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Saturday, 2 August 2014

Sabbatical art pilgrimage: Belsey Bridge Conference Centre's Norfolk Room

Via Beata way station

St Julian's Church, Norwich

'Stations of the Cross' by Irene Orgden at St Julian's Church 

'The Revelations of Divine Love of Julian of Norwich,' are a series of paintings by Alan Oldfield which were first exhibited in Oldfield's home city of Sydney before being shown at Norwich Cathedral in 1988 as part of the Norwich Festival of the Arts. These huge paintings made a sizeable impact with aged vergers heard commenting on how strange it was that such images of a mere Norwich girl should have come all the way from 'down under.'

Oldfield first became aware of Julian of Norwich through her phrase 'all manner of things shall be well' which is quoted in T.S. Eliot's 'Four Quartets'. Later he found 'Enfolded in Love', a book of extracts from her writings, on a church bookstall and decided to learn more about the medieval anchoress, the first woman to write a book in English, who lived beside St Julian's Church in King Street Norwich in the 14th century.

Oldfield spoke of these paintings as being his way of paying back what he had learned from Julian of Norwich. 'She is not a very visual mystic,' he said, 'but as she struggled to put her vision into words, so I have struggled to clarify in paint what I feel about her work.'

Struggle and passion are not, however, part of the way in which these paintings have often been viewed. Rosemary Crumlin criticises the series for lacking passion as a result of the careful staging utilised by Oldfield in his theological reflections on Mother Julian's visions. Peter Haynes writes of this more positively as 'conceptual resolution' deriving from Oldfield's 'sensitive understanding' of both source (the visions) and context (medieval art).

Oldfield described the strengths of realism as being 'draughtsmanship, line and closed composition, its success in allusiveness and anonymity.' Crumlin suggests that Oldfield's mature paintings, drawings and theatre designs carry out this brief and incorporate the insights of colour field and hard edge.' He 'often places a frame around a moment of time ... so that the picture space becomes like the theatre stage and the figures become like actors frozen in time and isolated often from each other.' His paintings often 'include explicit references to paintings and to painters he admires,' such as Piero della Francesca and Fra Angelico.

One of the series, 'A High and Spiritual Shewing of Christ's Mother according to Julian of Norwich' was joint winner of The Blake Prize in 1987. In this painting 'Julian pulls back the curtain to see the young Mary at the moment of her 'yes' to the archangel Gabriel's news that, although a virgin (symbolised by the vase of lilies), she is to become the Mother of God' (R. Crumlin, 'The Blake Book,' Macmillan, Melbourne, 2011).

The Blake Prize for Religious Art began in 1951 with an exhibition in Sydney and was 'the idea of Michael Scott, a Jesuit priest, and Richard Morley, a Jewish businessman, who saw in it a way of encouraging the Church to become patron of the arts and remedying what they considered the appalling state of the art in churches.' The Blake Committee 'looked to the European Sacred Art Renewal Movement centred in France for inspiration,' in particular to Notre-Dame deToute Grâce at Assy in the French Alps where, 'within the one building, priest, architect and modern artists had worked together in creative dialogue' (R. Crumlin, 'The Blake Book,' Macmillan, Melbourne, 2011).

Despite the fact that 'before 1940 there was little religious art in Australia' and that 'Churches in Australia rarely took the best artists seriously enough to commission their work,' as Margaret Manion has written, for a 'surprisingly large number of gifted Australian artists, the relationship between art and religion has continued to provide a creative challenge' (R. Crumlin, 'Images of Religion in Australian Art,' Bay Books, 1988). Roy de Maistre was probably the best known of these artists in the UK with commissions at Westminster Cathedral and St Aidan's East Acton, a major retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery and his friendship with Francis Bacon. Arthur Boyd also spent time in the UK, during the Sixties and had his work championed by the art critic, Peter Fuller. In Australia itself artists such as John Coburn, Leonard French, Roger Kemp, Justin O'Brien and Eric Smith all created art which communicated religious feeling and intention.

Oldfield's work came to England primarily because of its content and then stayed when another in the series, 'The Revelations of Julian of Norwich' was purchased by the Friends of Julian of Norwich and hung in what was then the Chapel of St Gabriel's Retreat Centre at Ditchingham in Norfolk. Oldfield gave an additional work 'The Revelations of Divine Love' to the Friends of Julian and this now hangs in the Julian Centre which sits beside St Julian's Church where Julian had her cell. This image depicts the beautiful and lively child who, in one of Julian's shewings, sprang up from a foul and stinking body on the ground.

Realising that the series would be broken up, Oldfield created a film of the paintings with Sheila Upjohn (whose translation of Julian's writings Oldfield had read) reading selected extracts from Julian's shewings. Upjohn would later make a similar use of extracts from Julian in the booklet based on the 'Stations of the Cross' by Irene Ogden which can be found at St Julian's Church. 'Julian and the Scribe' found an ecclesiastical setting, at St Peter's Cremorne, while Oldfield and Earle Backen both created significant work (sometimes jointly)  for Christchurch St Laurence in Sydney where both worshipped and where Oldfield served as churchwarden.

The St Gabriel's Centre in Ditchingham has since become the Belsey Bridge Conference Centre but Oldfield's painting still hangs in the Norfolk Room, which now doubles as the chapel and a conference room. I first encountered this striking image while on a training course here and returned to it as part of my sabbatical art pilgrimage by taking an individual retreat at the Belsey Bridge Centre. On this occasion I shared the space with priests and laity from the Oratory of the Good Shepherd (OGS), who were also there on retreat. The OGS is an international community of Anglicans, ordained and lay, who share a common Rule of Life.

A new addition to the site was a Via Beata way station. These are part of a developing series of shelters running west to east across the UK from St David’s to Lowestoft, each of which contain a single piece of Christian art. The image at the Belsey Bridge Centre is of Christ and his two disciples on the Emmaus road.

The Chapel has survived several changes since its construction in 1960 when it was the chapel for a school run by nuns from the nearby All Hallows Convent. The community of Sisters took up residence in the 1850s and the All Hallows community flourished so that by the end of the 19th century they were running a hospital, an orphanage, a home for fallen women and the school. The complex of late 19th and early 20th century red brick gothic buildings survives, a maze of corridors connecting what were once separate buildings. Simon Nott writes, 'The chapel of the school was rebuilt in 1960 in memory of Herbert Palmer, Warden of the Community of All Hallows and Chaplain to the school. It is a large, light, airy building, absolutely typical of its date: ten years earlier and there would have been more of a sense of a shadowy past, and ten years later it would have responded to the reforms of Vatican II (despite being Anglican) by having an altar in the centre rather than at the east end'.
We enter the painting of 'The Revelations of Julian of Norwich' on the right in shadow; the shadow of Mother Julian on the wall of her cell. Constraining rectangles frame her for us, standing at her reading desk looking out into her field of vision. Red and white tiles circumscribe her cell-space, as sky-blue walls suggest the infinite breadth of her visions.

One painted panel contains her cell, a further three, her visions. 16 screens correspond to 16 showings set side-by-side like theatre sets; God's purposes played out on the stage of history. A tall, thin white candle levitates above the tiled floor illuminating Julian's cell; a 2D image at its apex, becoming 3D at its base. The first of several optical illusions; what we think we see never being all we see.

Julian looks back to her 16 showings and we follow her gaze to be taken back to the cross. Sombre shades and tones conceal a crown of thorns, an empty cross and barren land. Suffering indicated through absence and the shadow of death.

Beyond the cross, the resurrected Christ; his winding cloths now worn around his waist, spilling before him like the train of a bride rides behind. A red band rings him, a cross-shaped scar upon his breast, head bowed, palms held to bless those ministering and receiving at the altar below. Behind his head the stage-set of time opens revealing 'three heavens' of infinite eternity. Beyond him still the vision of the hazelnut painted planet-like in a galaxies' swirl; planet or nut, mass or pinprick, all will be well and all manner of thing be well - the resurrection initiates it!

So, finally, the cross wrapped in the winding sheets of the grave waiting for release, the sheets becoming the waved flag of victory at the return when the resurrection of all restores all to wellness and the vision of the hazelnut come to pass.

For now, vision extends beyond the painting beyond the showings, beyond ... where there is shadow, the shadow of God, revealing the limits of all our imaging. God is beyond the partial and incomplete images we construct. The shadow is God waiting in the wings for the moment of reunion when we shall see and know fully even as we are fully seen and known.


Sydney Carter and OHRWURM Folk Orchestra - Bells Of Norwich.

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