TO JUDGE by the summer furore that has been generated by Deans and Chapters’ turning their cathedrals into playgrounds, there is strong public interest in what goes on in our churches. Perhaps the more outspoken critics are those who would profess no real interest in using the buildings for their declared purpose but, none the less, can hold strong opinions about what is and is not acceptable.
If only the press could more generally celebrate what is happening on the artistic front inside our churches, there might be a more balanced and appreciative audience willing to learn and to explore. This summer has brought a veritable outburst of artistic interventions, some more successful than others, certainly, but all attesting to a real engagement between the arts and the Church.
In the former seminary chapel of St Cuthbert’s at Ushaw College, one of the triumphant glories of 19th-century ecclesiastical architecture in the north-east (Archibald Dunn and Edward Hansom, 1882-84), Mat Collishaw has paired his creation of an animatronic skeletal eagle with the elaborate eagle lectern that Augustus Pugin exhibited at the 1851 Great Exhibition. The Nerve Rack is a life-size alien predator, and its unnerving movements are quite as likely to provide awe and wonder as any fulminatory passage in the Old Testament.
Art and ChristianityBettina Funee’s The Toad of Generosity modelled
The association Art and Christianity is running a two-year initiative to deliver contemporary art installations in Anglican churches. At St Edmund’s, Larkswood Road, in Chingford, a church designed by N. F. Cachemaille-Day, one of the associate artists, Naomi Maxwell, has had a show, “Praxis and Proximity”, in which she used photographs taken in and around Waltham Forest to explore aspects of the eucharist, often in quite unexpected ways. For the intercessions, a couple of lads are caught reaching to high-five on a basketball pitch.
Not far away, in Leytonstone, at St Margaret with St Columba in Woodhouse Road, Hannah Whittaker worked with the Romanian Orthodox community who share use of the church to design a customised wooden floor in a delicately organised pattern (Parquet Picioare).
If you relied only on Simon Jenkins as you travel around England, you could be forgiven for not yet seeking out the Grade I listed medieval church All Saints and St Andrew’s, Kingston, in Cambridgeshire. Now there is a double reason to go.
At the time The Thousand Best Churches was published, I had cycled out west of Cambridge only to find the monument there to the first Jacobean Provost of King’s College, Dr Fogge Newton, who died in 1612. The medieval wall-paintings for which the church is better known were still being restored: an exemplary job that repaired an earlier disastrous scheme in the 1930s; that was completed in 1998.
For her installation, the locally based Dutch artist Bettina Furnée has taken the theme of the Wheel of the Seven Acts of Mercy, which is featured on the west wall of the north aisle, as inspiration for her radical contrary rethinking of the Corporal Acts themselves. In this, she has clearly taken great delight, and the fun element is what makes this gently provocative.
“A World to Come” takes seriously morality beyond the simpler notion of a split between Good and Evil. Woven into chasubles are seven symbolic creatures that suggest how we hold contradictions together within faith. The pairings therefore are seemingly at odds with our more immediate expectation as she marries together our very mixed and often confused world-view.
I most enjoyed The Toad of Generosity, as there is something miserly about the appearance of a humble toad which belies any thoughts of munificence, and humility is about as far removed from the proud display of a peacock as one could imagine. The Peacock of Humility lacks the more ancient symbolism of the peacock as a sign of eternity, a Persian belief later subsumed into Eastern Orthodoxy.
Furnée’s artistic practice has always centred on words, and explores narratives of belonging and of displacement in our time. As well as the individually designed chasubles, she has a neon installation of the exhibition title, preferring “A” to what we might more readily expect from “The” when, as Christians, we think of a better world to come after this flawed one.
Even within this, there is a hopeful contradiction: this is not so much about an afterlife, but about a better age here on earth, as the artist insists that this world is not preordained, but must be of our own making. And the “l” flashes on and off at times, so that we periodically see “A Word to Come”.
Visitors to this rural church in the Papworth Team Ministry might be drawn to reflect on both the earth and scripture.
“Bettina Furnée: A World to Come” is at All Saints and St Andrew’s, Kingston, Cambridgeshire CB23 3NG, until 1 October.