We have just spent a few hours in the Guggenheim museum. One of the current exhibitions is the work of Niki de Saint Phalle. She apparently grew up in a convent school. I am assuming that influenced a couple of her pieces.
I came across this wonderful image on Richard Littledale’s blog. It is a wonderful reimagining of church art in a contemporary way. I love the guy in a hoodie praying!
Richard Littledale asks an interesting question on his blog about this piece of art by Alfonso Ossorio. He wanted to know “How would you feel looking at this image on a Sunday”? As you can see, this is a mural placed behind the altar in a church. As the Eucharist is celebrated this image dominates the scene. Personally, I love it. It conveys such vivid imagery and deep theological meaning. I wonder if I could find a good quality image of it for use on Easter Sunday Morning.
In the past I have seen the problems that a piece of art like this can cause. The stained glass window at a new-build church I have sporadically attended in the past caused major controversy when the church was first opened. It is still talked about whenever I visit. What was the major heresy that the person who placed these pieces of coloured glass together had committed? Firstly, the glass used was in modern vivid colours. This in itself could no doubt be over looked but this is just the first of the window’s crimes. The image itself depicted Jesus as a dark-haired, distinctly “foreign” looking gentleman. Shocking I know! To compound this, the Sacred Heart wasn’t not shaped like a Valentine card, it was shaped like a…. heart. Unbelievable!! Jesus sacred heart is shaped like an organ that pumps blood around the human body? Shocking!!
Many people do not want to be challenged by their faith, they seek to be comforted by it. A faith that challenges demands action and possibly even change. For many people this brings feelings of insecurity and this can be a troubling experience.
Having discussed the window, it would seem that people would have been much happier with a stained glass window depicting a nice blonde King Arthur holding a valentine’s card. These things highlight that there is a disconnect between those who control many of our churches the reality of the society in which we serve. Many of those who are in a position to make decisions about the direction of a church would like to perpetuate the memories of youth. The church organises village fetes reminiscent of the 1950’s. We commission art that is in a style of 100-200 years ago. We seek to create a modern version of Victorian stained glass. We ask our musicians to write music reminiscent of centuries gone by as it is reminiscent of a shared childhood experience from early in the twentieth century.
So what are the implications of this? If we don’t allow our artists to create and perform their art within the church they will do it elsewhere. If we chase everyone out of our churches and into the big wide world we will need to be prepped and ready to turn the lights off in our buildings and lock the door for the last time.
It is very topical to talk about the arts here in the UK as a lot of funding has been cut. Earlier today I read Phil Ritchie’s blog, who like me is a priest in the Church of England. During prayers this morning we both remembered John Donne who was a poet, a priest and the Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral. This inspired Phil to asked the question “where are today’s poet priests”? When I read this it opened up a much broader issue for the church to consider:
‘How are our churches cultivating todays artists, musicians, poet’s, singers, songwriters, sculptors, glass blowers….. our artists’?
Historically the church was the main place that cultivated the arts. It funded the arts. It commissioned the arts. It inspired the arts. *God* inspired the arts. People looked at the majesty of creation and artistic expression poured from within. When people read the scriptures, poetic expressions overflowed. As people contemplated the awe and wonder of God, the notes flowed onto the manuscripts. You need only walk into one of the many museums in the UK and you will see the great works that the church has cultivated and inspired throughout the ages. The church was the hub around which the arts rotated. Music was created on the church’s instruments. Glass was crafted for it’s windows. Stone was carved for display in, on or around it’s buildings. Art was painted to hang inside or even painted straight onto the walls of it’s chapel’s, monasteries and Cathedral’s.
When I was training for ordination I was lucky enough to do a placement at a church where they carved the prototype pillars for Durham Cathedral. With the modern church there is a financial reality that causes me to marvel that there was an era in which Durham Cathedral could be envisaged, never mind created.
The modern world comes with all sorts of things that people didn’t predict. They said that in “the future” we would have vast quantities of free time with which to enjoy ourselves. Now that we are here and now firmly planted within “the future” the reality is that we have less free time than ever before.
Where are today’s poet priests?
Whether ordained or lay the modern church is struggling with a financial reality and an administrative reality that leaves little time for the arts. As parishes are placed together with reducing numbers of both ordained and lay alike, “the job” becomes increasingly time consuming. This is coupled with the propensity in all modern world workplaces for paperwork. Everything must be filled in, signed in triplicate and sent to the correct office to be stored in the appropriate filing cabinet…. for each church that you are working with. For those who work for the church this comes with an additional emotional constraint that plays upon the sense of guilt about these things.
An unending task with an emotional attachment? Ponder that for a moment if you will.
When we contemplate the arts and their place within the church we have to ask how much they are currently valued by the church. For many, the arts are a guilty secret that is indulged in when a sneaky couple of hours off are partaken of one evening whilst no one is looking. If we engage with them more often we are often perceived to be elevating our self-indulgence above our calling to serve ‘the church’. This is why I know several people who were musicians in the ‘previous life’ that they ‘gave up’ before ordination.
If this is the reality in which the modern church lives, how do we perpetuate the “rich tradition of priests who fulfilled this part of their vocation through poetry” and other art forms into the future?