Galleries - April 2010

10. GALLERIES APRIL 10 Do religious buildings require a different form of art to any other? Does site-specific art demand from an artist an understanding beyond that needed for gallery pieces? These are two of the que- stions raised by the continuing programme to complete the int- erior of Westminster Cathedral with mosaics. With plans in place to fill the remaining spaces at the lower level of the building, Arch- bishop Vincent Nichols is now considering how to embarkon the more challenging apse and main ceiling vaults. In 1903, the shell of the brick building was complete, a masterly climax to the career of its architect, J.F. Bentley, whose Byzantine style went backto the early Chri- stian period. With its massive brick vaults it echoed the triumphs of Victorian engineering and was nicknamed ‘the Cardinal’s Railway Station’. Bentley died in 1902, leaving drawings and verbal in- structions for the interior, but it has been the taskof succeeding gen- erations to interpret the building in the form of marble cladding, mos- aic, and sculpture. These were seldom the workof artists remem- bered today, although a young Eric Gill carved the Stations of the Cross during the First World War. The craft of mosaic was en- joying a revival around 1900 as part of the Arts and Crafts move- ment, but there has never been enough workto breed a strong culture combining the highest quality of design and making, as there has been in stained glass. Recent commissions in the cath- edral have mainly been designed as full-size cartoons by artists, and executed by specialised studios, such as the Mosaic Workshop. While this is more than simply translating drawing, sympathetic collaborations have resulted, not- ably two semi-domes inside the main doors by Leonard McComb RA, depicting St Francis and St Anthony. Another RA, Tom Phillips, has designed two panels comm- emorating Cardinal Newman. Artists are selected and their workoverseen by the Cathedral’s Art and Architecture Committee, established in the 1930s to include experts in both art and archite- cture. The criteria for success are demanding. Most of the workto date has been representational, but too much realism looks out of place, and while narrative is im- portant as an aid to worship, it risks becoming too much like illustration. Byzantine mosaics are a benchmarkof authenticity in terms of their mastery of 2-D rendering of colour and form, yet Byzantine pastiche looks wrong. Good drawing is needed to make faces and figures stand out in the dim light, but the atmosphere of the cathedral demands delicacy of line and colour and too much in- dividuality jars. The fine line be- tween success and failure, and the need to allow artistic freedom within limits makes the comm- issioning process tricky. Add to this the responsibility that ex- pensive mosaic workis going to be there for quite some time. The qualities of spirituality, tech- nical skill and humility demanded for such a job are not the ones that have given most of today’s leading artists their fame. While some celebrated names have been mentioned around the com- mittee table, and might even be intrigued by the job, the more fascinating possibility is to disc- over an overlooked talent. Non- Catholics are now accepted on equal terms, and while nationality may count in respect of Saints David and Patrick(designs for whose Chapel are now being finalised by John Kindness), it is not an issue for other areas. In the run up to the biggest mosaic commission in the Cathe- dral’s history, the Committee has engaged publisher, author and art consultant James Knox to help establish selection procedures replacing the formerly rather ad- hoc process. The Archbishop is working on an iconographic sch- eme for the upper levels, to which artists will need to respond in a manner that is appropriate doc- trinally and architecturally. In addition, the rather lukewarm emotional effect of many of the earlier mosaics will, one hopes, be raised to an ideal of design that is immediately comprehensible yet still contains depth of meaning on repeated viewings. The answer to the opening questions is ‘yes’, but finding the right match of form and content will not be easy. squaring UP to GOD new mosaics for westminster cathedral A lan Powers L eonard McComb RA, (design) & Mosaic Workshop, ‘St Francis’