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Art review: What Are You Looking For? at Coventry Cathedral

22 December 2023

Rex Harley reviews a joint show exploring biblical questions

sarah scouller

Michelle Holmes’s Can you see anything? beneath Graham Sutherland’s Christ in Glory in the Tetramorph (1962) in Coventry Cathedral

Michelle Holmes’s Can you see anything? beneath Graham Sutherland’s Christ in Glory in the Tetramorph (1962) in Coventry Cathedral

FROM the outset, Coventry’s new cathedral was renowned for two things: the incorporation and celebration of contemporary art in its building and the active part played by reconciliation in its ministry. Only now, however, under the aegis of the current Dean, have these two threads been woven together, in the person of Canon Mary Gregory, whose portfolio is Arts and Reconciliation.

By a happy accident, while visiting her mother in Derbyshire, she encountered the work of two artists, Michael Cook and Michelle Holmes, and invited them to curate this combined exhibition: a series of 11 paired images, each inspired by questions posed in the four Gospels.

The first question, “Who is my mother and who are my brothers?”, takes the form of a circular painting with Christ at its centre, framed by vignettes of the corporal acts of mercy. Appearing to glow with some inner light, it has all the radiance of a stained-glass window, an illusion intensified by the lines separating the different elements of the picture, exactly like strips of leading. Even from the other side of the nave, the painting demands your attention.

lt is a question posed as a challenge, and, as the artist admits, all his images are designed to be unsettling, no more so than the figure of Christ in the Gethsemane Chapel: “Could you not stay awake with me for one hour?” he demands. His hands are knotted in prayer, and he looks back over his shoulder, at us, with an expression of haunted anguish.

The artist himself makes an analogy with language. His paintings speak in one tone of voice; Holmes’s textiles speak in another, gentler. They are small-scale and intimate, certainly, but they bear the weight of the words, too, stitched in a letter form that owes much to early carved Christian inscriptions, and which finds another visual parallel in the cathedral’s own Tablets of the Word. Only on close inspection does one see the remarkable range of colour in them: electric blue and bright pink, for example, highlighting an eye.

michael cookMichael Cook’s painting As Trees Walking seen through the cyanotype hagioscope by Michelle Holmes. This is based on the story of the healing of the blind man in Mark  

There is a jewel-like quality in many of her icons; for that is, in fact, what they are. The prototype is Byzantine rather than Russian, and their shimmering quality comes from the choice of background material and appliqué work, quite as much as the creative stitching. Some are actually more reminiscent of mosaic, such as Michelle’s response to that initial question: “Who is my mother and who are my brothers?” which would not look entirely out of place in Ravenna.

All the works in this exhibition are carefully placed around the body of the cathedral, creating a meditative journey, like Stations of the Cross or wayside shrines on a pilgrim route. The questions that they pose will resonate differently, depending on the individual who ponders them. As the quotation from Rilke, in the accompanying booklet, eloquently puts it, “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves. . .”

“What Are You Looking For?” is at Coventry Cathedral until 2 January 2024. www.coventrycathedral.org.uk

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