Suffolk's feast of spirituality
Andrew Lambirth goes on an art journey through the county
uffolk is a county liberally gifted with churches. Now, to celebrate 2000 years of Christian worship, a dozen of them play host to specially commissioned works of art. Thirteen artists have each contributed a set of Stations of the Cross, re-interpret- ing this traditional form of liturgical church art in contemporary ways This, in effect, constitutes a mini-festival of new religious art and provides an opportunity to assess the aesthetic and formal strengths of the sacred imagery currently being produced. Stations coincides with two other exhibi- tions on similar themes in the area — An Exemplary Life at Bury St Edmunds Art Gallery (until 27 April) and Good Fri- day, Maggi Hambling's religious work, which is at Gainsborough's House in Sudbury (until 21 May). Suffolk is for the moment more than usually packed with spirituality.
Stations is the brainchild of Canon Richard Davey who has spent the last four years planning the event with the expert assistance of Barbara Taylor, director of Bury St Edmunds Art Gallery. The project is funded by an Arts for Everyone Lottery award, and the selected churches are arranged in clusters to create an art journey through the county. Unfortunately, the logistical problems are consider- able, not only in terms of travel. (For those without a car, there are one or two guided coach trips available. Ring Bury St Edmunds Art Gallery: 01284 762081.) Given the current state of the nation, churches may be closed when you turn up, and although there are assured opening hours on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, from 11 a.m. until 5 p.m., at these times services may well be in progress.
On the map provided by the gallery, contact numbers are given for each venue so that you can ring and check that a church is open, but this is the age of the answering-machine, and three numbers I tried were thus unforthcoming with the crucial information. In the end, I trusted to providence, and in a three-day trip I man- aged to visit 12 of the 13 venues, and only one was closed. But on two occasions I was extremely lucky; St Margaret's Ipswich was just on the point of being locked for the afternoon, and at Wingfield a party of Americans had traced their ancestors back to this village and had arranged for the Church of St Andrew to be opened so that they could study the memorials.
Timed to run from Ash Wednesday (8 March) until Pentecost (11 June), Stations is a bold and stimulating initiative. The purpose of the Stations of the Cross is to Ecce Homo, by Norman Adams, in St Margaret's, Ipswich allow believers to follow in their imagina- tion Christ's footsteps on his way to Golgo- tha, and thus experience through an act of devotion His last journey on earth. Pursu- ing this Via Dolorosa, and literally walking with Jesus, is traditionally, of course, a Good Friday pilgrimage. The Stations have varied in number between two and 30 since they were first recorded in the 4th century, but settled down to an accepted 14 in the 18th century. They trace the story of the Passion from Pilate condemning Jesus, through His humiliation to His burial. A final Station is sometimes added depicting the Resurrection. A handsome full-colour paperback documenting the show may be ordered at the special exhibition price of £7.50.
There are some beautiful and distin- Matching the art to the building is one of the greatest challenges facing any organiser of such a project. From the work I saw, the most effective partnering was Norman Adams with St Margaret's, Ipswich. Adams is one of that small band of artists who regu- larly make religious work which also functions brilliantly as art indepen- dent of its subject matter. His person- al convictions do not deter people who simply wish to revel in his genius as a manipulator of light and colour, line and form. But when he takes on a religious commission such as this, he really engages with the presence of God in the world, accessed for him particularly through music, great art and literature. Adams is an extremely fine watercolourist who operates in the richly rewarding but undefined area between abstraction and figuration. His Stations are a triumph inventive decorative designs which have a depth of meaning that rises clearly from spiritual contemplation and experience.
Of the other art, I would single out the linocuts of Adrian Wiszniewski at Wing- field — startling white outline images on lush grounds of lawn-green, peach, lilac, yolk-yellow, Despite the seductiveness of the colours and the fine Japanese paper on which they're printed, there's an appealing factuality to Wiszniewski's images which suits the setting. Bury St Edmunds is the centre of the project, with the Cathedral, the Church of St John — showcasing some moving mixed media drawings by the sculp- tor Mike Kenny, the last things he complet- ed before his tragically early death last December — and the Art Gallery pressed into service. The show in the Gallery is a kind of secular response to the Stations, an exhibition on parallel themes, though one artist, Oliver Barratt, is really part of both projects, contributing a series of Stations modelled on the scourged human back.
At Sudbury I was impressed by the unex- pected and largely unshown religious work of Maggi Hambling, her skills as draughts- man, colourist and sculptor prominently on display in an intriguing presentation. I'm Sony I missed seeing the Lino Manoccis an artist I greatly admire — at Horringer, and the Stations at Lavenham by Richard Kenton Webb, who seems to have devel- oped in a way I find surprising and not a little inspiring. Inevitably, although the art was a mixed bag, the whole admirable Sta- tions project reaffirms how hard it is to find good artists to make sacred art, despite the hard work and dedication; there just aren't that many Michelangelos in any one century.