Christian art in a post-Christian society

As The Light Ships has developed, I’ve been thinking more and more about the complex relationship between faith and art. I’ve written a longer, more general piece about those issues on the Regular Marvels site. If you’re interested in these ideas, do follow the link to read the article.

Regular Marvels

‘If I say that this is a post-Christian nation, that doesn’t mean necessarily non-Christian. It means the cultural memory is still quite strongly Christian. And in some ways, the cultural presence is still quite strongly Christian. But it is post-Christian in the sense that habitual practice for most of the population is not taken for granted.’

The only really surprising thing about these measured, thoughtful words is that they were spoken by Rowan Williams, poet, theologian and former Archbishop of Canterbury. In many ways it seemed – and was greeted as – a statement of the obvious. Dr Williams’ interview was followed by quiet murmurs rather than controversy, as if he’d said something everyone knew but was too embarrassed to say.

The consequences of European Christianity’s decline in authority are vast and unforeseeable. They affect individual and social life not just here but also across the world, because elsewhere religion…

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A church in a church

Moulton Chutrch in Moulton Church

When I wrote about the drawing of Moulton Church by William Burgess, I hadn’t noticed that a copy of the engraving that he made from it is actually in the church. Finding pictures of the church you’re in displayed on its walls is another small pleasure. They may be old or new, professional or amateur, skillful or a bit ordinary: they’re always worth a look. And in their quiet way, they underline people’s constant need to express what they value by representing it, even when reality is all around to be seen as itself.

An elephant in Moulton

Moulton Elephant

It never occurred to me that elephants would feature in a project about village churches, but they keep turning up. This one lies on a carpet in the children’s area of Moulton Church, waiting for some small person to sit on him. There seems nothing incongruous about him in this graceful medieval building: both serve to express the human need for love.

Some of the older residents of Moulton remember how severe church services once were: it was forbidden even to turn around in the pew. Times have changed. Mary Brice spoke to me about the festival of animals she organised in the church a couple of years ago, which included a service to bless and give thanks for local people’s pets: dogs, birds, cats and other creatures took place with their owners, while the then vicar’s cockerel paced the ancient floor.

I think the medieval people who made Moulton would have felt entirely comfortable with the presence of animals, living and stuffed, in their church. People lived more closely with animals then than most of us do today, even taking them to court in certain circumstances.

Treasure tucked away in Boston

You wouldn’t think to look if you didn’t know they were there, which may be why the carved figures under the seats of the choir stalls in Boston Stump have survived when so much medieval church art has not.

Medieval church services were sung standing up, several times a day for those in religious life. Thus was born the idea of the misericord, a little wooden shelf on the underside of a folding seat that provided the old, infirm (or less motivated) with something to lean their backsides on when they were supposed to be standing at prayer. Its a very human solution, pragmatic and realistic as mediaeval people often were. It’s name derives from the Latin for an act of mercy.

Because a misericord was rarely seen, the carpenters who made them were allowed more freedom in their work. So, rather than saints and biblical scenes, they carved animals, heraldic symbols and scenes of everyday life. The result is a rich picture of life in the Middle Ages, full of humour and interest – and St Botolph’s church in Boston has as fine a set as you can see anywhere.

There’s a boy being whipped by his teacher, protecting himself with a schoolbook; a bear baited by a man with two dogs; a man and a woman sitting beside a cooking pot; a hunter pursuing a deer with a fearsome arrow; and much more. And if Ernest Napier, author of an excellent guide to the Boston misericords hadn’t told me about them, I’d have left without discovering the wonderful art hidden below the seats.

Sinking ships

Cowbit Church from the Wash

Cowbit stands just 10 feet above sea level, protected from the Welland floodplain known as Cowbit Wash by a huge earthwork called, appropriately enough, Barrier Bank.

This photo, taken from the drained land below the Bank – famously used for ice-skating contests on frozen floodwaters – gives an indication of the scale of the fenland drainage works. Cowbit church tower does not  dominate the landscape here. Sunk into the earth over the centuries – see how far below the road is the 15th century tower door – it peeps humbly over the protective bank that has kept building and people safe from floods and similar acts of God.

Cowbit Church

In 1856, the First Series of the Ordnance Survey mapped Cowbit, the Wash and the surrounding area. Not so much has changed in the subsequent 160 years, and the map nicely shows the relationship of river, land and fen, the little village holding to the bank where it has been so long.

Cowbit on the Odrnance Survey 1856

In 1947, a cameraman for British Pathé shot this unused film of what happens when the dykes are overwhelmed.

 

Ancient and Modern

Medieval visions

Wrangle Church is known to architectural historians for its rare 14th century stained glass. Such survivals are unusual in English parish churches because artistic work associated with Roman Catholicism was frowned upon after Henry VIII established a Protestant Church of England, and especially by the convinced advocates of Puritanism in the 17th century. Statues, metalwork, books, paintings and stained glass were all stripped out, broken, burnt or sold. The people of Wrangle saved at least some of their ancient glass by burying it; but when it was safe to retrieve it, centuries later, its original design had been forgotten, so the glass in the north aisle windows is beautiful but hard to decipher.

Olive Cook, who produced some of the finest post-war books on English buildings and topography with her husband, the photographer Edwin Smith, gives a good account of Wrangle’s medieval stained glass:

An inscription formerly part of this splendid window is recorded to have stated that it was made to the order of Thomas de Wynesty, Abbot of Waltham from 1345 to 1371. A late mediaeval date for the glass is indicated by the naturalism of the figures, the type of armour worn by the soldiers (camail, bascinet and sallet, which replaced the bascinet), the predominance of canopy work, by the fact that the mosaic technique of early glass painting has been abandoned for larger areas of colour and above all by the use of silver nitrate (a late 14th century discovery) to produce a magical range of yellow tints ranging from the palest lemon to rich amber.

English Parish Churches, Edwin Smith, Olive Cook & Graham Hutton, 1976

A modern vision

But it would be a pity, in admiring this valuable ancient work, to miss the latest addition to Wrangle’s artistic treasures: a stained glass window in the south aisle, dedicated to Lincolnshire farming. It was commissioned by Harry Clarke, a worshipper in the church of St Mary and St Nicholas for 64 years, the window was installed in 1997.

It is entirely contemporary in style, with its sky streaking across the panels in bright colours not found in older glass But the heavy horse and the old tractor – a Massey Ferguson or Fordson Major, perhaps – on which Harry Clarke sits, recall an older time, so there is a little nostalgia in the image too. There is also a wealth of detail to find: a crouching cat, a patient dog and lots of birds. There will be children who will come to love this window for generations to come, as their eyes gradually discover its treasures.

And in one corner, a reminder of something that happened when the artist was working on the window: ‘Diana, Princess of Wales, died in Paris, 31 August 1997, RIP’. So is another piece of history, and art, laid down in a parish church on the Lincolnshire coast.

Like pearls on a string

Boston from Whaplode
Boston Stump, seen from Whaplode Church across fields that once were marsh and sea

When you climb onto the roof of Whaplode church tower – which requires some acrobatics, these days – you get a breathtaking view of the Lincolnshire fenlands, as far north as Boston, 12 miles away, where the Stump rises on the horizon.

Moulton from Whaplode 2
Moulton, with the windmill and spire, seen from Whaplode Church

To the west, is the spire of Moulton, a mile away as the crows fly, half an hour on foot. Four miles further on, Spalding church can be seen. If Pinchbeck people had added a spire to their church tower, you’d see that too (but given the alarming angle at which it leans, they were probably wise to restrain their ambitions).

Holbeach from Whaplode
Holbeach church, seen from Whaplode Church

To the east, barely two miles from Whaplode, is Holbeach, then Fleet, Gedney and Sutton St. Mary (Long Sutton) on the edge of the old marshlands separating Lincolnshire from Norfolk. It’s 14 miles from Spalding to Sutton, along the road that marks where sand banks once separated freshwater fen from saltwater marsh. Those 14 miles are studded by eight churches as fine as you could wish to see, each one vying to match, if not outshine, its neighbour. It must have been impressive to reach Whaplode by boat in 1300, and see this line of towers and spires marking the shoreline of England: here was a rich and confident land. Now, the parishes of Whaplode and Moulton have been combined into a single benefice, with Moulton Chapel and Holbeach St Johns. For the first time in a thousand years, these close but independent communities will be served by a single minister. With the recent appointment of the Rev. Julie Timings a new chapter of shared fellowship begins, though the pride in local identity that created each of these unique churches will surely not diminish.

My thanks to everyone I met at Whaplode on Friday and particularly to Roy Willingham for his help in organising the day.

The idealised vision of an obscure artist

Moulton Church, Lincolnshire, by William Burgess (1749-1813),  Pen, ink and wash drawing 21.5 x 32.5cm
Moulton Church, Lincolnshire, by William Burgess (1749-1813),
Pen, ink and wash drawing 21.5 x 32.5cm

Three days after Christmas 1797, an artist called William Burgess was in Moulton and made this fine ink and wash drawing of the church, writing on the bottom ‘sketched on the spot by W Burgess, Dec 28 1797’. He wrote the same thing on a drawing of Spalding church so, if it’s a true record, he had a productive day, despite it being one of the shortest of the year.

At the time, there was no technology capable of reproducing such a drawing in large numbers. Printing allowed only black ink or white paper, so greys were produced by tricking the eye. Very fine black lines on white ground can give the illusion of shades. Engravers copied an artist’s drawing onto a copper or steel plate, scoring marks onto the surface that could hold ink. Many artists were also engravers, because selling a number of prints was a better way to earn a living than selling a single drawing.

There was clearly interest in pictures of these churches by early 19th century, because the drawings of Moulton and Spalding were engraved and published a few years later in a volume dedicated to Fenland churches, alongside views of Boston, Kirton, Holbeach, Gedney, Sutton St. Mary (Long Stutton), Tydd St. Mary, Fleet and Gosberton. This is what Burgess’s drawing of Gosberton church looked like as an engraving:

Gosberton Church by William Burgess,  From Twelve views of churches in Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire; drawn and engraved by W. and H. Burgess, Fleet 1800-1805
Gosberton Church by William Burgess,
From Twelve views of churches in Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire; drawn and engraved by W. and H. Burgess, Fleet 1800-1805

The volume was published in Fleet by William and Hilkiah Burgess (presumably William’s brother and perhaps the engraver), and there is a copy in the British Library (and 78 other libraries across the world). I can find very little information about William or Hilkiah, though there are a few other surviving works including views of Croyland Abbey and Lincoln Cathedral. Apparently there’s a file on him assembled by the Frick Art Reference Library in the United States, but his spirit continues in these drawings which continue to give pleasure so long after his death in 1813.

There’s an artistic puzzle about these pictures though, as well as a historical one. If these drawings were made on 28 December 1797, as William states, why do they show trees in full leaf? Although they are closely-observed representations of the churches ‘on the spot’ the artist was not concerned with mere accuracy. This is an idealized vision of the church in its surroundings, the church in its Sunday best. As such, it’s another sign of the admiration these buildings have inspired and a recognition of their symbolic preeminence in their communities.

Spalding Church, Lincolnshire, by William Burgess (1749-1813),  Pen, ink and wash drawing 21.5 x 32.5cm
Spalding Church, Lincolnshire, by William Burgess (1749-1813),
Pen, ink and wash drawing 21.5 x 32.5cm

A poem from Moulton

 

Wyberton Church, Art and Flowers Festival, June 2014
Wyberton Church, Art and Flowers Festival, June 2014

One aim of The Light Ships is to draw attention to the artistic work of people connected with the Fenland churches. Yesterday, I was able to include two photographs by Michael Strutt, who is a bellringer at Gosberton. Today, I’m delighted to share this poem by Valerie Venables, a writer and member of Moulton Methodist Church. Valerie took part in a wonderful morning’s conversation I had last week with residents of the village, generously hosted by Mary Brice. This poem is one result;  my thanks to Valerie for sharing it with us.

 

The Lightships

The ancient barques are yet alive!

Alive with the love of those whose unnumbered hands,

over ages long, have filled their holds with treasures.

The skilled hands which have hewn and sewn, carved and painted,

bedecking the old walls and timbers with flowers,

hauling the ropes that sound the bells, ringing out joy,

and the one which solemnly tolls for departed souls.

Shoals of silvery words swim in pools of sunlight,

streaming through coloured glass, some caught and thought upon,

others dart away, lost to the day.

 

The music comes, the sound waves lapping

against the shores of consciousness, starting gently,

then billowing strongly, a storm of chords and notes.

The massed voices raised in praise, now and as always,

soar up into the roof space; an upturned ship shape.

Our country churches, the arks of preservation,

sail on through the ages, navigating changes,

yet remain constant still, to the ever profound.

Faith unfathomable, deep depths of mystery,

The lightships float on an endless sea.

 

Valerie Venables