CHICHESTER CATHEDRAL has a tradition of seeing the arts, including contemporary art, as integral to worship; for, as the Bishop, Dr Martin Warner, says, “They speak to us about a sense of dimension which cannot be quantified, which defines what gives life meaning, the journey, the questions of grief and death and the life-giving virtue of hope.”
This year, a series of five magnificent illuminated Christmas banners has been commissioned to tell the story of the nativity and to include those caring for Covid-sufferers and managing affected charities. The models for the nativity figures, including flying angels as well as the Holy Family and their visitors, include people the NHS, care homes, Sanctuary, BBC Sussex, foodbanks, and charities feeding homeless people.
This has been devised by Jacquiline Creswell and photographed by Ash Mills, who for Christmas 2019 created a new type of nativity scene for Salisbury Cathedral, where they are visual arts adviser and resident photographer respectively.
As in Salisbury, it is an artistic and technical triumph. Each character was individually photographed in costume and the appropriate stance. The selected photos were then layered to produce the composite scene, which was then sent to a specialist company in Belgium to be printed on fine silk voile.
The installation of the banners follows an exhibition in the south transept — overtaken by lockdown, but still online — that is the result of an event that was organised by the cathedral to lift people’s spirits.
Together with Sussex Newspapers, it held a competition in which anyone living in Sussex could submit a sculpture, painting, ceramic, textile, poem, short story, choral work, or drama (the last two categories abandoned because of safety restrictions), expressing how they felt about Covid. Submissions were selected to create “Sussex Together Festival of the Arts”.
The Edge of Eternity by Stephen Codner, in “Sussex Together”
Many works are understandably reflective. Richard Davidson’s oil painting on canvas, Time to Reflect,is of a solitary middle-aged man in dark overcoat and hat, gazing out over the sea. Robin Field, in Into the Woods, gives a photographic image in black-and-white of a forest of trees, dense but spaced out from one another, giving a sense of peace and comfort. In a similar vein, Joanna Duncan-Smith’s delicate abstract in acrylic on canvas, Sunset Tide, evokes the solitude and quiet of the deserted evening beach.
The sense of peace at the end of life is portrayed movingly in The Edge of Eternity by Stephen Godner, a black-and-white drawing from a photo by Jim Grove of the calm reassuring presence of the priest Kit Gunasekera as he places his hand on a dying man’s forehead in the last rites.
Many pieces are cheerful and encouraging. Paula de Sousa’s impressionist work in gouache and posca pens I’m going to walk this road alone shows a yellow green road narrowing as it climbs between “Van Goghian” bright-coloured fields of yellow, green, and orange, contrasting with Diane Smith’s Green and Pleasant Land, inspired by Petworth Park, and in gentle pastel colours to remind everyone that life can still go on being beautiful. Another amusing entry showing life carrying on as normal is Nattie Thread’s textile Chip, about the ever present flocks of gulls along the coast still boldly plucking chips from people’s paper bags or plates.
Captain Sir Tom Moore by Vincent Gray, in “Sussex Together”
Perhaps the most memorable and inspiring piece is the tribute in sculpture by the renowned Vincent Gray to Captain Sir Tom Moore’s courageous feat of walking a hundred laps round his 25-metre long garden at the age of 99, which raised more than £32 million pounds for NHS charities. In an interview, he said: “The sun will shine on you again and the clouds will go away.”
The wax model, ultimately intended for a life-size bronze, stands presently at 40cm high and shows two men and two women representing doctors and nurses of varied ethnic origins standing round Captain Tom applauding him as he struggles steadily along on his walking frame.
Butterfly by Jessica Gill, inspired by the iridescent Blue Morpho butterfly, is undoubtedly the most exotic and largest sculpture, with a height and width of 2.5 metres, lit by renewable energy, and made up of discarded bits and pieces, including vintage police whistles, chandelier jewels, and First World War signalling lamps, while 500 origami paper butterflies make up the wings.
Butterfly by Jessica Gill, in “Sussex Together”
Gill says: “The butterfly is also partly a homage to the Second World War veteran Harry Billings, who, when asked how he felt about lockdown, replied ‘I don’t mind. My mind is free. I can be anywhere.’’’
The butterfly is believed to symbolise a person’s soul, blue symbolises joy, and seeing a Blue Morpho is thought to bring good luck.
The nativity banners will remain in the cathedral until 3 February. The art exhibition can still be viewed online at www.chichestercathedral.org.uk