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Sunday, 15 March 2015

Artistic heritage: St Martin-in-the-Fields and St Stephen Walbrook

One of many exciting aspects to the role of Priest for Partnership Development that I have recently begun is the opportunity to connect with the way in which both churches have engaged with the visual arts.

St Stephen Walbrook is an Anglican Parish Church rich in heritage but one which remains actively involved in the City of London. The current church was built by Sir Christopher Wren 1672-80 and accommodates a major and controversial reordering centred around Henry Moore's circular altar.

After the bombing of World War Two St Stephen Walbrook was restored and the interior was redesigned to express contemporary worship. Most of the fittings had been burnt or destroyed and it meant that seating and altar arrangements could be thought out again. Thus it was that Henry Moore was persuaded to design and carve a central altar using travertine marble from the quarry near Rome used by Michelangelo. Commissioned by Lord Palumbo, the altar was carved in 1972.

The Ven. Peter Delaney has written that by carving a round altar table with forms cut into the circular sides Moore suggested that the centre of the church reflected the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem commemorating the sacrifice of Abraham and Isaac as a prefiguring of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross and the place for the offering of the Eucharist at the heart of Christian worship. This place was designed for people to gather as a community around the altar where God could be found at the centre. The axis of the church is now under the dome designed by Sir Christopher Wren and no longer has an east west orientation. This speaks of this new century where we see God at the centre of all life as the Moore altar is at the centre of this church and this church is at the centre of this city.

The restoration cost £1. 3 million. The altar measuring 8ft across and weighing several tons was at the centre of a controversy and court case as a result of objections and eventually was resolved by going to the highest ecclesiastical court of the land, the Court of Ecclesiastical Cases Reserved where the judges ruled that the Moore altar was acceptable as an altar for the Church of England!

Moore’s altar is complemented by colourful abstract kneelers designed by Patrick Heron and candlesticks designed and made by Hans Coper. The building was finally rededicated in 1987.

Trafalgar Square is well known as the location for the world famous art collections in the National Portrait Gallery and National Gallery. But in the Crypt of St Martin-in-the-Fields there is also a special space for art lovers, as the Gallery in the Crypt’s dramatic 18th Century architecture makes a stunning backdrop to display modern art and photography.

St Martin-in-the-Fields is also home to several commissions and permanent installations by contemporary artists. Nicholas Holtham has written that, as an adjunct to the main renewal project at St Martin's, "an Arts Advisory Panel was formed and a series of commissions have helped to complete the transformation of the building." These include:

Processional Cross, 2013, by Brian Catling: Catling’s exquisite design references a ‘cross of poverty’: not an ornate object, but one crafted from basic materials by someone with the simple desire to fashion the powerful symbol of the Cross. The starting point is two pieces of wood humbly tied together by a length of string; a third piece of wood hanging from the centre provides an allusion to St Martin tearing his cloak in two and giving half to a beggar. Through casting the cross in a strong yet lightweight aluminium and gilding it in white gold, Catling’s original idea is transformed into an extraordinary emblem of the church. Throughout the process the cross has been worked on by hand, creating an original and conceptually complex work.

East Window, 2008, by Shirazeh Houshiary and Pip Horne: The East Window was commissioned as part of the Renewal of St Martin-in-the-Fields, our major £36m building project from 2005-2008. Light was a key theme of the project and the East Window was designed to let in as much light as possible while creating a work of art that is uplifting and inspirational. The artist was given a brief suggesting a minimal, possibly monochromatic design would be appropriate and that a potential starting point or subject was that of ‘Jacob’s Ladder’, a story which has had a continuous thread of resonance for St Martin’s.

Altar, 2011, by Shirazeh Houshiary & Pip Horne: The Altar is designed by Shirazeh Houshiary and Pip Horne, creators of our East Window, and was dedicated at the Patronal Festival in celebration of our patron saint, St Martin of Tours on 13 November 2011. The Altar is at the symbolic and spiritual heart of our church. It is the place where we gather together in communion with one another and with God, and where broken bread and shared wine become the signs of God’s everlasting love for us. It is a sacred space, the place of transformation, the altar upon which we remember the death of Christ and the suffering of the world, but also the place of resurrection and hope. Designed to complement the East Window, the Altar is made from a single block of Travertine Stone that appears to float on a plinth of dark stained oak. These materials have been selected to harmonise with the colours used in the interior of the church. It is gently illuminated by LED lights placed within the hollowed out stone.

The Saint John’s Bible, Heritage edition, presented to St Martin-in-the-Fields in 2009: Created by the monks of Saint John’s Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minnesota under the creative direction of Donald Jackson, the Saint John’s Bible is a union of an ancient Benedictine tradition with the technology and vision of today, illuminating the Word of God for a new millennium of multiple cultures and multiple faiths. St Martin-in-the-Fields has been given a Heritage Edition of the Saint John’s Bible. It was a gift from Saint John’s Abbey made possible by the generosity of Dan and Katherine Whalen. Created in a series of seven volumes, the bible is used in services in Church and some of the volumes are on permanent display in the Foyer. The Saint John’s Bible was commissioned in 1998 by the Roman Catholic Benedictine Monks of Saint John’s Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minnesota. It was created by a team of scribes, artists and craftspeople in a scriptorium in Monmouthshire under the artistic direction of Donald Jackson, one of the world’s foremost calligraphers and the scribe to HM Queen Elizabeth ll’s Crown Office and the House of Lords. Measuring more than two feet by three feet, the bible parallels that of its medieval predecessors, written on vellum, using quills, natural handmade inks, hand-ground pigments and gold leaf while incorporating modern themes, images and technology of the 21st century.

In the Beginning by Mike Chapman, presented to St Martin-in-the-Fields in 1999: Mike Chapman’s beautiful sculpture In the Beginning was commissioned to mark the new millennium and was part of the 1999 Trafalgar Square Christmas celebrations. Carved in a 4.5 tonne block of Portland Stone, this work is now permanently on display at the entrance to the church. In The beginning is well-loved by thousands of visitors to St Martin’s every year and as the artist said “It seemed to me that a tiny life-size baby craved from stone in such an enormous environment would be the best way to remind us all of just whose birthday we are celebrating.”

Shadow No 66 (triptych) 1996 by Brad Lochore: This oil on canvas by Brad Lochore explores the fleeting essence of an object using the effects of light mediated via cinema and photography. Lochore’s paintings poetically underline the impermanence and fragility of our lives, and remind us that although we may recognize real things in such artworks, they are after all illusory. Shadow No 66 (triptych) is on permanent display in the Crypt. Brad Lochore says, “On a metaphorical level shadows are a sign of absence – they indicate the ‘not being there’ of the thing they depict – and that is a very persuasive way to talk about the problem of the picture. For instance, an apple in a painting, no matter how beautifully painted, is not there. It seems to me that a critical part of being a painter is not just to make pretty pictures – it’s to address the problem of pictures. And for me, painting shadows, which is predominantly what I do, is a way I can remorselessly address that dilemma. The dilemma is that the human senses have never been assaulted by so much imagery as now, and I think we forget that. Every minute we encounter a world mediated by pictures, so the ‘real’ is mainly conveyed through images now. And that is not to mourn the passing of a better time, it’s just to recognise how the world is. It seems to me that one of the primary tasks of art is to foreground that problem”

Tapestry by Gerhard Richter: In the Dick Sheppard Chapel, a tapestry by Gerhard Richter has been lent by a generous donor. Rev. Richard Carter writes that the tapestry fills this small chapel with light and energy, warmth and imagination. It is like hanging resurrection on the wall. Sit and gaze at the colours; the cross that leads you through layers into the beyond.


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