Chancellor permits Romsey Abbey to buy diptych of its patron saint St Ethelflaeda

26 January 2018

CHRIS GOLLON/FACEBOOK

DESPITE objections from the congregation, the Chancellor of Winchester diocese decided to grant a faculty for a diptych depicting a legend from the life of St Ethelflaeda to be purchased and displayed in Romsey Abbey, a Grade I listed church.

Romsey Abbey was originally built as a convent. It was founded in 907 by a son of Alfred the Great, and refounded in about 960 under the rule of St Benedict. In about the year 1000 the abbess was one Ethelflaeda, who is now (together with the Virgin Mary) a patron saint of the abbey.

The diptych comprises two rectangular panels of canvas stretched over wooden frames, and depicts a legend from the life of St Ethelflaeda: the lights had gone out, but light miraculously emanated from the saint’s hands so that the nuns could continue to read scripture. The left panel shows the saint, the right panel a candle. Each panel occupies a blind arch on the wall in the south aisle of the abbey.

The artist, Christopher Gollon, created the diptych specifically for the abbey in connection with a travelling exhibition, “Incarnation, Mary, and Women in the Bible”, held in October 2016. Paintings comprising that exhibition had hung in various different churches, and, for each venue, the artist created a bespoke addition.

The concept for the diptych was decided on by the artist after a visit to the abbey before the exhibition. The size, colours, and composition of the painting were said to be specifically suited to the position that they occupied in the abbey.

After the exhibition, the painting was offered for sale to the abbey at £6000, which was said to be a discounted price. The artist allowed the abbey to retain the painting temporarily, pending a decision on its purchase. In February 2017, the PCC, by a majority of 15 to two, decided to apply for a faculty, and, if that was granted, to purchase the painting. The DAC recommended grant of the faculty, and public notice of the application for a faculty was posted in August 2017.

In response to the public notice, several objections were received from the congregation. There had been no previous consultation with the congregation or the fabric committee. There were 15 written objections before the Consistory Court, but none of the objectors became a party opponent.

The objections included statements that the painting lacked artistic merit, that it was “ugly”, “dark and disturbing”, “grotesque”, raised “nothing but horror”, the saint was “sinister and anatomically impossible”, and that the candlestick looked “like a giraffe neck”.

The objectors also said that the painting detracted from the abbey’s architecture — in particular, the Norman arches, which were “beautiful in their simplicity”; that the money for the purchase of the painting could be better spent; and that there had been insufficient consideration of, or consultation with, the congregation.

The Church Buildings Council (CBC), although recommending the grant of the faculty, said that “the process that led to the proposal was unusual and not one that the Council condones.” The Chancellor, the Worshipful Matthew Cain Ormondroyd, said that he tended to agree with the CBC, and that much of the objection “could have been avoided, or at least softened, had there been an earlier and more thoroughgoing engagement of the congregation”.

The Chancellor decided that the painting did not harm the simplicity of the blind arches; that the size of the panel fitted appropriately within the dimensions of the arch; and that the colouration of the painting matched and blended with the wall behind.

The petitioners, who included the former Vicar of Romsey Abbey, Canon Tim Sledge, said that the painting provided an addition to the liturgical life of the abbey, and was helpful as an aid to prayer and devotion. It offered, the petitioners said, a link to the Benedictine history of the abbey, and, specifically, to the person of St Ethelflaeda, of whom there was currently no depiction in the abbey. Therefore, the petitioners said, the painting was useful in explaining the story to visitors: it was a “significant piece of artwork” by a distinguished artist, and it would encourage people to visit the abbey.

The Chancellor said that “all other things being equal, [those] claimed benefits would be enough to justify the grant of a faculty,” but “all other things are not equal.” There existed, in the objectors, a significant minority of the congregation who found the painting not just ugly, but also, partly as a consequence, a distraction from worship.

The petitioners’ broad response to that was to characterise those objections as a matter of “personal preference”. The Chancellor agreed, but said that that was no answer, since worship was a deeply personal matter. A church was “not an art gallery, he said, and it was “hard to see how claimed artistic merit could justify a new introduction which presents an impediment to worship on the part of a significant number of parishioners”. The artwork under consideration risked being such an obstacle.

The Chancellor indicated that he was at first minded to refuse the faculty, but, having visited the abbey, he was “satisfied on balance that the presumption in favour of things as they stand is outweighed by the benefits of retaining the painting permanently”. The abbey was large enough, and the painting’s size and location were discreet enough, that it need not present an obstacle to worship to anyone who was displeased or offended by it, and it was invisible from various parts of the nave.

Those who found the painting beautiful, helpful, and spiritually uplifting could continue to benefit from its presence, the Chancellor decided, and it could continue to play a part in the abbey’s outreach and mission. Those who were disturbed or displeased by it need not dwell on its presence. The abbey was a large enough space, physically and spiritually, to accommodate both camps. If a future PCC found that that was not the case, the addition was fully reversible.

The faculty was granted, subject to a condition that all proposed permanent fixings were submitted to the DAC for approval, and that all fixings must be into mortar joints and not the stonework.

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