Photo: The Disposition by Tracey Emin, 1989. Monoprint on paper. Collection of Stuart and Margaret Evans.
Kristen Bailey is challenged and consoled by Presence, at St. Paul’s Cathedral.
A man with bloody whip cuts across his back and deep wounds in his hands embraces the friend who betrayed him while he was being sentenced to death. The pardoned man turns away in shame, but the guilty anguish of one friend is overcome by the love and forgiveness of the other.
This is Iain McKillop’s affecting painting The Reconciliation of Peter – one of the works on show at Presence: Images of Christ for the Third Millennium, at St. Paul's Cathedral until February 13 2004.
The exhibition at St. Paul’s is the first in a linked series of different events that will take place in six cathedrals throughout Britain in 2004 to celebrate 150 years of Christian charity BibleLands' ministry.
Photo: Crucifixion by Craigie Aitchison CBE RA, 1999-2000. Oil on canvas. Private Collection.
"How do you depict a humanity that is inseparably united with divine action?" asks Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, in the book which accompanies Presence.
Presence confronts us with contemporary artists who have attempted to answer this mindblowing question – in paint, in sculpture and through installation, video and performance art.
Some explore traditional subjects from the Stations of the Cross. Others concentrate on the person of Jesus, aiming to convey his humanity and divinity.
Regardless of your individual religious beliefs, the works on show are challenging and charged with emotion.
Peter Howson’s Ecce Homo is a stark portrayal of a strong but submissive Christ – his sinewy hands bound together, he looks you in the eye from under his crown of thorns, blood and sweat mingling with his tears. Here is a divine but human being – able at any time to call a halt to the horror he knows is coming, but obedient to his calling.
Photo: Ecce Homo by Peter Howson, 2003. Oil on canvas. Private Collection. Photo: courtesy Flowers East, London.
Some pieces, such as Bill Viola’s video work, The Messenger, do not depict Jesus at all, but bristle with spirituality. The Messenger – a naked man appearing and disappearing into a body of water – uses metaphors of water and light, which are present in many religions.
It reminded me of my own Christian baptism – the water closing over the man’s face, his descent into the silence and darkness, and his ascent to break the surface of the water, gasping for air as noise and light hit him.
Photo: The Messenger by Bill Viola, 1996. Single-channel colour video and stereo-sound installation, continuous loop. Photo: courtesy of Kira Perov.
Presence will continue across the country with a variety of exhibitions and events.
Vigil, a Willie Williams installation, will flood Canterbury Cathedral with coloured light from Palm Sunday till Easter morning.
St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral in Glasgow will show Peter Howson’s Stations of the Cross.
Worcester cathedral hosts the Lindsay Quartet’s performance of Haydn’s Seven Last Words, to accompany Martin Rose’s paintings.
Lincoln’s Cathedral and Usher Gallery will show sculpture by Jill Sim and Nicola Hicks, and Mark Wallinger’s video piece, Angel.
Presence closes with a major retrospective of the work of Durham sculptor Fenwick Lawson, in the city’s cathedral.
"One of the paradoxes of today is that a society which is willfully secular cannot let go of mystery, self-inflicted torment, and sacrifice," said the Very Rev Dr John Moses, Dean of St Paul’s. "They are three things we can’t get out of our system."
Photo: Crucifixion by William Hamper, aka Billy Childish, 2003. Oil on wood.
Presence continues throughout 2004 in the following cities:
Canterbury: Sunday February 22 to Monday April 12 (Easter Monday)
Glasgow: Monday March 22 to Monday April 12 (Easter Monday)
Worcester: Monday March 29 to Friday April 23
Lincoln: Tuesday April 27 to Friday June 4
Durham: Saturday July 31 to Sunday September 5.
The series of exhibitions features work by: Norman Adams, Craigie Aitchison, John Bellany, Matthew Burrows, Mark Cazalet, Billy Childish, Tracey Emin, Chris Gollon, Antony Gormley, Michael Gough, Maggi Hambling, Susie Hamilton, Robert Hardy, Albert Herbert, Nicola Hicks, Paul Hobbs, Ghislaine Howard, Peter Howson, Fenwick Lawson, Sonia Lawson, Christopher Le Brun, Paul Martin, Louise McClary, Iain McKillop, Nicholas Mynheer, Kate Rose, Martin Rose, Jill Sim, Roger Wagner, Mark Wallinger, Penny Warden, Peter White, Willie Williams and Bill Viola.
For more information about Presence, click on this link to visit the Biblelands website.