A Century of Sculpture for English and Welsh Places of Worship

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This article surveys sculpture done in the last 100 years for English and Welsh places of worship attempting to keep clear and balanced both the artist's concerns and also those of an ecclesial and theological nature. The starting point is Eric Gill's Stations of the Cross in Westminster Cathedral (1913-18). The sculptor was aged thirty-one in 1913 and would not have received an immense commission to carve so architecturally and liturgically important a part of the new Westminster Cathedral unless his clients were convinced he was 'one of us'. Consider his credentials: a recent convert from the Church of England, he took to the monastic way of life, embracing a medieval 'self-sufficiency' style that was guided by Fr Vincent McNabb, whose take on his Dominican rule prevented the youthful enthusiast from spiritual excesses--'No mysticism without asceticism'. With a philosophical underpinning gained from a study of Jacques Maritain, Gill was entrusted with the task of carving the 14 Stations, and nearly five years' work was involved. When completed in 1918 in time for a Good Friday canonical blessing, the Stations were ready for liturgical use; they also enhanced the margins, to left and right, as viewers looked up the nave and its uplifting focus on the sanctuary. Today the Stations are appreciated as the work of the greatest artist-craftsman of the 20th century, but their accessible treatment of suffering, revealed in context of the cessation of hostilities of the Great War, needs to be remembered. (Some sculptures seem to catch at a sacred space for a setting, even hanker for it, and Gill's other best-known piece, the Prospero and Ariel (1931-33) with the child's pierced hands and feet, would gain from being sited in apposition to altar or font.)

When Gill was in his last year's work on the Stations, an artist two years his senior was embarking on a large and controversial Risen Christ. Religion and attrait differentiated the two men. Jacob Epstein's Manhattan Jewishness frightened the British establishment, but over a long life his sculptures came to be sited in an Oxbridge College Chapel, an 18th-century London square and an English and a Welsh cathedral. As an Artist against the Establishment' (the subtitle of Stephen Gardiner's 1992 biography), Epstein attracted fierce criticism, while always setting light to it. His religious subjects drew some clear and perceptive comments nevertheless:

   Epstein's new statue 'Behold the Man' on view at the Leicester
   Galleries, is unquestionably a work of religious art, but it
   represents an approach to the problem new at any rate in England
   ... our natural tradition for expressing religious feeling is
   utterly used up and dead.

Mr Epstein has vivified European religious art by an infusion of dark blood, itself not pure but drawn from the African, the Aztec and many other races ... There was much sentimentality and claptrap to be cleared away ... and there was the problem of applying savage principles to a Christian theme. Those priests who have said that they would be glad to see the statue in their own church might well find that, apart from delivering a few severe shocks, it would admirably fulfil its function as an image.

(Anthony Blunt, The Spectator, 15 March 1935).

I observe that Epstein has allowed himself to say to an interviewer: 'Chacun a son Christ'. Unfortunately it is not true. Millions of people have somebody else's Christ, which is equivalent to no Christ at all; just as millions of people have somebody else's justice, or patriotism, or democracy, or Mr Lloyd George ... when I consider the manner in which he has avoided [in the statue of Christ 1920] all the melodrama of pain ... there is a suggestion of the stylite martyr, the gaunt and fanatical hermit, about the figure ... let him carve our monuments and leave to others the immortalising of the houris is of the hour. …