I couldn’t leave the cathedral at St Asaph’s without mentioning the artwork. Many ecclesiastical buildings are home to arts and crafts, with interpretations and symbols built into their very fabric. Stained glass, carved wood and stone, marble and mosaics… these are the signature pieces you would expect to find in our older churches. These buildings have been at the physical and spiritual heart of their communities for generations and, regardless of one’s own chosen path, offer both a record and an insight into a changing world.
Yet some things remain the same, no matter what the era or where you go in the world; mankind has always used art to explore and express the inexpressible journey of the soul. Just as faith itself, in order to survive and remain relevant, must continually grow and evolve, so too will its expressions in art. In many of our churches that evolution is evident, with carvings spanning a thousand years or more sitting cheek by jowl with Renaissance paintings and modern sculptures.
Many of the pieces are modern interpretations of older concepts. Depictions of the Stations of the Cross, for example, may date back to early pilgrimages to Jerusalem. The images are designed to represent moments on Jesus’ journey to the crucifixion at Calgary and each image is a point of prayer and contemplation, allowing the deeper meaning behind the events to be sought in silence.
While there are some beautiful and ornate Stations from earlier centuries, there is something to be said for the simplicity of more recent examples, where the lack of ostentation provides an uncluttered focus. At St Asaph, simple plaques mark the traditional fourteen stations, though a continuation of the story beyond death is perfectly provided by a symbolic painting of the stone rolling away from the tomb.
Other artworks carve their own identity and express a more personal view of the spiritual journey. The Tree of Life, is a wall hanging by Haitian artist, Jacques Chery. Created in the bold, bright colours of his native culture, the Christ is depicted hanging on a Tree bearing both flowers and fruit. Around him are scenes both biblical and modern. The painting is meant to be read symbolically as well as visually; three vertical and three horizontal columns place each vignette in context.
The most striking piece, though, is by an artist whose work usually consists of fluffy kittens and cute puppies that frolic through the pages of her children’s books. Michele Coxon’s ‘Naked Christ‘ denies beauty…at least at first glance…and has been variously described as ‘obscene’, ‘unfit for a place of worship’ and compared to a ‘decomposing corpse dug up from a mass grave.’ All of which may be true, depending upon your perspective, yet the sculpture brings home the horror of the crucifixion, the suffering and torture, in a way we seldom see. Made from materials picked up from the land, the pieces of wood, rusting metal, and bones now create an image that demands a response. It is easy to look at a benign and serene Jesus on a gilded Cross and forget that this is an image of Man’s torture of our own kind. From the human perspective, prejudice, fear and politics were responsible for the Crucifixion. For Christians, there is another story… a spiritual Mystery and a manifestation of Love. Coxon’s sculpture is shocking. It confronts us with horrific death and suffering, we see the decay of the physical body… impossible during the time it was on the Cross, but perhaps it has a deeper meaning than the obvious.
We are confronted not just with a vision of the pain and suffering of another, but with our own death and inevitable decay. And we are challenged by our own choices. We can choose to avert our gaze or walk away, pretending we have not seen. We can acknowledge in helpless silence our inability to heal the ills of the world. We can honour the natural order of the cycle of life and death, corrupted too often by Man’s own hand. Or we can look beyond the physical image and see the Mystery. ‘Obscene’? Only if death, inherent in every birth, is seen as the unclean enemy. ‘Unfit for a place of worship’? I think not. Almost every faith, creed and religion throughout history shares some version of the Golden Rule… do unto others as you would have them do unto you… I see no better place than a place of worship for such a graphic reminder.