Magazine article The Spectator

Suffolk's Feast of Spirituality

Magazine article The Spectator

Suffolk's Feast of Spirituality

Article excerpt

Suffolk is a county liberally gifted with churches. Now, to celebrate 2000 years of Christian worship, a dozen of them play host to specially commissioned works of art. Thirteen artists have each contributed a set of Stations of the Cross, re-interpreting this traditional form of liturgical church art in contemporary ways This, in effect, constitutes a mini-festival of new religious art and provides an opportunity to assess the aesthetic and formal strengths of the sacred imagery currently being produced. Stations coincides with two other exhibitions on similar themes in the area - An Exemplary Life at Bury St Edmunds Art Gallery (until 27 April) and Good Friday, Maggi Hambling's religious work, which is at Gainsborough's House in Sudbury (until 21 May). Suffolk is for the moment more than usually packed with spirituality.

Stations is the brainchild of Canon Richard Davey who has spent the last four years planning the event with the expert assistance of Barbara Taylor, director of Bury St Edmunds Art Gallery. The project is funded by an Arts for Everyone Lottery award, and the selected churches are arranged in clusters to create an art journey through the county. Unfortunately, the logistical problems are considerable, not only in terms of travel. (For those without a car, there are one or two guided coach trips available. Ring Bury St Edmunds Art Gallery: 01284 762081.) Given the current state of the nation, churches may be closed when you turn up, and although there are assured opening hours on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, from 11 a.m. until 5 p.m., at these times services may well be in progress.

On the map provided by the gallery, contact numbers are given for each venue so that you can ring and check that a church is open, but this is the age of the answering-machine, and three numbers I tried were thus unforthcoming with the crucial information. In the end, I trusted to providence, and in a three-day trip I managed to visit 12 of the 13 venues, and only one was closed. But on two occasions I was extremely lucky; St Margaret's Ipswich was just on the point of being locked for the afternoon, and at Wingfield a party of Americans had traced their ancestors back to this village and had arranged for the Church of St Andrew to be opened so that they could study the memorials.

Timed to run from Ash Wednesday (8 March) until Pentecost (11 June), Stations is a bold and stimulating initiative. The purpose of the Stations of the Cross is to allow believers to follow in their imagination Christ's footsteps on his way to Golgotha, and thus experience through an act of devotion His last journey on earth. Pursuing this Ira Dolorosa, and literally walking with Jesus, is traditionally, of course, a Good Friday pilgrimage. The Stations have varied in number between two and 30 since they were first recorded in the 4th century, but settled down to an accepted 14 in the 18th century. They trace the story of the Passion from Pilate condemning Jesus, through His humiliation to His burial. A final Station is sometimes added depicting the Resurrection. A handsome full-colour paperback documenting the show may be ordered at the special exhibition price of L7.50.

There are some beautiful and distinguished churches among those selected to play temporary host to these new sets of Stations. Chief amongst them is Holy Trinity, Blythburgh. Any artist showing in this church is at once at a disadvantage, for nothing can successfully compete with its magnificent clerestory and serene lightfilled interior, which looks at its best unadorned. …

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