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Thursday 16 October 2008

chapels, sacred and secular

A true story told to me many years ago goes something like this: a small boy was taken by his mother on his first ever trip round London to see something of the great landmarks. They saw Buckingham Palace and the Changing of the Guard, the Tower of London and Trafalgar Square and then for the grand finale they went to St Paul's Cathedral. They walked up the steps outside and entered through the West door. Somewhere high above them the organ was playing. "And this," said his mother, "is the house of God!" Later that evening he was telling his father about his day. He got to the last bit: "And then we went to the house of God..." He dropped his voice to a whisper. "But God was upstairs hoovering." The bit that I find fascinating is the fact of him lowering his voice to a whisper to tell his dad that God was upstairs hoovering. Cathedrals do that to you, even to young boys who have not yet learnt the expected response. It is there somehow, in the fabric of the building. Churches can do it. Even chapels may do it, but Cathedrals never fail to do it. No doubt size and spaciousness are factors, but it must be more than that. The proportions perhaps... We could go on guessing, but as so often is the case, what works for faith can work for art also. Chapels (if not Cathedrals) can be secular. There are some stunning examples. I have chosen four very different ones. The current Rothko exhibition at Tate Modern got me thinking about similarities and differences between it and the Ofili exhibition entitled The Upper Room which I saw some years ago and of which it reminds me. That was the starting point for my thinking, but the post starts with neither of those.

In 1941 Matisse was living in Nice when he developed cancer. He underwent major surgery and was then cared for with great tenderness by a pretty young nurse until he had recovered his health. She became his model. In 1943 she moved to Vence, some twenty miles away, where she entered the Convent of Our Lady of the Rosary, a Dominican Order. Matisse soon followed her, buying a house not far from the convent. At some point after that she suggested to him that he might like to help with the decorating of the chapel, but he was more ambitious than she, suggesting a purpose-built extension, a chapel in which everything would be designed by him: the pulpit, the chasuble, the pews... Even the black and white of the priests' robes were to be part of the grand design. It struck me, thinking about it, that looked at in a different way, Matisse's chapel is an installation - or could be. Whatever, it was certainly a great opportunity to showcase his work, but an opportunity he would pass up, as we shall see.
I have not been to Vence, but seeing the chapel in that light, I am more comfortable writing about it than I would otherwise be. Most works you need to have seen, but an installation is concerned with concepts, abstractions more easily talked about in the abstract or at second hand than other works of art. Photographs, videos and descriptions from those who have seen it, will take us further along the road of understanding than would be the case with, say, a Rothko.

The architect seems to have given Matisse all he asked for, the overall impression being one of space and lightness, achieved by walls of pure white, decorated with black outline drawings depicting the Stations of the Cross. The only colour belongs to the stained glass windows and to the light that streams through them to create moving abstract picture-shows on the floor as the sun moves round. Greens, blues and yellows contrast with their black and white surrounds and reproduce the characteristic shapes of the local foliage. The windows rise from floor to ceiling; the simplicity of the whole gives an impression of vastness, despite its small size; while the whiteness was meant to both symbolises the coming together of all the colours and the lightening of the spirit. It is a place of great beauty and tranquility.

It took Matisse five years to complete his commission. Some have seen this labour of love as a conversion. He said not: My only religion is the love of the work to be created, the love of creation, and great sincerity.

Matisse's use of light, vital and intrinsic, knitted into the fabric of the whole, is a characteristic of three of my four chapels. Except - time to own up! - they are not all chapels in any generally accepted sense of the word. Two of them are installations, pure and simple, though to me they partake of many of the characteristics of chapels, albeit secular ones. They have attributes enough to become chapel-substitutes. So what am I saying: first, a chapel that is an installation, and now installations that are chapels? But, taking Christ's remark that where two or more are gathered together in His name, He will be there among them, I think it is neither blasphemous nor too fanciful to draw parallels and to say that where a purpose-made body of work comes together under the precise conditions that the artist envisaged for it, then an indefinable something may be there that would not be present otherwise.

Three of the four, though not the same three, share another feature: they are to varying degrees showcases for the artist's signature style work. The exception, as I have already hinted, is the Vence Chapel. A wonderful opportunity, you might have thought, for Matisse to present himself to the world under ideal conditions, and yet he went to extraordinary lengths to efface himself, even working on the outline figures with brushes mounted on two-meter length bamboo poles to ensure that nothing of his usual style crept in.

The Resurrection of the Soldiers

We consider next, though, what is in many ways the odd-one-out of my four, The Sandham Memorial Chapel at Burghclere in what is now Hampshire, but was Berkshire. Stanley Spencer was one of the most original painters of the modern era, a one-off. Original in the way that primitive painters are original, with a plethora of detail and a naive religious vision probably closer to William Blake than any other. However. he did receive formal training, at The Slade School, but there is no sign in his work of anything he might have picked up there. His paintings were for the most part set in his home village of Cookham, where he lived all his life, except for two periods as a war artist (WW1 and WW2) and for the five years it took him to complete the Burghclere Commission. The canvases were crowded with the people that he knew and met every day in Cookham. Lovable, slightly rolly polly people for the most part. The paintings were scriptural, interpretations of gospel events taking place in Cookham in modern times.

When you enter The Burghclere chapel you enter a place of Sepulchral gloom. I wonder if my young friend from the St Paul's Cathedral story would have lowered his voice... There is no lighting and there are no significant features but Spencer's paintings. They have a common theme, aspects of military life - and death - at the front, but there is no narrative; they are all stand-alone pictures, but they lead the eye inevitably to the room's main focus, the massive Resurrection of the Soldiers covering the East wall. Despite their subject, the paintings are remarkably light in tone and, given also the slightly cuddly nature of the characters peopling them, some commentators have been led to observe that it must have been a lovely war!

The soldier whose life is remembered by the chapel was killed in Macedonia - where Spencer himself served for a while in the front line - during the First World War.

The Seagram Murals were originally commissioned for The Four Seasons Restaurant in the Seagram Building New York. There is much doubt and controversy as to why Rothko eventually reneged on the commission, sending back the money. He is alleged to have said initially that his hope was that his paintings would spoil the meals for the rich b******s who would eat there. Later he told his assistant that no one paying those prices would ever see his paintings. One version is that he had wanted them to hang in the staff's eating room. He then gave nine of the paintings to the Tate, on condition that they would be given a permanent, exclusive room.

The murals consist of rectangles of soft, luminous colours, the deepest of reds, oranges, maroons, greys, browns and blacks, whose edges bleed into each other. They are shown in a room as sepulchrally gloomy as the Burghclere Chapel, but they are themselves more gloomy than the Spencer paintings. Many people compare the experience with entering a cathedral.As with all Rothko's paintings of this type, you (I!) need to stand in front of the canvas, suspending, as far as possible, any attempt to search for recognisable or suggestive shapes, any analytical activity aimed at discovering their meaning. I think I have said this before in an earlier post, describing it as something akin to meditation. Before long the flat black area reveals itself as nothing of the sort. Other blacks, gradations of all sorts, appear, the way other colours appear in a red brick wall if you study it closely:

The Rothko Seagram
canvases, my metaphor
for death. I've looked at it
in many ways (each age
of man sees it anew),
peered lazily at reproductions,
studied from afar off,
now, in touching-distance,
looming over me, they frighten
with their magnitude. Their dull,
flat, smack of black
is nothing of the sort close up
where flecks and shimmers draw you in.
A man could lose himself in subtleties,
in modulations,
changes to
the light that flows
from paint and texture. You
might see your shadow shaped
and coloured for eternity. My metaphor
for resurrection!

I had intended first to introduce the Burghclere Chapel and to conclude with the Rothko. In other words to start with the busiest and most detailed of the paintings and to progress through to the most minimalist, but finally decided to leave until last the most difficult, Chris Ofili's The Upper Room. I am not a great fan of most installations, as some of you will have guessed by now, but of the two in my collection of four chapels I will make an exception. True, they are installations of paintings, and that helps... The reference in the title here must be to the upper room which was the venue for the last supper of Christ and His disciples - thirteen people in all. The installation consists of thirteen canvases, which in some ways I find reminiscent of the Rothko paintings, except that each bears a figure and the Rothkos, of course, are strictly non-figurative. These are arranged six on either side of a long, specially designed room panelled in walnut veneer. The thirteenth canvas, the largest, depicting the largest of the figures, and the only one whose figure is shown facing the viewer, a Christ - or Buddah-like - figure in gold. This canvas hangs on the end wall, the position corresponding to the head of the table. Each painting is individually lit, but because of the way the images are built up using layers of resin (and the famous Ofili beads, elephant dung and varnish) and because of the way the light hits the paintings, it pours off them as though they were its source. They give a quick first impression as of stained glass windows. Indeed, the whole installation is alive with the play of light and shadow, in which are many references, not just to Christianity but to many other faiths and beliefs. So much is this the case that the viewer becomes personally involved in the narrative in a way that possibly does not happen in the other chapels.

I said there was a difficulty: it is that the twelve disciple-figures are monkeys - possibly not the Christ-like figure, though there is some ambiguity as to that. Specifically, the twelve are rhesus macaque monkeys, the ones most familiar to us from our visits to the zoo, the ones that have been shown capable of using symbols and tools and of possessing some concept of number. The ones, I suppose, closest to us. Is this relevant? I don't know. I have been looking for clues to the symbolism since I first encountered this installation, several years ago. I have not found much help from the critics. Most seem to get stuck at first base, talking about Making a monkey out of religion etc, etc. Rightly or wrongly, I discounted such readings from the beginning. The whole feel of the piece is against it. I thought of the Simian Monkey-God, the symbol of strength and tenacity; and I thought of the monkey as a mirror in Japanese ritual, the way it was at first revered as a mediator and then mocked for its pathetic efforts to be like us - could Ofili be hinting at the pathetic efforts of humans to be Christ-like? - before finally being seen as a clown, an object of laughter, that even while it was being laughed at, could subtly undermine the pretensions of a culture. Then a bit of research turned up the yang wood monkey, symbol of revolution, movement and change.

But our natural reference points (though perhaps not Ofili's) are in Christian Iconography, in which the monkey is a symbol of the devil, or at any rate of mischief. Could that be it, or part of it? There is an additional reason for pursuing this particular line of enquiry, the fact that the twelve monkey figures - though not, as I have already pointed out, the large Christ-like one - are all shown in profile. According to Orthodox Christian Iconography the only figures that may be shown in profile are demons and Judas Iscariot. But now to complicate the picture further, there is yet another fact that might or might not be worth throwing into the melting pot: the monkeys were taken from a drawing by Andy Warhol. So, I thought, (being clever, like!) let's look-see what use Warhol was making of it. Perhaps the clue lies there. It turned out that it was a drawing of a monkey wearing a hat and waistcoat and playing with a cup-and-ball game. Clue? Or no clue? It at least explains why all the monkeys are holding up goblets. It does not explain, though, why they are all stuck with glitter pins. But perhaps this is another example of a work we should not try to analyse. one in which it might be more profitable simply to lose ourselves, but somehow I do not think so. Again, the feel of the work does not suggest that to me. The figures are sumptuous, produced by a patternig of monochrome dots on grounds of senuously swirling flora and abstract shapes.

I have provisionally decided that Ofili might have chosen monkeys for his figures in order to dilute any specifically Christian references and to give us instead a potpourri of vaguer religious feelings to do with beauty, awe, deep affinities with the natural world, sublimity, the futility of human desires, etc. He is particularly adept at such syncretising the varying aspects of different faiths. I would be greatly interested to hear if anyone has other readings to throw into the pot.


Anonymous said...

What an impressive post, Dave. Fascinating commentary on art in the service of religion, produced in the main by artists more concerned with the medium than the message (although in Spencer's case the Christian context is unorthodox, to say the least - the 'mediated sacred', as John Durham has it - http://www.bytrent.demon.co.uk/spencer.html). And we get an excellent poem slipped in unannounced. A fine example of that difficult feat that poetry occasionally pulls off - drawing from a work of art and going further. Thanks for such a good read, Dave.

Dave King said...

Many thanks for the feedback, and especially for the link. I did not know of the site, but shall be exploring it further before long.
Fascinating, I always think, the way one art form can feed off another.
And yes, the Spencer context is unorthodox - extremely so - but there is no doubt that medium and message were of equall interest to him.

The Weaver of Grass said...

Good and interesting post Dave. What struck me about all the photographs is the sense of peace. I did not know of the Matisse chapel - it is stunning and so unlike Matisse's work - using neutrals with just that blue stained glass window and letting the sun and the breeze on the trees create the pattern is very beautiful. So much of his work has such a zest for life and colour and this is somehow the opposite of that. I would certainly want to lower my voice in there - no, on thinking about it, no-one should be allowed to speak in there - the silence would add to the beauty.

hope said...

Visiting with you is like sitting with a favorite teacher...minus the exam. :)

I'd never heard of the Matisse chapel either and found it the most "peaceful" of them all. I agree with Weaver of Grass...such a space calls for silence not so much in reverence as in the feeling of being wrapped in warmth and light...silent peace, as it were.

Nice job!

Acornmoon said...

Although I have studied Matisse, I don't think I ever saw the stained glass window before. Thanks for a very informative post. So glad to hear that God does a bit of hoovering!

Dave King said...

The Weaver of Grass

I don't think there can be any doubt about it: the Matisse chapel does give off that air of peace, certainly more than any of the others. It is also unlike his usual work when it comes to the outline drawings - of which, alas, I could find no usable images. They are, to my mind, reminiscent of Medieval drawings, illuminated manuscripts etc. You can just see one in the general image I have posted.
Thanks for the comments.

Dave King said...

In which case I will accept your comments in lieu of the traditional apple - though I have to say I do not intend to be teachy. An occupational hazard, I guess. I do agree with you though, about the silence, warmth, light and peace. Beautifully put.

Dave King said...

Acorn Moon
One of my most favourite stories, that. Thanks for the comments.

Rachel Fox said...

Teachy doesn't have to be bad! In your case it is...what it should be...interesting, enlightening, full of enthusiasm.

Dave King said...

Thanks for that - you say the nicest things!

Jim Murdoch said...

Interesting as always, Dave, but I was surprised you chose not to cover The Rothko Chapel itself. There's a wonderful 360° tour too but it's a bit on the small size which is the real problem with your article - the photos didn't really do the locations justice. Not your fault of course. We work with what we have.

hope said...

Professor, I meant that as a compliment of the highest regard...there is a difference between "teachy" and "preachy". ;)

I think of you as an enthusiastic Tourist Guide for the Brain... I appreciate being enlightened without being made to feel ignorant.

Write on, kind Sir.

Bee said...

We were staying in Vence this summer, and everyday I would walk by the Matisse Chapel on my way to buy bread. My eagerness to see inside grew and grew, but sadly, I was disappointed when I finally did enter it. I didn't feel that sense of awe, those stirrings of God, that the little boy describes.

There is a lovely place near us called the Douai Abbey -- and we often go to concerts there. We heard the Monteverdi vespers last Saturday night, in fact. The atmosphere has a great -- profundity? -- about it. Curious why the aesthetics of some places are more moving to us than others.

I am very near the Burghclere Chapel -- thanks for alerting me to it. And thanks, too, for this thoughtful and thought-filled post.

Conda Douglas said...

Sure beautiful spaces, Dave.

And I do have a different reading of the monkeys as I've lived in Asia and one of my favorite tales from the Ramayama is when Rama, annoyed at Hanuman's (the Monkey God, who looks much like the figures)monkey antics said, "Sometimes, I don't know if you truly love me."
Hanuman said, "This is my love, oh Lord," and tore open his chest and there upon his heart, his blood, every cell of his being was written 'Rama,Rama,Rama.'

Could they not a symbol of true devotion to God?

Dave King said...

Yes, thanks for that. I was myself disappointed with the pictures and did try to find something rather more satisfactory, but without success. I had seen some of the Rothko canvases, but not the chapel. I tried, where possible, to concentrate on what I have seen.

Since posting , I have stumbled on the sort of images I was looking for!... I may post them separately later.

Dave King said...

Wow! How do I answer that? I've come over all peculiar!
As to teachy and peachy, I've been both in my time, so I really have to be careful!

Dave King said...


I have often wondered why Matisse did not do his usual thing for the chapel. Perhaps he should have.

I've reminded myself that it's time I went back to the Burghclere Chapel - if you go, remeber to go on a bright day! You used to have to book - bt it's a long time; it may have all changed by now.

Thanks for the feedback.

Dave King said...


Yes, indeed, that could certainly be part of it. Mostly I feel very strongly that an artist should not explain (or at least, not have to explain) a work, but with this one there are so many possibilities, I am not sure...

Much thanks for the contribution.

Roxana said...

oh dave, this is such a gorgeous post! indeed, I always learn a lot when I come to you. you know, I saw a big Rothko exhibition some years ago in Berlin, and it didn't get to me, but somehow I had the feeling that I had missed something essential. now you confirm that and open new eyes for me.

Dave King said...


Many thanks for the comments. I do know how you feel - we have all done it, stood in front of a canvas that people are raving about, people whose judgements we trust, and yet find we cannot get anything from it.
I think the trick is not to look for what we are missing, but to let it percolate somehow through our thoughts or our emotions. Certainly, not to worry about it or beat ourselves up as they say, about what we are missing.