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Exhibition for Holy Week

LAURA GASCOIGNE

Behold the Man of Sorrows An original exhibition during Lent in a Welsh country church of the 14 Stations of the Cross each created by a different artist is drawing visitors from far and wide to the highly individual perspective of the story of the Crucifixion that they portray

Half a mile from Offa’s Dyke, in a hamlet called Discoed – Welsh for “under the wood” – stands the little Norman border church of St Michael. With its nearby spring, ancient yews and circular churchyard, the foundation may date back to the Welsh “Age of Saints” between the fifth and sixth centuries. Today its congregation numbers 15, a good turnout for a village of 10 houses. But during Lent, this former shepherds’ church in south Herefordshire has been drawing visitors from far beyond its parish boundaries. Wales and its borders are well provided with artists’ studios, and last year the chairman of the Friends of Discoed Church, David Hiam, decided to tap into this creative potential. He teamed up with local artist Charles MacCarthy to commission an unusual series of the Stations of the Cross. The idea was for 14 different artists to paint one Station each, drawing their subjects from a hat. To attract good artists – there was no funding – it would be a selling exhibition, with a third of the proceeds going to Freedom from Torture.

Since the exhibition’s opening on Shrove Tuesday (until 15 April), the response from the local community has been extraordinary. Every Thursday during Lent, the vicar of St Michael’s, the Revd Steve Hollinghurst, has read a meditation before two of the paintings. An Anglican community has been visiting from a neighbouring parish, while the vicar of another has asked to borrow the Stations next year – a problem, as three have already sold.

But the strongest impact has been on the artists themselves. Although most of them have an interest in religion – four belong to a group called Art & the Spirit – doctrinally speaking, they’re a mixed bag. They include an atheist, a Buddhist and, somewhere in between, “a questioning Christian of the Anglican tradition, slightly itinerant”. In a parish that once prided itself on having no resident “Papist or reputed Papist”, they also include a Catholic, and have chosen to illustrate Pope John Paul II’s Scriptural Way of the Cross.

Artistically speaking, too, they are a broad church, drawing on sources from the Italian primitives to Pop. While Charles MacCarthy’s Second Station, Jesus is Betrayed by Judas, pays homage to Giotto, his son Dan MacCarthy has based his Eighth Station, Jesus is Helped by Simon the Cyrenian to Carry the Cross, on a 2010 news photograph of the arrest of Colton Harris-Moore, the “Barefoot Bandit”, whose two-year flight from American justice acquired the status of myth. The artist found a “messianic quality” in the bowed pose of the shackled, barefoot youth, and the addition of a small, surprisingly frail Simon the Cyrenian and the suggestion of a cross completed the picture.

A more convulsive news event provided the background for Susannah Fiennes’ Third Station, Jesus Is Condemned by the Sanhedrin. Fiennes was living in New York in 2001 when on a fine September morning she noticed a group of workmen in yellow hard hats on the roof opposite reacting with theatrical gestures of horror to something she couldn’t see. For a decade since 9/11, she has been exploring “the geometry of emotion” in her private work. Her cloth-capped Jesus, based on drawings of her forester husband carrying wood, passes so close to the picture plane that the crossbar of his crucifix might hit us: the triangle it forms with the vertical frames two small figures of the Sanhedrin in the distance. Their agitated gestures are insignificant; his quiet concentration is momentous. “I’m interested in the symbolism of carrying a weight: the bowed head and the raised arm,” says Fiennes. “It’s literally loaded.”

A different sense of being weighed down pervades Allison Neal’s interpretation of the Seventh Station, Jesus Bears the Cross. Instead of a live model, Neal based her Jesus on a lifesized Victorian lay figure, depicted plodding on through empty space, apparently shedding bits of broken limbs as it goes. In place of a cross, it carries a knapsack. A former convent schoolgirl, now an atheist, Neal was reminded of “all those hymns in assemblies saying ‘take up thy cross’. That seemed to me to be the

Tenth Station: Jesus is Crucified, stained glass, by Nicola Hopwood. Photo: Alex Ramsay hinge of the story, where he makes the decision.” The knapsack was for “all the things we carry about, physically and emotionally”.

In Neal’s secular version of the story, the journeying figure is “choosing, deciding and moving forward; it’s about the decisions, the decisions we make or don’t make”. In the Christian version, its gradual shedding of life’s baggage is a process beginning in Gethsemane and ending on the Cross in Thomas Merton’s “point of nothingness … which belongs entirely to God”.

The idea of physical extinction is central to Lois Hopwood’s Fourteenth Station, Jesus is Placed in the Tomb: “It’s that Saturday of nothing: that sort of death.” For Hopwood, the references in Matthew to clean linen and a stone tomb evoked visual memories of a dismantled tomb in the crypt of Hereford Cathedral with a hollow where the sculpted body had been, and of terracotta-stained sheets from her husband’s pottery hanging on a line. The recollections came together in her Rothkoesque painting of a long, narrow strip of translucent white, frayed red at the edges, floating inside a black and blue frame.

“I wanted to express the sadness and stillness of the white cloth covering a broken body in the darkness of the stone tomb,” says Hopwood. Yet the picture’s vertical axis could also suggest something else: a dark doorway lit by a blinding white light as a shrouded, transfigured form emerges.

For stained glass artist Nicola Hopwood (no relation), the verbal stimulus lay in the

4 | THE TABLET | 31 March 2012