IN SALISBURY CATHEDRAL now stands a series of 11 large paintings, 6 ft by 5 ft 8 in., oil on canvas, by Stephen Farthing, on the theme of miracles. It has taken nine years of physical labour and creative exertion between 2011 and 2018 to complete. Farthing would not allow any of them to be seen in public until the whole project was complete.
His exploration into how one sees a miracle was inspired by meeting a Coptic bishop during the Arab Spring in Egypt in 2010. The Bishop told Farthing the story of how in the tenth century the Mokkatam Mountain was moved by the power of faith and the holy prayers of Coptic Pope Abraam and St Simon the Shoemaker (or Tanner).
Farthing says: “The Bishop who told me the story was a qualified engineer, a rational man, and as he told me the story he looked me straight in the eyes, and I could only believe that he believed every word he was saying, which I found remarkable. To hear a man tell a story that I can only think of as fiction, and know he believed every word, was spell-binding and started me on my series of pictures.”
© Stephen FarthingThe Miracle of the Hand Made (2012) by Stephen Farthing RA
The sceptical Farthing turned his attention to miracles of our life on earth, such as hearing, birth, and thought, and those created by human endeavour, which we accept as everyday happenings, and which have been explained scientifically, but not revealed spiritually. We recognise the paintings as experiences that we all go through, now transformed by art into “something rich and strange”.
The Miracle Paintings is a collection of masterly designs: rich, diverse, pleasing, and intriguing. Most paintings began with something that caught the artist’s eye and interested him in developing it into a complete pattern. It would often start with one thing, but then change into something else and return in a different form or place.
They are placed strategically in the north and south aisles, transepts, and Trinity chapel, by the curator, Jacquiline Creswell.
Although born, brought up, and educated in London, studying for his first degree at St Martin’s School of Art and his MA at the Royal College of Art, with one year away on a scholarship in Rome, Farthing seems very much at home in other cultures. He has exhibited globally and also accompanied his wife, an American diplomat, on her various postings often in the Middle East.
His beautiful Miracle of the Hand Made (2012) shows a collection of expensive Eastern-style pots, decorated in exquisite blue, pink, red, and orange, and with a huge black pot dominating the centre, with fragmented script across it. It might suggest one of the jars of water changed into wine at the weddding feast in Cana.
The Miracle of Geometry (2011), inspired by seeing the sacristy of the ancient Coptic Hanging Church in Cairo, where there are 110 icons and St Simon the Shoemaker is buried, is a design like a puzzle of different yellows and subtle red geometric shapes, fitted together and beautifully balanced. I was told that this was very pleasing to the scientific mind. The writing over it is in Roman script and one can decipher letters and broken words. Farthing believes writing is an intrinsic part of painting or drawing, just as Leonardo da Vinci used them together to support one another.
A little ring-tailed lemur winding its way between large clay pots inspired The Miracle of Thought, but it grew into a sort of duck or rabbit’s head surrounded by mosaics, as on a Roman floor, while a tiny lemur reappears lower down. Perhaps this reflects our often confused thinking.
Books and money are both considered to be miracles. In Miracle of the Book (2012), the canvas is covered in open and closed books with lettering you cannot read and waves of energy whirling round to suggest ideas forming words, stories, and then books. One clearly visible book is open at the top — perhaps the Bible. The Miracle of Money fills the canvas with banknotes, some falling or held in the hand, depicting the head of an unknown dictator in red uniform, who glares out and dominates the note. This is the only painting using the human figure. While having its place, money is a rather unpleasant miracle, inasmuch as it holds such power over us and reminds us of the moneychangers whom Jesus drove out of the Temple.
© stephen farthingThe Miracle of the Sea (2013) by Stephen Farthing RA
This leads on to Miracle of the Deep (2013), inspired by snorkelling in the Red Sea. At the top is a silver coin suggesting the miracle when Jesus did not have any money to pay the Temple tax for the disciples and told Peter to go fishing, and that he would catch a fish with a coin in its mouth (Matthew 17.24-27). It is also a dark painting, which portrays sailors lying drowned on the sea bed and the depths to which humanity can fall.
Flight is a miracle of the 20th and 21st centuries. To see clouds below us and huge cities looking like little blobs, and great fields like tiny handkerchiefs, courtesy of the aeroplane, which is pictured as a tiny object in the centre, still amazes us — just as much, perhaps, as the apostles were amazed when Jesus walked on the waters.
We are now introduced to the miracles of the senses. The Miracle of Song (2014) began with black and white keyboards and was then enhanced with whirling, oscillating waves, birds singing, and a pendant, like a tuning fork, hanging in the centre. The Miracles of Sight and of Sound (2015) are understandably abstract but very different. A chain of red squares feeds though a base of white and black to depict Sight and a dark blue and white check scarf, like a Palestinian headdress flows loosely round a white base with birds in song perched near by for Sound.
For me, one of the most touching is The Miracle of Birth (2016). The painting opens up like a theatre scene with folding drapes in pastel shades suspended from above as over a royal baby’s cradle. The air is full of white birds flying and gentle mounds and curves suggest the womb and suffering in delivery but peace and happiness.
The last miracle to be painted in 2018 is The Miracle of our Earth as Farthing sat at his studio window looking out over the hills of Amman in Jordan. It is full of mystical pastel shapes and translucent clouds and brings the original inspiration story of faith and prayer told by the Coptic Bishop to its conclusion.
As to how Farthing feels about miracles now, he says “I have come to the conclusion that what makes an event or indeed a painting ‘miraculous’ is our inability to explain it in any other way than saying ‘this is what I saw.’”
Besides being honoured by his profession in being elected Royal Academician in 1998, he has held many prestigious academic posts, including Ruskin Master at Ruskin School of Fine Art, Professorial Fellow of St Edmund’s Hall, Oxford, and, until 2017, the Rootstein Hopkins Research Chair of Drawing, University of the Arts, London. In his teaching and his many books, he has always endeavoured to make art, especially modern art, accessible and enjoyable to everyone.
“The Miracle Paintings of Stephen Farthing” is in Salisbury Cathedral until 23 October. The exhibition is by courtesy of Candida Stevens Gallery.