Sacred Space – Cathedrals from the Outside – Sandy Nairne

19th September 2018

Cathedrals from the Outside – Questions of Art, Engagement, Commemoration and Celebration


The great Russian artist, Wassily Kandinsky, declared in his 1911 manifesto for modern art, that “Art is the all-important spark of inner life”. And more recently the American artist, Bill Viola, expressed a similar sentiment when he said, “Art is, for me, the process of trying to wake up the soul,”

These are important expressions of inward feelings, but this afternoon I want to share thoughts about an outward and collective aspect of Cathedrals. I will examine – in four sections – some of the shifts in the presentation of art in public spaces and in galleries – making contemporary art more engaging and popular than previously. And compare this with a little of what has been happening with cathedrals inviting artists to contribute to our buildings: to the presentation of worship and to engage with the many communities that Cathedrals serve.

The starting questions might be: How does contemporary art function in museums in ways that is of interest to cathedrals? And are there new ways in which art is playing a part in cathedrals that is important to the cultural world as a whole?

One very obvious change in art galleries is how they offer better access and facilities, serving more visitors, and serving them much better – whereas parents with young kids used to find galleries difficult places to visit, galleries like the Whitworth here in Manchester or Tate Modern are now ‘Buggy Heaven’: full in the mornings with sleep-deprived parents quietly recovering themselves, and kids having a great time. And galleries create programmes of exhibitions and displays, with education programmes, which appeal to a much wider demographic than 25 or 30 years ago.

However, I want to argue that something deeper and more interesting is going on, more significant than cafes and loos and even popular exhibitions, important though they are – a process by which the best artists are finding a new confidence about how they can contribute to places of worship.

Some of this comes from the unexpected juxtaposition of what is literally Outside and what is Inside … Trees are normally part of woods, until…

Wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton, Westminster Abbey in April 2011

… they play a part in a royal wedding. Nature at its most wonderfully inspiring.

Woods are to be explored outside of cities, until ….

David Hockney’s ‘Bigger Trees at Warter’, 2007, on show at Tate Britain

… David Hockney made his largest ever work of art, composed of 50 panels. Following on from his devotional work over many years painting the same landscape views and places in East Yorkshire through each of the seasons. It is a work that seems to emulate the grandeur of 19thCentury history paintings.

And trees become parts of buildings, or may inspire them, as trees did with the creation of Gothic Architecture until ….

Whipsnade Tree Cathedral, Bedfordshire, planted from 1932

…. trees are planted to become a cathedral. Here is the Whipsnade Tree Cathedral (now in the care of the National Trust). It was created by Edmond Blyth, a soldier in the First World War who lost three of his closest friends. He had the idea in 1930 following a visit to Giles Gilbert Scott’s Liverpool Cathedral, then under construction.

Blyth wrote, “As we drove south through the Cotswold hills on our way home… I saw the evening sun light up a coppice of trees on the side of a hill. It occurred to me then that here was something more beautiful still and the idea formed of building a cathedral with trees.”

What he made is not a garden but a grand construction – nature turned to long-term communal purpose. And it leads us to questions of commemoration.

Like many, I was very moved by the Westminster Abbey Solemn Vigil of Commemoration service held at 10pm on 4th August 2014, marking 100 years from the end of peace – creating a literal and vivid image of Sir Edward Grey’s famous phrase that, “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time”.

Since then churches and cathedrals, village halls and country houses, museums and galleries across the whole country have staged a remarkable array of commemorative services, events, and displays. And have discovered a huge popular appetite for more information about those who fought, those who supported the War effort, and those who died. ‘Sanctuary’, the special installation commissioned by the National Trust for Dunham Massey is a notable example.

COMMEMORATION – Stone Gallery St Paul’s Cathedral 2018

Cathedrals have played their part in First World War commemorations: amidst the numerous ceremonies and occasions of honour – with special Remembrance Day services, new poems and music – there is a physical legacy of capital projects. As many here will be aware, these have in part been made possible through the government’s provision of a First World War Centenary Cathedrals Repair Fund – and some £40m has been distributed to support projects at 57 Cathedrals.

These have included critically important repairs to the Tower here at Manchester Cathedral as well as the renewal of the Stone Gallery at St Paul’s. As Church Care put it, “The fund prioritised making buildings weatherproof, safe and open to the public as well as ensuring they would be in a safe condition to host acts of remembrance for the centenary of the First World War armistice in 2018.”

In other words, crucial … but mostly invisible. Yet arguably the never-ending and national issue of the ongoing repair and conservation and the renewal of our cathedrals is the backdrop to those projects that have caught the public’s imagination – art projects which in other circumstances might have been seen as too experimental to interest a wider public.

Like 5 million others, I went to the Tower to see the very visible, powerful and almost visceral effect of that sea of poppies flooding into the moat …

‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’, 888,246 ceramic poppies, by Paul Cummins and Tom Piper, Historic Royal Palaces, 2014

In such an uncertain contemporary world this visual commemoration may have had a particularly emotional effect – the ceramic poppies certainly caused questions of memory and honour to become visible and directly linked to the sacrifices of individuals: each poppy a husband or a wife, a sister or a brother, once a son or a daughter, now a grandfather or grandmother.

‘We’re Here Because We’re Here’ by Jeremy Deller with Rufus Norris, 14-18 NOW, Waterloo Station, July 2016

Jeremy Deller’s powerful performance work also seemed to connect viewers with individuals. It stood out among the many works of art created by 14-18 NOW, the government supported commissioning agency, by producing, without announcement, and for one day only, scores of First World War soldiers at railway stations and other public buildings. The unexpected shock of this strange encounter appeared to be spell-binding.

More recently I watched the powerful new opera, ‘The Head & The Load’, by the distinguished South African artist William Kentridge, staged in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern.

‘The Head & The Load’ by William Kentridge, 14-18 NOW ,Tate Modern, July 2018

This was a glorious performance of song, dance and narrative which explored the place of black African soldiers in the First War, and their invisibility – being seen by many simply as ‘porters’, and irrelevant to struggles commanded by others.

Several things might surprise us about these contemporary commemorative works – their scale and ambition, often involving European and international participants, and while creating resonant images, also pointing to stories untold, or perhaps simply unheard. But also, and importantly, giving artists the chance to lead public commemoration alongside the very appropriate traditional services and ceremonies of the armed forces and their associated charities.

CONTEMPLATION – Rothko Chapel Houston

What we already have is a modern tradition of exploring the spiritual without necessarily pursuing the sacred in any detail – think of Matisse’s great chapel at Vence or John Piper’s windows amongst the greatest of 20th Century commissions at Coventry Cathedral.

A sense of imminence – or the numinous – is sometimes described by those encountering the intense abstract paintings of Russian-born Jewish artist, Mark Rothko. He was commissioned to make fourteen large paintings for an ecumenical Chapel in Houston. It was inaugurated in 1971, but tragically he had committed suicide the year before. It is described as a ‘ … sacred space open to all [in which] to share a spiritual experience, each loyal to his or her belief, each respectful of the beliefs of others.’

In an intriguing book by the American art historian James Elkins, Pictures & Tears, he examined the reactions of those visiting the Chapel and what caused some to cry. To which the short answer was either a sense of emptiness in which the viewer felt lost, or a sense of being overwhelmed: engulfed by the deep dark colours.

Rothko said that he wanted to convey the ‘basic human emotions of … tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on’, and Elkins describes how ‘Everything conspires to overload the senses: the empty incandescent rectangles of colour, entirely encompassing your field of vision; the sheer glowing silence … the weird sense that the colour is very far away, yet suffocatingly close.’

One visitor simply said: ‘This is where it stops. Depthless.’


Rothko created some of the most purely abstract of post-war paintings, and the Rothko room at Tate Modern is a place of quiet and thoughtfulness. One critic referred to Rothkos’ paintings as pursuing, ‘the goal of relieving modern man’s spiritual emptiness’.

‘The Weather Project’ by Olafur Elliasson, Tate Modern, 2003

There have been many large-scale projects in the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern, a space of similar proportions to the nave of Liverpool Cathedral, and of course by the same architect, Giles Gilbert Scott. But Elliasson’s ‘Weather Project’ produced a tremendously popular work both contemplative and ecstatic.

Such projects are part of making the experience of visiting public art galleries greatly more memorable – and perhaps this emphasis on the contemplative is the counterpoint to the sheer numbers of visitors and the welcome popularity of visiting.

‘The Kiss’ by Auguste Rodin, and Daniel Buren installation, Turner Contemporary, Margate, 2011

Around the country at the Hepworth in Wakefield, at Nottingham Contemporary or at the Baltic in Gateshead, we would find similar effects. Here at Turner Contemporary in Margate we see a ground-floor installation of one of the most well-known of all modern works of art, Rodin’s The Kiss, juxtaposed with French artist, Daniel Buren’s serene window piece which emphasizes how visitors can look out and simply contemplate the Thames Estuary, where J.M.W.Turner spent time, and painted some of the greatest seascapes ever created.

SYMBOLISM – ‘Sound II’ by Antony Gormley, Crypt, Winchester Cathedral, 1986

Antony Gormley has worked at vast scale, as with his ‘Angel of the North’ in Gateshead, and the symbolic is often overt in his work. Inside a cathedral and at smaller scale he encourages an overlap of the secular and sacred. His figures are always based on his own body – and while his works often approach the spiritual, they are not religious. But they do invite questions.

When asked about the place of contemporary art in the public realm, Gormley replied, ‘It is through art that we communicate what it feels like to be alive. When you ask “what is the point of art?” you could reformulate the question to “what is the point of human beings?”’.

Near where I used to work at the National Portrait Gallery is a favourite work of art created for St Martin’s-in-the-Fields by the Iranian-born artist Shirazeh Houshiary working with her collaborator, and husband, Pip Horne.

East Window by Shirazeh Houshiary, St Martin’s-in-the-Fields

East Window (close-up) by Shirazeh Houshiary, St Martin’s-in-the-Fields

It was created as part of an extensive renovation completed in 2008, and within the the original Venetian window designed by James Gibbs in the 1720s. Houshiary created a new central motif, symbolic of the head and body of Christ on the cross: by inference rather than by imitation.

One viewer summarized how, ‘It plays with the space of the window, disrupts the plumb line architecture of the church and reveals the spatial and material qualities of the sky behind the glass, a skill Houshiary … uses to reveal the invisible, a metaphor that is at the heart of religious art.’

This sense of approaching revelation is reinforced by the subtle patterning on the hand-blown glass. Each pane is etched with subtle feathery marks based on fragments of her paintings, themselves developed from an interest in Sufi mysticism and Persian poetry.

It was while the American video artist Bill Viola was exhibiting at the National Gallery in 2003 that Canon John Halliburton invited him to start a conversation at St Paul’s.

‘Martyrs, Earth, Air, Fire and Water’ by Bill Viola and Kira Perov, South Quire Aisle, St Paul’s Cathedral, 2014

And the Cathedral had already marked two places in the South and North Quire Aisles – with an idea of encouraging more ‘devotional space’ – as appropriate for two permanent contemporary works of art: one on the theme of ‘Martyrs’ and one on the theme of ‘Mary’.

‘Martyrs, Earth, Air, Fire and Water’ by Bill Viola and Kira Perov, South Quire Aisle, St Paul’s Cathedral, 2014

11 years later, ‘Martyrs’ was installed in the South Quire Aisle, not far from the memorial to John Donne. It is a four-screen silent, 7 minute, digital film, created using feature-film technology and with cast steel stands designed by Norman Foster, as the first of two permanent works for St Paul’s. The figures on the plasma screens are battered by the elements, but survive. As Rachel Spence commented in the Financial Times, “We identify on a visceral human level with his protagonists’ trauma. Both their suffering and their epiphany is ours.”

I am sure the sense of connectivity was very much in Bill Viola’s mind, and perhaps particularly John Donne’s famous words, preached at St Paul’s: “No man is an island, entire of itself, every man is a piece of the continent”.

‘Mother and Child: Hood’ by Henry Moore, North Quire Aisle, St Paul’s Cathedral, 1984

In the corresponding North Quire Aisle is what later became Henry Moore’s last sculpture, created by the artist for the cathedral following an invitation from the Dean. Although Moore was a life-long atheist, he was fascinated by the question of the resonance and symbolism within religious spaces.

So one of the challenges for Bill Viola and Kira Perov in making ‘Mary’, as the companion piece to ‘Martyrs’, was to position this new work within 20 metres of the Henry Moore. And both pieces involved very close debate and discussion over many years with the Cathedrals Commission for England.

‘Mary’ [detail] by Bill Viola and Kira Perov, North Quire Aisle, St Paul’s Cathedral, 2016

‘Mary’ is a more complex narrative piece, made in five sections, opening with a Madonna and closing with a traditional Pieta image.

‘Mary’ by Bill Viola and Kira Perov, North Quire Aisle, St Paul’s Cathedral, 2016

St Paul’s Chancellor Canon Mark Oakley commented that: “Bill Viola’s art slows down our perceptions in order to deepen them. He uses the very medium that controls mass culture today, film, and subverts that control to instead open up new possibilities and contours of understanding.”

The two works are a symbol of hope and the power of faith. They also extend the relationship between art and liturgy. We are invited to consider how the overlap between the more broadly spiritual or numinous in works of art now plays out in both galleries and cathedrals, in both secular and sacred spaces.

SECTION 4 – RENEWAL – ‘Miracle’ paintings by Stephen Farthing, North Nave Aisle, Salisbury Cathedral, 2018

Bill Viola exhibits principally in galleries, and his large-scale exhibitions are mostly in art museums, his next major exhibition (with Michelangelo …) being at the Royal Academy early in 2019. A cathedral is an unusual venue for him. However many Cathedrals promote their interest in the visual arts alongside their interest in music, and this is sometimes realised through collaboration with city festivals and nearby public galleries. But in some instances there is clear leadership, and in the case of Salisbury, a Visual Arts Advisor, Jacquiline Creswell, working with Chapter, who has organised a programme at the Cathedral over the past decade. This programme is guided by an advisory group and a Visual Arts Policy which includes the following aims:

1. To present art which engages, encourages spiritual development and at times challenges;

2. To open up conversation and explore … questions of our shared Humanity;

3. To reach out to new audiences, generating increased visits to the Cathedral and to increase the rate of repeat visiting; (and)

4. To make links with the Cathedral’s ambitions for social action…

I visited Salisbury ten days ago to see the new exhibition of the ‘Miracle’ paintings by Royal Academician Stephen Farthing, boldly installed in the nave and chancel aisles … and celebrating the 250th Anniversary of the Academy, and equally appearing to express the renewal of the city of Salisbury after the appalling poison attack made in the spring.

‘Les Colombes’ by Michael Pendry, Nave, Salisbury Cathedral, May 2018

In May an international project – Les Colombes – by artist and stage designer Michael Pendry was due to be installed at the Cathedral as part of the final year commemorations for the First World War. Composed of thousands of origami paper doves suspended in the Nave, the work has grown as people have added more doves in each of its stops in different cities and countries. And in each location the project has involved special elements of light and music.

‘Les Colombes’ (night) by Michael Pendry, Nave, Salisbury Cathedral, May 2018

But in Salisbury something else took place. In May 2018 some 2,500 doves were installed in the Cathedral and plans were in place for various workshops to add some more. But through discussion with community groups and leaders it emerged that visitors identified the doves as signifying resilience within an embattled city, following the Skripal attack.

So some 25,000 sheets of origami paper were then offered out, and 15,000 instruction sheets and 10,000 dove templates were distributed in and around Salisbury, for dove-making workshops and displays, and the doves started to spread.

SalisburyCityofDoves, 2018

The results are still visible four months later, with doves having escaped to shop windows in various parts of the city. And what had started as a commemoration for WWI had been enlarged to become a work about collective and communal renewal.

‘St Martin and the Beggar’ by Hughie O’Donoghue, The Knights Bachelor Chapel, St Paul’s Cathedral, 2018

I will finish with the latest contemporary artwork to be commissioned at St Paul’s. It is a painting by another Royal Academician, Hughie O’Donoghue. He recently offered a moving account of why he felt the story of the Roman solider, Martin, who offers half his cloak to a naked beggar at the gates of the city, has such powerful relevance today. In focusing on making a painting both symbolic and resonant, he spoke about creating an image that would be engaging for a 16-year old – someone who would represent the future – and therefore vital for all of us.

How we think towards the future is the obvious concluding question –

> Can we commission and collaborate with artists in ambitious and thoughtful ways, with care and with confidence?

> Can we learn from others and take good advice about how to nurture the best works of art?

> Can we be truthful to the mission of cathedrals, while being open to collaboration and artistic challenge?

> And can we do this without competing with the on-going and crucial requirements of the conservation of cathedral buildings?

I would argue that we can do all these things – and by taking a view from the outside we reinforce the vitality and success of cathedrals.

I end by returning to Wassily Kandinsky – who quoted the author George Sand in proposing that, “The artist’s vocation is to send light into the human heart.”

If we can allow that to develop in our cathedrals, as well as in our galleries, then maybe we will succeed in Bill Viola’s terms of ‘waking up the soul’.

Thank you.
© Sandy Nairne
September 2018