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Art review: Paradise and Other Places at Norwich Cathedral

14 February 2020

Jonathan Evens sees links between medieval times and ours, in art inspired by churches

© Mick Abbott

THE Despenser Retable mediates violence; first, as a depiction of Christ’s crucifixion, then through its commissioning by the “Fighting Bishop” as a thank-offering after his involvement in the suppression of the Peasants’ Revolt in Norfolk, and finally as an altarpiece-turned-table to escape the iconoclasm engendered by the dissolution of the monasteries.

Images taken from the Retable open this exhibition. Abbott’s collage-like paintings combine architectural and decorative features with religious themes and contemporary portraits. He takes elements from medieval culture and places them alongside people and incidents from our daily lives to gently provoke comparisons and question the changes there may or may not have been across the centuries.

The human beings we see in his depiction of the sculptures of yesterday could well be photographs of us today, something further emphasised by the inclusion in the exhibition of portraits of contemporary figures. Recognisable faces of people from Norwich are compared with the faces drawn from medieval art, and a timeless richness of experience is captured in the expressions of both. Whether contemporary or medieval, Abbott’s characters ask the same questions, have the same quests, and feel the same emotions as they go through the range of human experience.

Through pilgrims or refugees, acts of mercy and compassion or destruction of the dignity of mankind, he brings the outside world into the silence of sacred places, to question the true meaning of charity and mercy, and the part that each of us may play. Painting is his way of finding out how effectively traditional spiritual values help us to move toward positive lives that make sense and bring peace. He seeks to find meaning in the seemingly meaningless violence of the world that we live in by setting spiritually charged imagery from the medieval world, such as parts of the Retable, alongside contemporary images evoking issues that trouble him and for which he seeks understanding through spirituality.

© mick abbottMick Abbott also finds inspiration in nature

“Paradise and Other Places” in differing forms has previously been shown at Tintern Abbey and Ely, Peterborough, Ripon, and Wells Cathedrals. Abbott says that he has a fascination with, and fondness for, medieval churches, and loves working with their history and tradition, the stained-glass windows, and the sculptures of misericords and bench endings.

He tells a story of walking into a north-west Norfolk church and being stunned by the beauty of a stained-glass window made from the shattered remains of medieval shards left scattered on the stone floors after William Dowsing’s iconoclastic visit during the Reformation. The mosaic of hand, eyes, colour, symbols and lines that had lost their original meanings reflected a somehow meaningful chaos. Ever since, he has sought to create or reflect reality and compassion as he sees and feels it.

Religious art, therefore, remains a driving force and inspiration for him, particularly the messages contained in medieval stained glass and misericords. What might seem at first to be a whimsical wood or stone carving or decorative piece of glass, he suggests, can give an instant insight and connection. These are timeless sentiments, sometimes irreverent, but always human.

Additionally, he finds much of his inspiration in nature, loving to walk in the woods and feel the distinct atmospheres of the different seasons. Drawing and painting outside is one of his greatest pleasures as he feels a strong connection with a living nature and likes the sense of immediate and raw creativity when he draws. Cathedral-like tree canopies, a hexagonal find of fish, and the wild beauty and dignity of wooden spars sitting on the mudflats are among the examples from this exhibition of Abbott’s love for nature.

“Paradise and Other Places” explores nature and culture, identity and memory, making the sometime hidden traces of history, as with the retable-turned-table, evident once again within these works, as also within the cathedral’s walls. Our memories, our roots, and the nature and culture that have nourished us take each of us on a unique path. Yet, those who lived and worshipped when this cathedral was young knew love and sorrow, birth and death, just like those who worship here today. Abbott asks us whether paradise could quite simply be a state of being satisfied with what we have rather than wishing for things out of our reach; of being happy where we are and not longing for elsewhere. From this, he believes, springs the strength to rebel against and resist what is unfair and unjust, such as that which inspired, is depicted in, and caused the hiding of the Despenser Retable.


“Paradise and Other Places” is in The Hostry at Norwich Cathedral until next Thursday.


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