BENEATH the tapestry by Graham Sutherland at Coventry Cathedral sits the Lady chapel, where the base of this magisterial work, Christ in Glory in the Tetramorph, forms the reredos. Early plans for this reredos were that it should focus on the life of the Virgin. After debate over how far the Pietà was a Roman Catholic image, however, Sutherland successfully argued for a Crucifixion instead.
This subject had inspired Sutherland since 1944, when he was asked by the Vicar of St Matthew’s, Northampton, Walter Hussey, at the unveiling of Henry Moore’s sculpture Madonna and Child in that church, for a painting as a complementary commission. Hussey suggested as its subject the Agony in the Garden, but Sutherland replied that his ambition “would be to do a Crucifixion of a significant size”.
That Crucifixion, unveiled in 1946, has been brought to the Lady chapel for this exhibition, with Sutherland’s later Noli Me Tangere, also commissioned by Hussey, for Chichester Cathedral, after he moved there to become Dean; the three cartoons for the tapestry commission; and studies for the tapestry from private collections. This exhibition is small but significant, as it brings together important works by the artist which are unlikely to be seen together again in my lifetime.
Sutherland’s religious works may be few, but they are not only supremely realised conceptions of key moments in salvation history, but icons of the renaissance in the Church’s artistic patronage which, across Europe, also engaged George Bell, Jacques Maritain, Maurice Denis, and the Dominicans Marie-Alain Couturier and Pie Raymond Régamy. In Britain, it led to the conception of the new Coventry Cathedral as a “treasure-box” of significant commissions. But Sutherland’s wider creative imagination was stimulated, too: his Thorn Trees and Thorn Heads, a new strand in his work, derived from his reflections on the crown of thorns. Vibrant Thorn Trees lithographs can be seen in the complementary exhibition of Sutherland prints organised by the Goldmark Gallery in the Chapel of Christ the Servant.
Jonathan evensThe exhibition at Coventry brings together works by Graham Sutherland which are rarely seen together
In 1932, Pablo Picasso had created a series of crucifixion drawings inspired by Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece in Colmar, which are currently being shown in “Picasso 1932: Love, Fame, Tragedy” at Tate Modern in London (until 9 September). They were originally published in the surrealist magazine Minotaure, where Sutherland would have seen them. Sutherland illustrated the surrealist poet David Gascoyne’s collection Poems 1937-1942, which included eight that powerfully recreate the horror of the Passion. Sutherland and Francis Bacon, friends at that time, worked on crucifixion-inspired images that drew on photos of the recently liberated Nazi death camps, and took inspiration from T. S. Eliot, in particular The Waste Land.
These are some of the influences that lie behind Sutherland’s statement that he already had an ambition to do a crucifixion of a significant size, despite not himself having yet used any explicitly religious imagery (other than in a paraphrase of El Greco’s Agony in the Garden). He had become a Roman Catholic in 1929, and Hans Feibusch, in his 1946 book Mural Painting, called for churches to be decorated by artists such as Sutherland and Georges Rouault.
The latter, despite the greatness of his religious vision, was barely used by the RC Church, while Sutherland received only one commission from it, for St Aidan’s, Acton, where his altarpiece draws on the imagery that he developed for Coventry. Hussey made full use of this in persuading his Northampton PCC that Sutherland’s work was right for their church, despite the disturbing depiction of the Crucified.
Feibusch was proved correct in his intuition that Sutherland would be a great religious artist, as this exhibition clearly demonstrates.
“Graham Sutherland: Beneath the Tapestry” is at Coventry Cathedral until 4 August.