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Friday, 30 May 2014

Sabbatical art pilgrimage: St Benet's Chapel

Most artworks commissioned for churches function as an element within a broader architectural, aesthetic and liturgical scheme. For some artists this sense that the art and the artist's vision is subordinate to a bigger, broader vision can be a part of the reason why church commissions are unattractive and unpursued. It is rare for an artist to given the opportunity to create the atmosphere and ambience for a sacred space but that was the opportunity provided to Adam Kossowski at St Benet's Chapel and it one that he grasped with both hands.

Kossowski's murals at St Benet's Chapel are unique for several reasons. First, they fill the entire wallspace of this circular chapel surrounding and enveloping worshippers with their imagery. Second, the murals take those visiting or using the chapel through apocalyptic scenes from the Revelation of St John. The choice of theme appears to have been that of Kossowski himself who had "studied apocalyptic symbolism and the mysticism of the meaning of numbers." Finally, the technique used by Kossowski for these murals was sgraffito which involves carving into two layers of freshly applied plaster. This technique, which derives from Egypt and Assyria and was popular in Italy during the Renaissance, is almost unheard of in Britain making these murals the most significant example of work in this style on these shores.

Each of these unique aspects of the commission resulted from a high level of trust in Kossowki's vision and technique. Here and also at Aylesford Priory, his other major series of work in one place, his artistic vision seems to have been entirely trusted by those who commissioned him and he was well aware of his good fortune in this respect. The results, in both cases, are wonderful both artistically and spiritually and would have been impossible to have been achieved through the usual committee or tendering processes that characterise most church commissions.

Kossowski's own commitment to the task, opportunity and vision was such that he essentially lived in the Chapel while the work was being created often sleeping there because of the need to work into the night while the plaster was still fresh. Kossowski condenses the twenty chapters of Revelation into seven panels separated by six vertical rectangles in which the four Evangelists, St Peter and St Paul are depicted. The image of St Peter is thought to be a portrait of Kossowski himself. Kossowski's design is both a linear narrative, like a graphic novel in plaster, and an overall unity of concept and creation which fills and forms the space as one complex creative composition.

This magnificent work is, in the words of Revd. Jenny Petersen (Chaplain at Queen Mary College), unique but out of fashion. Yet she maintains its themes have contemporary relevance for Christians on campus who find themselves as a minority among people of other faiths snd those of no religious faith. Again Kossowski's own experiences - this time as an artist in exile - would have fed his own reflections on this aspect of Revelation. Benedict Read in Adam Kossowski: Murals and Paintings notes the difficulties experienced even by refugee artists of major pre-war reputations in finding opportunities for their art to be exhibited and sold. Kossowski quickly found a significant patron in the Roman Catholic Church, an experience in exile which would have fuelled his fascination with this text and its letters to the seven churches.

The murals have also proved to be an excellent talking point in Jenny Petersen's ministry to those other faiths with Muslims, in particular, understanding the themes of judgement found therein leading to a willingness to use the space for prayer. She has encouraged contemplation of the mural's themes by producing a series of cards exploring the imagery of each panel together with the relevant sections from the Revelation of St John.

The space is kept as flexible space with no fixed furnishings and with contemplation encouraged. When services are held, however, the altar table is located in front of the panel depicting worship in heaven of the lamb that was slain. In this way, worship on earth is conducted in the context of worship in heaven. The entrance to the St Benet's Chaplaincy has a neon sign stating, 'not another church' and this is borne out by the innovations of Jenny Petersen's ministry, the apocalyptic power of Kossowski's vision and the links formed between the two.

Ultimately, though, Kossowski's vision is not focused on destruction but instead on the hope of new life to come. After all, in his own life, his understanding was that God had brought him through his own personal subhuman land into a place where the Church provided him with a living through creative commissions. This work, and his work generally, is ultimately about rescue, redemption and salvation. Fr. Edward Maguire has written, 'From clay and fire he forged a vision of the past, present and future to lift up and inspire countless others ... May we be inspired by him to use our gifts as he used his."


Bob Dylan - Jokerman.

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