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Art review: ‘The Seven Last Words’ at St Michael’s, Discoed

29 March 2019

Artists drew lots for the Seven Last Words. Katy Hounsell-Robert views their responses

© the artist

“Father, forgive them” by Viv Luxton

“Father, forgive them” by Viv Luxton

“THE Seven Last Words are spoken in the face of death. This is difficult and painful. But perhaps the making of something beautiful like a work of art is one way of opening it up.”

This is how the artist Charles MacCarthy addressed the 14 artists whom he had invited to respond to this theme at the sixth Lenten exhibition at the ancient shepherds’ church St Michael’s, Discoed.

As in previous years, the artists met in the October preceding the exhibition to draw their allotted subject out of a hat — two artists to each text — and each was provided with a grey board, 4ft high and 3ft across, to use for any size work within these measurements, in whatever medium they wished.

Since the first exhibition in 2012, “Stations of the Cross”, visitors have appreciated the variety of approach, objective and subjective, and technical expertise. This year, they will find an exceptionally rich diversity, sensitively facilitated by Mr McCarthy and David Hiam, the chairman of the Friends of St Michael’s.

For “Forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23.34), Vivienne Luxton realistically creates the sadly familiar image of displaced men, women, and children, walking hopelessly with their few possessions, urged on ruthlessly by cruel guards. In shades of black, it suggests past newspaper reports and how we all continue to be guilty of indifference and cruelty through ignorance.

Yvonne Crossley has embarked rather differently on an exploration of the number seven. She observes its importance cosmically and in religions and, over a background of wallpaper of a repeated hunting scene, she has written the text in seven languages of nations that may have more need than most of forgiveness. Seven Caliban-like creatures function in a garden above seven other more malformed creatures, but every level, including the romanticised huntsmen, suggests that we lack higher thinking, and asks forgiveness for us all.

© the artist“Woman, behold your son” by Roger Luxton

Pete MacKenzie gives a rather playful interpretation of “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23.43), focusing on the way in which the disciples seemed to be obsessed with the position that they would hold in the next world. He has two naked people arriving at the gate of heaven in front of two signposts. One indicates “FAST TRACK” for certain people including Deities, their families, and invited guests, Divine Right pass holders, Pilgrims, and Selected Righteous. The other signpost says “ALL OTHERS: Have your life stories visible and ready for inspection.” He is apprehensive about how it will be received.

Julienne Braham’s moving and contrasting interpretation shows how broad the heavenly entrance can be, and arose from a split-second vision that she had when praying the Hail Mary at the funeral of a Venezuelan friend who had died after being knocked off her bicycle. “It was like a colourful Chagall painting of a pretty lady being raised from her bicycle by loving angels with large sunflowers and other flowers filling the picture and her face now beautified looking over the city.” Braham duly painted it.

“Woman, behold your son. . . Behold your mother” (John 19.26-27) is also inspired by a vivid dream. Roger Luxton spares us nothing in rendering the physical agony. His interpretation is that God has exploded the centre of the cross, and two hounds of heaven are lowering the body down to the two Marys and John. This, he feels, is when Christianity took off.

Carolyn Blake’s version is more mystical, but also poignant. It portrays a large luminous globe like a grail at the top of a cross, and two smaller luminous globes at the bottom.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15.34) from Psalm 22: Jane Tudge has tried to visualise the abandonment from the perception of Christ. All he can see as his head hangs down is the split wood of the cross. Everything else is obliterated. She uses her favourite medium, wax, in a very thin cast, illuminated by a light box.

Nick Bush pays tribute to Stanley Spencer’s work in the Sandham Memorial Chapel, and believes that art must be relevant and believable to a modern audience to have effect. He places his cross against a background that he knows well: the clifftops of the East Sussex coast, completely deserted apart from a faithful hound.

Responding to “I thirst” (John 19.28), Ciara Lewis feels that this is where we see Christ as both divine and human as he cries out for something to drink. We are made aware of the suffering by the accurately drawn crown of thorns and underneath the bowl of healing water, out of reach but back lit to imply hope.

Nicola Hopwood’s version in mouth-blown stained glass, assembled with lead, shows a rich green hill under a blue overcast sky, with a distant figure on the outline of a cross and a long stick with the vinegar sop being held up to it. It gives a feeling of great loneliness and abandonment, but also that it is a momentous and glorious event.

In “It is finished” (John 19.30), Antonia Spowers suggests that Christ is saying that he can take no more suffering. She uses layers of paper treated with PVA, which hardens it and makes it water-resistant, to build up a mummified torso, which also implies afterlife.

© the artist“Today you will be with me in Paradise” by Julienne Braham

Simon Dorrell offers the interpretation that Christ feels that he has successfully completed his work on earth and that there is no more to be done here. In ink and gouache on fragile paper, he draws a winter scene with two trees, one blown over and uprooted in the winds, but the other standing firm and;; looking forward to spring when it will come to life again.

The final two images of “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23.46) are calm and peaceful although very different. Katie Sims was on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela when she received her subject. She wrote: “I cannot stress how significant those words resonated with me at that point in time. They spoke of stillness, introspection, surrender, humility and trust — lessons I learnt and experienced while walking.” Her abstract work of light filtering through pale, clear greens and yellows of different shades forms a bottomless pool into which one can sink peacefully.

In preference to “making any attempt to depict a ‘real’ Jesus”, Charles McCarthy has let a plaster life mask made by his great great-grandfather in 1840 inspire his painting. “It shows dignity and calm, and just the head implies he has left his body: it is his spirit he commends to the Father,” he says.


Thirty per cent of proceeds from sales will go to the Honeypot Children’s Charity, www.honeypot.org.uk. “The Seven Last Words” is at St Michael’s, Discoed, near Presteigne, Powys LD8 2NW, until 22 April. Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. www.discoed.org

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