Shouting over the Thunderstorms
‘There is another danger…that of talking baby language. To see the way some of our best church and cathedral builders decorate their work with nursery emblems, golden stars, chubby Christmas angels, lilies, lambs and shepherds, insipid sculptures and paintings of a silly, false naivety, one wonders in what world they live. The men who came home from the war, and all the rest of us, have seen too much horror and evil; when we close our eyes terrible sights haunt us; the world is seething with bestiality; and it is all man’s doing. Only the most profound, tragic, moving, Sublime vision can redeem us. The voice of the Church should be heard above the thunderstorm; and the artist should be her mouthpiece.’ — Walter Hussey, Dean of Chichester and significant patron of the arts within the Anglican Church (mid-20th century)
Walter Hussey was a theologian engaging with the arts well before it became fashionable to do so. During his time at Chichester Cathedral, he commissioned artists such as Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland, much to the chagrin of his congregation and the wider community. When he commissioned Moore and Sutherland, they weren’t the big names that we now know them to be. What drew Hussey to their work was an integrity he saw that he thought better expressed the Christian faith than what was currently on offer.
What intrigues me about Hussey is that he seems to be propelled by a vision of the role that both the Church and the art play in society at large. Art is not just for didactic or illustrative means. Nor does the Church exist merely as a cultural artifact. The Church has a responsibility to speak into and over the storms of reality … and the art that it commissions is the means by which that message is heard. For Hussey, art in the Church was bigger than just mere decoration. It was redemptive and restorative for a society that was decimated by World War II. Art had the potential to be more than a salve that covered over deep hurt and loss with sentimental offerings. Art was to be a response to reality and remind the viewer of God’s existence within it.
That was mid-twentieth century Britain. What now? To what extent can the Church carry forward Hussey’s vision into a society riddled with fears of global recession, on-going war and terrorism, environmental disasters and climate change? What does it look like for art to be the Church’s mouthpiece? To the left is Graham Sutherland’s response in 1946 – a crucifixion that was able ‘to tell…somebody who had been in Belsen concentration camp that Christ knew about and had experienced human suffering.’ What’s ours?
* Quotes taken from Graham Howes, The Art of the Sacred (London: I.B.Tauris & Co, 2007), 71, 73.