Fabric of faith: Ayla Lepine finds resonant connections between a wide range of women artists, their textile work and their relationship to the Church.
This is a productive metaphor for the complexity of procedures, techniques, and interweaving that take place behind the scenes in works of art and in women's lives. Each time a work of art by a woman engages with Christianity--even if this is not her own religion--a connection is made afresh between bodies, histories, and theology. Textiles offer a particularly fruitful way of considering zones in which the Church, gender, and the arts intersect, precisely because of the contested status of textiles in the arts and in the Church. In the context of sacred space, textiles are a crucial aspect of art for the liturgies of the Church. This brief exploration of modern women artists in Anglican churches and cathedrals reveals the intertwining of identity with materiality, craft, art and the public sphere.
Textile art history, brought to prominence recently in the Anni Albers exhibition at Tate Modern and publications including Alan Powers' book on Enid Marx, demonstrates rising interest. (3) It also shows the complex world in which women were simultaneously conforming and revolutionising through this medium and its myriad contexts. From bedroom curtains to synagogue and church commissions, these artworks express the power of craft with bold clarity and elucidate themes of war, liberation, and the body.
Sister Wendy, who died recently, focused on art because she saw art as a path to God and an expression of revelation. She observed, 'It is my apostolic duty to talk about art. If you don't know about God, art is the only thing that can set you free.' Her first art history publication was in 1988: Contemporary Women Artists. Women making art in, for, and about Christian sacred spaces is a crucial topic for art historians and theologians alike because the intersections of religion and the arts illuminate what it is to be made in the image of God. Recent research by theologian Anna Fisk explores craft and material culture as distinctly feminist forms of practical theology. (4) The exhibition 'Fifty Works by Fifty British Women Artists', at the Mercers' Company in London until 23 March, highlights numerous Christian themes and brings women's art to light afresh. If art by women questions the nature of women's power, visibility, and presence (or lack of these things) in the Church, so much the better, and much art by women across all media does precisely this. Yoko Ono's Cut Piece invites viewers to take scissors to her clothing and slowly participate in stripping her body (where to cut? What to cut? Who would come forward to take the scissors and commit this creative and yet invasive act?); Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party makes use of Opus Anglicanum ecclesiastical embroidery techniques to tell the story of women's complex lives; Sara Marks' installations and performance art in parishes augment liturgical traditions; and Susie MacMurray's 2018 Lent installation Doubt, a vast, dark cloud hovering in the chancel of Southwark cathedral, symbolised the oppressive psychological distress of PTSD and depression. In MacMurray's work, the cloud of dark netting becomes a visual sign of melancholy, longing, and uncertainty. The darkness of Lent is made visible alongside rough calico and deep red Lenten Array textiles, in dialogue with the ancient symbols of Christ's Passion.
Revived in the 19th Century within the rise of the Gothic Revival in architecture and the arts more broadly, modern ecclesiastical vestments responded to these traditions and expanded upon them. Among the first to produce neo-Opus Anglicanum vestments were the prestigious and influential workrooms within Anglican convents. As textile historian Mary Schoeser and sisterhood biographers have shown, the significance of groups such as the Society of St Margaret and the Society of St John the Baptist, in East Grinstead and Clewer respectively, cannot be underestimated but sadly often have been. (5) The items they produced were, and in some places remain, as important as new sacred architecture and works of art produced for liturgy. Embroidery guilds and needlework groups centred in cathedrals also remain essential aspects of Church life, though their work too often goes unnoticed or uncelebrated. Describing a recent commission, the Broderers Guild at Southwark Cathedral, founded in 1987, said this collaborative labour was 'a work of love'. (6)
Beryl Dean, whose work is being explored in a joint study day hosted by the Twentieth Century Society and Art and Christianity on 30 March, used her skills as a historian, designer, and scholar to transform perceptions of ecclesiastical embroidery across her 50-year career. She was determined to integrate modern form with traditional technique, in a manner not dissimilar to the art of John Piper and the murals of Hans Feibusch during something that amounted to a Renaissance in modern church art in mid-century Britain. Dean is not nearly as wellknown as her male counterparts in the revolution of modern Church art and architecture in Britain. As Roszika Parker observed in her groundbreaking book The Subversive Stitch, 'the development of an ideology of femininity coincided historically with the emergence of a clearly defined separation of art and craft.' (7) In the arts, textiles remain marginalised and of relatively low value in comparison with painting or sculpture, dwelling in the territory of the decorative arts which, while now the subject of major and serious scholarship, and thriving in the hands of artists like Mona Hatoum, and Samara Scott, remain on the fringes of a persistent hierarchy within the visual arts. As Elaine Cheasley puts it, 'Usually associated with women, whose site of production is historically the home, textile production is often viewed as an antiquated process operating outside the economy of commodity goods and exchange.' (8)
Dean's significant writing alongside her designs included Ecclesiastical Embroidery (1958) and Embroidery in Religion and Ceremonial (1981). The latter remains a comprehensive standard text for symbolism, Eastern and Western Christian forms, and broader cultural categories of textile work within the Church. Significantly, she included a section on how to commission church textiles. She noted that while there is and always has been profound potential to connect theology and the arts, 'it seems that comparatively few priests possess the visual imagination or have faith in advanced works of art.' (9) Dean's remarks were in direct response to the 1978 report from the Liturgical Commission on the arts, which sought to 'restore respect for competence and expertise in all the arts and a desire for their best use in public worship.' (10)
For the Queen's Silver Jubilee, Dean designed a cope, mitre, and stole for St Paul's Cathedral, taking inspiration in her choice of imagery from the Diocese of London's parish churches. 36 people in the Ecclesiastical Embroidery class at the Stanhope Adult Education Institute worked on sections of the embroidery simultaneously. (11) Dean devised the design with this simultaneity in mind, to be efficient and to be collaborative. Medieval and modern, Classical and Gothic, every tower and spire was stitched and labelled with its dedication and location onto the body of the cope, interweaving text and image in a cluster of portraits of these diverse yet unified places of worship. Its aesthetic reflected not only the features of each building, but the material reference of the Jubilee itself, as the dominant colours were silver, white, and fawn, with details embroidered in gold. The mitre's iconography combined a ship in full sail on the back, representing the Church, with an image of Canterbury Cathedral worked by Pamela Waterworth, referencing the connection between the Diocese and the Mother Church of the Anglican Communion and seat of the Archbishop. The body of the wearer, the Bishop of London, is therefore transformed into a microcosmic representation of the Body of Christ in the city, the nation, and throughout the Anglican Communion.
The relationship therefore between buildings and the communities they house was extended to the relationship between vestments--themselves blessed and consecrated to the Church for sacred use, rather than belonging to an individual--and the wearer. The cope, mitre, and stole together 'house' and enfold the bishop, connecting her anew to the people and places in which she serves and leads, as a symbol and source of unity. Vestments like these which are created to mark a particular event of historic significance also make connections through time as they continue to be used. When worn on festal occasions in the 21st Century and beyond, this 1977 cope will necessarily create a historical layer around the wearer and throughout the congregation, connecting past, present, and eschatological future. Since the 1970s demographics and churches have changed significantly in the diocese.
Dean's cope, mitre, and stole perform a memorial function as well as an ongoing portrait of diocesan identity. As Jacques Derrida observed, 'Memory without knowing it opens ... so that the intimate might break through.' (12)
In Eucharistic textiles, the embroidered burse containing the linen corporal is as important as the chalice and paten beneath it, and each item glorifies God in a unique way once it has been blessed, taking on a sacred agency of its own. The fine linen corporal used at the Eucharist recalls the swaddling bands the Virgin Mary wrapped around the infant Christ in the stable, what Martin Luther called 'Simple . but dear is the treasure, Christ, that lies within them.' (13) Unlike other works of art in sacred spaces, liturgical art is consecrated before it is used, becoming a holy thing in the service of God, belonging ultimately neither to the artist, nor theologically speaking to the church for which it was made, but to the Church as a whole and to God. A cope or chasuble becomes, when blessed, both an artwork and a holy offering.
Simultaneously with the production of church textiles in the early 20th Century, the artist Mary Lowndes, who worked in both sacred and secular contexts, produced numerous banners for suffrage marches and co-founded the Artists Suffrage League. She produced a banner to commemorate the astronomer Caroline Herschel, who discovered several comets and in 1828 was the first woman to receive the Royal Astronomical Society's Gold Medal. The banner Lowndes designed was directly influenced by medieval and Gothic Revival altar frontals, with the top section of the Herschel banner referencing the superfrontal embroidery that hangs over the top of an altar frontal. Lowndes wrote that it would be 'unprofitable to talk about art with relation to the sex of the person who pursues it.' (14) Herein lies a major paradox in feminist art history therefore: to celebrate women is also in some sense to isolate them as exceptional, as tokens, as deserving praise and attention because of their gender over and above their work. This presence and absence resonates with some of the circumstances surrounding the return of shrines and devotions to saints in cathedrals. Nearly a century after Lowndes, the designer Caroline Farrer worked with embroiderer Suellen Pedley ASSP to create the verdant roses across the covering for the shrine of St Alban in St Albans Cathedral (199193). At the shrine's rededication in 1993, the cathedral asserted the importance of 'the very absence of the saint's body, the empty tomb which the shrine now represents, a wound healed but still present from the strife of the Reformation, all speak[ing] of the power of the risen Christ.' (15)
Absence, presence, death, and hope wove themselves into the unexpected collaborative project Lenten Clothes produced at St James', Piccadilly in 2015 by the artists Kate Pelen and Anna Sikorska, working together with members of the church's winter night shelter for people experiencing homelessness. At the same time, the church was receiving vast amounts of clothing donations for refugees in Calais and for the homeless community. Sorting through the mountains of clothes, the art group decided to dye some of them purple and fold them around an Evening Standard newspaper to keep them the same size along with people's prayers, to keep the everyday realities of London and people's petitions to God close by these clothing donations for the vulnerable. As Audre Lorde wrote, 'Without community there is no liberation, only the most vulnerable and temporary armistice between an individual and her oppression. But community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretence that these differences do not exist.' (16) The purple clothes were placed directly into the side chapel altar at St James' and the altar was turned around so that the clothing-filled void was exposed. The group filled the altar with layers of Lenten meaning, suggestive of the purple robe of Christ's Passion and the grave clothes of the tomb. The sure and certain hope of the Resurrection inflected this organic process as it emerged and cohered.
More recently, Arabella Dorman's installation, Suspended, making its way across England last year, was installed also at St James', Piccadilly and at Canterbury Cathedral. Refugees' clothing, washed up on the beaches of Lesbos, told of desperate and dangerous journeys across the seas and hung in a cloud-like mass not dissimilar to Susie MacMurray's Doubt. These everyday items, transfigured sacramentals, impromptu soulful iterations, appear to float slowly, both weightless and freighted with fatal meaning. The clothing is mass-produced and brightly coloured; these are not the crafted artisanal garments of a collective utopia but a dystopian array that is uncannily beautiful in its sublime unease. The kaleidoscope of clothing suspended in air, as uncanny as small creatures held in amber, makes connections, certainly, with the holy clothing of ecclesiastical vestments and deliberately complicates borders between stillness and motion, sacred and profane, interior and exterior.
Inverting patterns to create layers of association could also bring church textiles to life in a new way. Pauline Caulfield studied at the Royal College of Art in the 1960s, first painting and later textiles. She produced patterned fabrics and began making vestments in this period, and both sacred and secular commissions continued throughout her career. One of her recent chasubles was inspired by Dante's Paradiso, and another--for St Mary's, Kintbury took the classic shape of a royal ermine and reversed it, emphasising the connection between the Virgin Mary's esteemed place in heaven and the anguish of Our Lady of Sorrows.
In joy and sorrow, weeping and dancing, women's textile art continues to express profound theological truths regarding ritual, the body, power, and holiness. The cultural historian Gayatri Chakravorti Spivak invites us to listen attentively: 'As I must keep repeating, remaking history is a tall order, and we must not take collective enthusiasm or conviction as its sole guarantee.' (17) While women engaging with Christian sacred spaces through textile art may not be remaking history as such, their interventions reinvent, reconsider, and revive aspects of Christian life and thought that provoke urgent questions regarding love and justice, drawing attention to how meaning is made, stitch by stitch.
Ayla Lepine is an art historian and Curate of Hampstead Parish Church
(1.) Jane Duran, American Sampler (London: Enitharmon Press, 2014).
(2.) Alison Gray and Ayla Lepine, 'Seeing Scripture: Embroidery', Westminster College Art and the Old Testament, 2018, online. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_zAuhJCibKo&t=226s
(3.) Albers at Tate; Alan Powers, Enid Marx (London: Lund Humphries, 2018); T'ai Smith, Bauhaus Weaving Theory from Feminine Craft to Mode of Design (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014).
(4.) See Anna Fisk, '"To make, and make again": Feminism, Craft and Spirituality', Feminist Theology, Vol. 20 (2012), pp. 160-174.
(5.) Mary Schoeser, The Watts Book of Ecclesiastical Embroidery (London: Watts and Company, 1998).
(6.) Pat Ashworth, 'A Stitch in Time Immemorial', Church Times, 1 July 2016. https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/20 16/1-july/features/features/a-stitch-intime-immemorial
(7.) Roszika Parker, The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine (New York: IB Tauris 1984), p. 5.
(8.) Elaine Cheasley, 'Material Matters: The Art and Culture of Contemporary Textiles, Canadian Art Review, vol. 25, No. 1 (1998), p. 123.
(9.) Dean, p. 280.
(11.) Ibid., pp. 275-276.
(12.) Jacques Derrida, The Work of Mourning (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), p. 103.
(13.) Quoted in Donald McKim, Introducing the Reformed Faith (Westminster: John Knox Press, 2001), p. 18.
(14.) Sarah Sexton, 'Subversive Suffrage Stitches', The Quilter (No. 154: Spring 2018), p. 27.
(15.) Shrine Rededication, St Albans Cathedral, 1993, quoted in Michael Tavinor, Shrines of the Saints in England and Wales (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2006).
(16.) Audre Lorde, 'The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House'  in Lorde, Your Silence Will Not Protect You (London, 2017), p. 91.
(17.) Gayatri Chakravorti Spivak, 'Who Claims Alterity?', 1989. http://theoria.art- zoo.com/who-claims-alterity-gayatrichakravorti-spivak/[accessed 15 December 2018]
Caption: Susie MacMurray Doubt, 2018
Caption: Beryl Dean The Jubilee Cope, 1977 Photo: Nigel Roberson [c] The Chapter of St Paul's and The Beryl Dean Education Trust
Caption: Arabella Dorman Suspended, 2018
Caption: Pauline Caulfield Cope for St Mary's Church Kintbury, 1997
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Publication:||Art and Christianity|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2019|
|Previous Article:||Religion in Museum Education.|
|Next Article:||Mystical Materialities: Jorella Andrews on recent re-orientations towards Christian mystic traditions in art.|