The Berwick Church murals at St Michael & All Angels, 1941-4
Amid the dislocation of the Second World War, the question of the role of contemporary art in the Christian church in modern society became increasingly contested. In 1932, at the opening of the Vatican Pinacoteca, Pope Pius XI had railed against 'certain other so-called sacred works of art, which do not seem to evoke and present the sacred other than to disfigure it to the extent of caricature, and often going as far as true and actual profanation' (1). Yet artists throughout Italy and France continued to express religious themes in contemporary vernaculars, and by 1947, Pope Pius XII declared modern art a valid servant of the church, if restrained by certain conditions:
Modern art should be given free scope in the due and reverent service of the church and the sacred rites, provided that they preserve a correct balance between styles tending neither to extreme realism nor to excessive 'symbolism,' and that the needs of the Christian community are taken into consideration  (2)
A more enthusiastic supporter of modern art was George Bell, Bishop of Chichester between 1929-58, who put into practice his belief that engaging with the makers of contemporary culture was key to the revitalisation of the church and the promotion of humanist values. (3) He became the patron of a number of schemes, commissioning contemporary artists such as the German emigre Hans Feibusch to decorate churches, and in 1940 commissioned the Charleston artists to design a mural project for the ancient church of St Michael & All Angels, Berwick.
One of the most extraordinary--and inherently controversial--things about this complex and astonishing project, executed between 1941 and 1944 by Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, and Quentin Bell, is their positioning of a cast of local people and sights within the works. Although the depiction of contemporary individuals in church mural painting was common in medieval art, there are fewer examples of this in recent art, with the notable exception of Stanley Spencer's Sandham Memorial Chapel. Taking on a mural commission under church patronage may seem an incongruous undertaking for atheist artists, but Bell and Grant had requested such opportunities by using an advertisement business card in 1922 inviting commissions for 'decorations, domestic, ecclesiastical, theatrical'. (4)
Some parishioners of Berwick objected strongly to the project and entered an Act of Petition so that the case had to be tried before a Consistory Court. The protestors' objections were not merely aesthetic: they objected to both the decorations, and the decorators. Mrs Sandilands of the jam-making club didn't approve of the work being carried out during wartime, and wrote to Bishop Bell: 'Mr Grant must be a strong and very clever man to be able to do this strenuous job of mural painting; let him turn his talents in other directions for the time being to help his country as so many others are doing.' (5) In fact, although the artists were pacifists and had been conscientious objectors during the First World War, Grant was too old for service, and Quentin Bell was excused from military service on health grounds as a result of tuberculosis and did farm work instead. Grant had briefly been employed as an official war artist in 1940 and recorded naval subjects at Plymouth. At Berwick his mural for the wall over the chancel arch presented Christ in Glory with, on one side, three kneeling servicemen in uniform, all based on local men: Mr Weller (sailor), Mr Huphrey (airman), and Douglas Hemming, a soldier and 'son of the local station master', who was to die in service at Caen in 1944, aged 26. (6)
The decorations show a great affection and respect for the community and environment. Vanessa Bell's Nativity and Annunciation scenes on either side of the nave further illustrate T S Eliot's idea of the local parish's attachment 'to the soil' by using a cast of local people. (7) Bell details regional produce, such as carrots, cabbages and turnips, presented in a Sussex trug baskets crafted with coppiced sweet chestnut from nearby woodlands
The children in Nativity worshipping at the crib include John Higgins the son of the Charleston gardener and housekeeper, in the uniform of the local village school. Sketches found in the Angelica Garnett Gift, now housed at Charleston, suggest that the cattle, lamb and donkey are likely to have been drawn from the farm animals on surrounding land. The holy family the Virgin Mary modelled on Bell's daughter Angelica Garnett, and the Christ child--are surrounded by local shepherds carrying Pyecombe crooks, a variety made in the village of Pyecombe, 15 miles from Charleston. These murals commemorate the sacred in the 'local and particular', both ancient and modern. (8)
Supported by Sir Kenneth Clark, TA Fennemore, and Bertram Nicholls the case in favour of the murals was won, and the Berwick murals, in concert with ecclesiastical works like Hans Feibusch's murals rendered the stories, emotions and essential humanity of these subjects comprehensible to a modern, if critical, audience.
Hana Leaper is Paul Mellon Centre Fellow and Deputy Editor of British Art Studies
(1) Pope Pius XI, 'We Have Little', 27 October 1932, http://w2.vatican.va/content/piusxi/it/speeches/documents/hf_pxi_spe_193 21027_abbiamo-poco.html quoted in translation from Ludovica Sebregondi, 'Reconciliation with the Sacred: Dialogues between Ancient and Modem Art', in Divine Beauty: From Van Gogh to Chagall and Fontana, exhibition catalogue ed. Lucia Manning Anna Mazzanti, Ludovia Sebregondi and Carlo Sisi, exhibiton Florence, Palazzo Strozzi, 24 Sep 2015-24 Jan 2016 (Marsilio: Italy, 2016)
(2) Pope Pius XII, 'Mediator Dei', verse 195, 20th November 1947, http://w2.vatican.va/content/piusxii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p -xii_enc_20111947_mediator-dei.html
(3) The clergyman was no relation to Vanessa Bell or her wider family.
(4) Reproduced in Frances Spalding, Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision (London: National Portrait Gallery, 2014), p.116.
(5) Richard Shone, 'Berwick Church Paintings, Revised Edition p. 6.
(6) Reverend Peter Blee, http://www.berwickchurch.org.uk/christ% 20in%20glory.html. See also Blee's book The Bloomsbury Group in Berwick Church, 2016.
(7) TS Eliot, Idea, p. 31.
(8) Roger Fry used this phrase in his sustained formal analysis of church mural painting in 'Giotto', p.97.
Caption: Vanessa Bell Sketch for the Ammunication, 1941
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|Publication:||Art and Christianity|
|Article Type:||Case study|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2017|
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