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Visual arts: Salisbury Cathedral’s new Nativity

10 January 2020

Katy Hounsell-Robert sees the crib scene that will be up till Candlemas


The photographer Ash Mills at the foot of the nativity scene. See gallery for more images

The photographer Ash Mills at the foot of the nativity scene. See gallery for more images

EVER since Christianity became established, priests have sought ways to enable people to relate to the “invisible” Godhead through the humanity and divinity of Christ, and nothing could be more family-friendly and easy to relate to than the Virgin Mary’s placing the new baby in a manger in a stable, among farm animals, and receiving the visits of poor humble shepherds and the wise men with rich gifts.

This was a popular spectacle, and St Francis in the 13th century introduced real people and animals into his nativity scene for his congregation to give more sense of reality.

This year, Salisbury Cathedral has produced a magnificent image, which is a tasteful blend of tradition and modern technology devised by Jacquiline Cresswell, visual arts adviser at the Cathedral and executed by Ash Mills, the cathedral photographer.

It is modelled on a Renaissance nativity scene, but, instead of a painting, Ash Mills photographed individually members of the cathedral community in costume representing the various characters. Using the Morning Chapel as the stage studio, he took more than 650 photos on his Olympus EM1MK2, from which he selected 64 and then skillfully layered them to produce the composite scene. So Joseph has an affectionate arm round Mary’s shoulder, and the newborn baby is gurgling very happily at a shepherd boy sitting next to him, holding a lamb from his grandfather’s flock out for him to touch.

It was thought that the inn would have been run by a family, the wife probably looking after the guests; so, breaking with tradition, the innkeeper is played by Tricia Glass, the Deputy Head Guide, who told me how spiritually moving she found helping to portray the moment when the Son of God arrived on earth, and how incorporating members of the cathedral community gave it a special poignancy and local relevance. The angel in flight is the most intriguing: an aerial acrobat, flying on a trapeze.

The final image was then sent to a specialist company in Belgium to be printed on three huge silk voile panels around 10 ft (3m) wide by more than 35 ft (10.5 m) long, to be brought back carefully to the cathedral and suspended from 50 ft (14m) in the spire crossing and lit to create an amazing translucent ethereal effect.

The “New Salisbury Nativity” will now be a permanent part of the cathedral furnishings and at Candlemas will be taken down, rolled up, and stored until next Christmas.

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