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Art review: Love is the Meaning in Norwich churches

03 November 2023

Jonathan Evens sees an exhibition of Julian-themed art in Norwich

Julia van Griensven, All shall be well, sketch for an installation

Julia van Griensven, All shall be well, sketch for an installation

“LOVE is the Meaning”, an exhibition of new art celebrating the words and shewings of Julian of Norwich, is the last event in the year-long programme of events for the 650th anniversary of Julian’s “shewings”.

Including an art exhibition in the anniversary programme is a way of reminding those celebrating that, while Julian’s words formed the earliest surviving book in the English language written by a woman, those words began as a series of images. The images that Julian saw were sent to her from God at her request, because she wanted to understand life and what it means.

Accordingly, the 34 participating artists were asked to look at Julian’s descriptions of her visions and then explore their meaning in our day. Their images have been shared between three Norwich churches, these being the places most associated with Julian when she lived in Norwich 650 years ago. This enables viewers to go on a prayerful pilgrimage around images and sites connected with her life. Many of the artworks included are site-specific, and the range of work selected includes stone carving, paint, prints, stained glass, and interactive light and sound installations.

Julian’s writings, which were so radical for their time, continue to speak to our lives and priorities. She writes, for example, of Jesus as our Mother and also of the importance of looking after every single creature and plant, because they are made by love. Love is ultimately the meaning that she sees in all her visions.

Several artists respond to Julian’s sense that we are, soul and body, enclosed in the goodness of God. Nicky Stainton’s immersive installation in the Our Lady of Walsingham Chapel at St John’s, Timberhill, a collaboration with Sian Croose, is a more-than-life-size woman’s cloak (perhaps Julian’s) lined with images and graffiti inspired by the Holkham Bible (which was contemporaneous with Julian and her writings). Viewers are invited to sit inside the confines of the cloak — a sensory experience of touch, smell, sight, and sound — while listening to three songs that set fragments of text from Julian’s shewings.

Donna Thompson, Simply Be, installation of cardboard boxes

Julia van Griensven seeks to envelop visitors in Julian’s most famous line “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well” through a projection on to a corner of Julian’s cell at St Julian’s Church, where visitors can sit with the words playing over them. She tells a story of kneeling at the altar in church as a young person while in a state of high anxiety and hearing the Vicar speak those very words over her. As a result, she suggests that we allow this prayer to clothe us, touch us, and reach out to us, as we sit and contemplate its meaning for us.

The exhibition curator, Lucy Care, is a ceramicist who constantly experiments with materials, colours, and shapes, delighting in the fluidity of materials frozen by fire. Her ceramic sculpture Enclosed in love at St Julian’s takes its inspiration from Julian’s image of the wound in Jesus’s side being large enough to enclose all humankind. The drawing Fertile Wound, by Karlee Bowlby, engages with the same image to explore the joyful wonder that Julian witnesses in Christ as she beholds the marks of Passion on his body. In Bowlby’s image, leaves grow from this fertile wound.

As a member of The Arborealists, Alex Egan paints trees, here showing the images of nature which she finds on her daily walks and putting them in a circle to symbolise Julian’s vision of God showing her a small round thing the size of a hazelnut in the palm of her hand in which is contained everything that ever was and is. Similarly, Gwyneth Fitzmaurice focuses our attention on overlooked twigs. These she fashions from papier-mâché before setting them beautifully on white panels to reveal beauty and form in something regularly trampled underfoot.

Egan’s Everything that ever was uses red as its background colour, a reference to Julian’s vivid descriptions of Christ’s blood pouring from the crown of thorns. Frances Martin, with paintings at St Stephen’s, also focuses on Julian’s visions of “Red Blood shewing” and “Crown of hazelnut thorns”, allowing poured paint to flood and drip in forming her images.

Julian’s wonderful words convey to us the vividness of her shewings and, through the writing and recording of a radio play, The Glad Giver, Jill Korn has worked with words to share a Julian who is humble, holy, and very human. The exhibition catalogue also includes two poems taken from another anniversary project, an anthology of new poems for Julian, All Shall Be Well. Twenty poems from this anthology are also displayed around the city, and several are to be found outside the exhibition venues.

The poem “God’s Love Letters”, from this anthology, sums up the beauty and intent of this exhibition: “. . . there is no denying Her bold strokes brushed Her delicate details etched Inside every last one of our cells Tucked inside Her enveloping Love.”

“Love is the Meaning” is at St John’s, Timberhill, St Julian’s, Rouen Road, and St Stephen’s, Rampant Horse Street, Norwich, until 16 November.


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