A retrospective look at Westminster Cathedral's Art exhibition
ARCHB1SHOP HELM'S reputation as the Vatican's "unofficial artist" was in the minds of many during his farewell Mass in Westminster Cathedral, which appropriately took place below balconies filled with works attempting to illustrate "the religious spirit in contemporary art".
Early patronage — papal, royal, episcopal and monastic — tended to demand religious themes, and even royal portraits depicted individuals who were touched by divine right.
Now that the religious element is voluntary it may be stronger. The Royal Academy's Summer Show reflects trends — cats were popular last year — but there is invariably a large number of entries featuring the cross.
The pull of religion and its props is not confined to the church-going artist. Meanwhile every Church member is affected by art, even unwittingly.
The decision of Canon Donald Reeves to take seriously the claim of St James's, Piccadilly to be the 'Artists Church' has done him and his congregation no harm. 'There is even an acknowledged artist (featured in an Arts Council film, no less) on the staff.
Westminster Cathedral's Fr Patrick O'Donoghue managed to cram more than 230 works of art into the Cathedral's two long balconies with good pictures still having to be rejected.
Church architecture was well represented and Andrew Johnson's Westminster Abbey placed the Crimean War Memorial in the centre of the west front. This forgotten
column marks the very spot where the abbey gateway stood, Even older stones were depicted by Henry Croly in his oil of Dorchester Abbey's simple inteliour showing the font in a deeply impressive church often shared by Anglicans and Catholics. A M Parkinson was attracted by the doorway at Otford Church where an oven for baking communion wafers can still be found.
The sharing of communion bread was in turn movingly illustrated in Jane small
Emmaus sculpture of three stone figures huddled round the bread.
Nearby it was a surprise to find Elizabeth Frink's massive Head of Christ — maybe it should have been placed at the end of the long gallery. Miss Frink claims that, since she became an artist, her onceimportant Catholic religion seemed less important. But she adds, "I don't not believe ", and acknowledges that, "some of the greatest art that we know has been commissioned by the
Church or used as religious art".
When asked about her controversial Walking Madonna at Salisbury, she suggested that when churches commissioned work, they commissioned all sorts of people to work together and it became a guild of people. But she had to admit that the artist was still working very much on his or her own now.
Other sculpture included metalwork with the winged Ox of St Luke and winged Lion of St Mark by Sean Crampton. Unusual was the high entry of mosaics — several rather more gaudy than the celebrated examples below the gallery.
Also very bright, but much more disturbing, was Paul David Wright's God Cry with a torment that recalled Munch's 7 he Screciiii. But too little was disturbing and while (in keeping with fashion) there were only a few abstract works there was a strong Victorian influence. Among familiar scenes of the Holy Land and blue nuns there seemed to be little comment on the 20th century, let alone current events.
But then this show should be judged alongside the other Christian art shows held this year. The Bath Festival included a focus on today's Christian art and the Arts For Peace exhibition in Piccadilly had a contemporary Christian input.
What was encouraging about Westminster was that not all the Catholic artists represented were the major ones. There are many more at work and showing in the secular galleries — such as Cedric Carlton, who has just had an exhibition at the Tunbridge Wells Art Gallery. The Society of Catholic Artists has a membership little involved vsith the Westminster show.
But the most outstanding work at Westminster did come from SCA members. Peter Koenig's Sr Ignatius of Antioch is a vivid portrayal of the imagery in his Letter to the Romaos with fascinating detail of leopards, ship's bead, fishes and bird.
Johns Armstrong also had an oil full of arresting detail but which procleimcd the Christian message for this very summer 1985. He places Christ between a vulgar rich young man, clutching armament blueprints, and a fly infested starving boy with only a bowl stamped with the cross.
This was the most eloquent picture, conveying a message to the Church more vividly than any pastoral letter could. There is not only, it seems, a place for religion in contemporary art but a place for contemporary art in religion.