately found Rome (Arts, 7 October 2016).
When lecturing in art at the Norwich School of Art in the 1980s, Pacheco met, and admired, Francis Cheetham, Head of Norwich Museums and an expert on medieval alabaster. In medieval times, it was a very popular medium for depicting biblical characters and saints in churches, and was always polished, brightly painted, and gilded.
Painting and sculpting lurid scenes with horrific beasts was also very popular, incurring the disapproval of St Bernard of Clairvaux in the 12th century; he wrote: “To what purpose are here placed these creatures, half beast, half man?”
Cheetham’s enthusiasm for alabaster inspired Pacheco to try her hand at working a new material, and she carved eight small reliefs, 30 x 25cm, in white Spanish alabaster, The Enchanted Garden. She raided the medieval bestiaries for symbolic creatures, researched Christian symbols, mythology, and folk lore around the world, finding in some cases that one image often could have several religious sources.
So the siren mermaid who lures sailors with her song can also be the symbol of the human-spiritual nature of Christ. The gentle hind with golden horns and a deep wound in her side represents sacrifice; and the dragon eating his tail represents rebirth and continuity of life.
Unlike Heironymus’s Garden of Earthly Delights, Pacheco is determined to make these inhabitants of her garden happy; and so the guardians of hell, who always appear black and horrific to sinners and white to those who have atoned, have animal heads, were the object of Pacheco pity for being always portrayed as evil, and so she gave each one an individually designed white evening gown and beautiful little hands.
As well as several more studies for later work, there are three studies of John the Baptist not to be missed. Sculpted in the 1990s, one is a large polychromed wooden carving of a wild-eyed John, to be found in the cloister.
Another (not unlike the Titian painting) is of his freshly severed head with dark hair and beard, half-closed eyes and sagging mouth, lying horizontally on a platter. Another is of Portland stone, weighing 125kg, of a fine face like a death mask, with a band of silver leaf over his crown. It has been heaved up with considerable difficulty into the triforium above the Prisoners of Conscience window, reminding us of John’s fight to speak out for the truth.
“Dispersing the Night”, an exhibition of sculptures by Ana Maria Pacheco, is at Salisbury Cathedral until 23 July.