Art and the Faith at Mirfield
George Guiver cr on the artistic vision behind the major refurbishments currently being undertaken at the Community of the Resurrection
I am one of those who enjoy going on the bike to look at country churches. On entering I always pray aloud
before the high altar and reverence the building. The 1960s were mistaken to see the church building as an added extra. We don’t need sacred places to worship in, but we do naturally desire them, a desire endorsed by the Incarnation.
This is illustrated by many religious communities whose vocation is to hold a piece of ground for God, a geographical location where the climate is his. People can walk into this climate and be affected by it, and be reminded of God’s sovereign call. The church building has that function too.
Itinerary for pilgrims
At Mirfield we have a huge and unusual church, and, as you might have heard, we are re-ordering it. We want a building that brings people to their knees, a holy place that will speak to our visual, tactile, artistic culture. Key to the re-ordering has been the creation of an itinerary for pilgrims, following the wonderful works of God in our redemption in ‘Stations of Salvation’.
The journey starts with the Incarnation and the statue of Our Lady holding Christ towards us. Nearby glass doors to the new St James’s chapel bear a representation of a fourth-century sculpture of the Magi bringing gifts to Bethlehem. In this place also is the tomb of Charles Gore our founder, a great proclaimer of the incarnation.
Thence the pilgrims proceed to
the chapel of the Holy Cross with its crucifix by the Yugoslav (as was) sculptor Mestrovic. In between the Incarnation and the Cross they might want to go into St James’s chapel and turn their attention to Christ’s Ministry.
The Cross and Resurrection are inseparable, and a major station on the journey is the Resurrection Chapel. Here (when we can afford it) there will be an altar with sculptures by Nicholas Mynheer. The panel on the front will show the meal at Emmaus. There are more than three people, for behind Christ and the two disciples stand the countless members of the Church in every time, all those who rejoice in the Mystery of the
Eucharist, and all human beings who suffer and weep (one figure covers her face with her hands in grief). It would be easy to have simple rejoicing, but the resurrection is no fairy tale, encompassing as it does the dark depths of human life, all of this a part of the Mystery.
The two lateral panels of the altar show the terrified women at the tomb and the miraculous draught of fishes, while at the back of the altar is the cave. Above hovers the Blessed Sacrament in a beautiful nineteenth-century pyx originally from the Community of the Holy Rood, and on it the pelican feeds its young. This chapel will carry quite a burden, as we are faced with the demanding task of enabling a sceptical generation truly to inhabit Christ’s Resurrection from the inside, rather than struggling uselessly with what they can bring themselves to believe. Anyone’s ability to believe in Christ’s resurrection depends on the Paschal Mystery, not mental gymnastics, and behind it for us there stands the Paschal Vigil and its continuing presence in every Eucharist.
Taking up their journey again the pilgrims will meet a chapel separated off by engraved screens. This is the Reconciliation Chapel for confessions and counselling, holding before us the commission to the disciples to forgive sins and heal the broken. The screens will show stories of Mary Magdalene in her various guises in the gospels, as understood by Western tradition. The illustration shows one of these screens: Mary walks towards the Resurrection altar bearing myrrh, while two angels in a tree point the way. In the distance is the fountain of life. Many ordinary Christians and non-Christians will, I think, respond to the scenes in these engravings and see something of their own lives in them.
Next comes the part of the church dedicated to the Ascension (formerly the Holy Spirit chapel), its focus the beautifully restored triptych of Christ in Majesty painted by an Orthodox nun in the 1930s. In this area is the tomb of the Community’s great consolidator and first Superior, Walter Frere, among whose great works were his witness to the liturgical tradition and his great interest in eastern Orthodoxy, where the liturgy is understood as the People of God’s ascension to heaven.
Proceeding down the south ambulatory the pilgrims will come to the west end, dedicated to Pentecost. By the time this article is published this space will be dominated by a large ‘Cantharus’. The photo shows it at the workshop ready for transfer to Mirfield. A cantharus was a well or fountain that used to stand at the west end of early churches so that people could wash themselves before worship (the pineapple in St Peter’s Square in Rome is the surviving centrepiece of the cantharus of old St Peter’s). This one will function as a holy water stoup, but is also big and deep enough for total-immersion baptism of adults, so it is a font too. Its design was evolved in a to and fro of ideas between the Community and the architects: looking like great surging waves, with its two curving staircases it can also be seen as a new tower replacing the old Babel as medieval art depicts it. Here in this part of the church is the new babel of Pentecost, the Church of all the nations. The associations begin to crowd in: the lightly moving surface of the water takes us to the creation story in Genesis, while the font speaks also of resurrection, and will indeed be the focus each year of the first part of the Paschal Vigil, at which we sometimes have baptisms.
As they stand at this point and look towards the light at the east end of the church the pilgrims will see within a white circle the high altar of the Most Holy Trinity. Our hope is that this will be a block of granite from Mount Sinai shaped by the sculptor Stephen Cox (again, when we can afford it!). In this pilgrimage we have been circling around the Eucharist, the heart of all Christian relating to God. In fact every modern Eucharistic prayer not once but three times includes the saving deeds wrought for us in Christ (see if you can spot all three places). The whole building is a Eucharistic prayer in itself, as every church building should be.
In our time the Eucharist has become tremendously popular, but often with an insufficient grasp of what it is. It is not a means for achieving good experiences, nor a tool for expressing our own understanding of the faith. Our generation has to be helped to see that the faith is an unfathomable mystery that we need to live inside even while we can’t grasp it. We have to live inside the Mystery of the Christian tradition, and take it as a given in our life, accepting that it will take years to begin to understand. It is not going to change for us – although the tradition changes its expression in every age, first and foremost it is we who need to change in response to it.
A good church building should help people along that journey, not least through sensitive use of the arts. We are exploring the possibility of our church becoming the centre for the new Northern Sacred Art Foundation, which will sponsor exhibitions, art events and artists-in-residence. This is an exciting prospect, but we and they make one caveat: the church is always a piece of ground held for the unfathomable Mystery of God, and those who come to look and to discuss need to be drawn on to pray. As that prayer becomes increasingly marked by the Eucharist, many other consequences then follow: a sense of the Church, a sense of the supernatural dimension, the otherness of God, and a sense of being called to play our part in the transformation of the world.
We look forward to seeing readers of New Directions here on pilgrimage, and would welcome any ideas they may have for developing resources for good use of the church.
If any readers would like to help us with what has been a big venture of faith, you can send donations to our appeal administrator Adele Hannah at the Community of the Resurrection, Mirfield, West Yorkshire WF14 0BN