19 December 2013

Christmas scenes in the
unique carvings
in Lichfield Cathedral

The Nativity scene on the triptych (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, cover and p 52, Lichfield Gazette, December 2013)

Patrick Comerford

The Herkenrode stained glass has long been one of the major visitor attractions in Lichfield Cathedral. The glass was acquired for the cathedral in Belgium in 1803, and its eagerly-awaited return to the East End is expected to make the Lady Chapel look even more beautiful.

But putting anticipation aside, it is worth visiting the Cathedral in these weeks before Christmas to see the whole Christmas story – from the Annunciation and the Visitation through the Nativity to the Presentation in the Temple and the Visit of the Magi – told in the colourful triptych that forms the reredos for the altar in the Lady Chapel.

The colourful triptych that forms the reredos in the Lady Chapel tells the full Christmas story (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, p 52, Lichfield Gazette)

This carved wooden reredos dates from 1895. It is a triptych (three-part) altarpiece with high relief scenes from Oberammergau, the Bavarian town that is better known for its Passion Play.

But the wooden carvings were designed in England rather than in Germany. The Tractarian artist Charles Eamer Kempe (1837-1907) designed the reredos. Kempe was best known in the late Victorian period best known for his stained-glass windows, some of which can also be seen in the cathedral. The Church Historian, Owen Chadwick, says Kempe’s work represents “the Victorian zenith” of church decoration and stained glass windows.

As he worked on the designs for the altarpiece, Kempe was deeply conscious of the history of the cathedral and of the Lady Chapel, with its highly unusual octagonal apse. The Lady Chapel, dedicated to Saint Mary and Saint Chad, dates from the 14th century, and was incorporated into the main part of the cathedral in the 18th century. Kempe kept the dedication in mind as he drew up his plans for the reredos, which was then carved by Oskar Zwink in his family’s famous studio in Oberammergau.

The central panel of the reredos shows a Nativity scene, with the Virgin Mary and the shepherds in the middle, then the Annunciation (upper left), Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth (lower left), the Adoration of the Magi (upper right) and the Presentation in the Temple (lower right). Much of the artwork is gilded with gold leaf while other areas are polychromatic paintwork.

The Annunciation portrayed on a panel on the triptych (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, p 52, Lichfield Gazette)

David, Isaiah, Saint John the Baptist and Saint Chad are depicted on the back of the two doors, which are seen only when the triptych is closed. On either side of the Nativity scene itself are four carved figures: Saint Ambrose, Saint Jerome, Saint Augustine, and Saint Gregory – four of the seven patristic saints who are also carved on the south wall of the cathedral.

For generations, the Zwink family has been associated with the Passion Play, and the influences of the Passion Play can be seen in the style of the figures in the panels. This dramatic influence is more visible in the reredos Kempe and Zwink produced for Saint Andrew’s Church in Burnley in 1898. In Burnley, the central panel depicts the crucifixion, while the four side panels depict the passion like scenes from the Passion Play in Oberammergau.

The Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth depicted on a panel on the triptych (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, p. 54, Lichfield Gazette)

Kempe’s reredos was designed to fit in with his reordering of the Lady Chapel, for which he designed the statues of female saints, carved by Farmer and Brindley and installed on the walls of the Lady Chapel in 1895.

The Presentation in the Temple, carved on a panel on the triptych (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, p. 54, Lichfield Gazette)

Kempe also designed half the windows in Lichfield Cathedral, including the Hacket Window (1901), celebrating the completion of the Victorian restoration, the Barnabas Window (1898), Saint Stephen preaching to the Sanhedrin (1895), and the imposing South Transept window, ‘The Spread of the Christian Church’ (1895). He was also commissioned to restore the Saint Chad’s Head Chapel.

The Visit of the Magi seen on a panel on the triptych (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, p. 54, Lichfield Gazette)

The large ‘Jesse Tree’ window by Clayton and Bell in the North Transept illustrates the Biblical genealogy of Christ, crowned in the upper section of the centre light with the Virgin Mary holding the Christ Child.

As you leave the cathedral, pause to look up at the magnificent West Window, which also shows the Birth of Christ. This window by Clayton and Bell was inserted after the window tracery was redesigned by George Gilbert Scott in the 1860s. The Virgin Mary and the Christ Child are greeted on the right by Joseph and the Archangel Gabriel and on the left by the three wise men bearing their gifts. Below, six smaller panels depict the Annunciation, the Angel’s visit to Joseph at night, the Nativity, the Journey of the Magi, the Magi visiting Herod, and the Flight into Egypt.

The Virgin Mary stands with the Christ Child, a Christmas scene carved by Mary Grant in the centre of the west door of Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, p. 54, Lichfield Gazette)

As you leave through the porch to the right of the West Window, stop to see the Victorian statues within the porch which are the work of Mary Grant (1831-1908). There, in the centre of the West Doors, the Virgin Mary stands with the Christ Child. Mary Grant was a granddaughter of Thomas Bruce, Earl of Elgin, ever-remembered for plundering the marbles from the Parthenon in Athens. Her work is unusual for a Victorian woman, for the physical strength sculptors needed made their work a virtually all-male preserve.

At the West Door, Mary Grant’s Virgin Mary supports her life-like infant gently. The Christ Child has one arm raised in blessing. Next to them on the left stands Saint Mary Magdalene, holding ointment, making a clear link between Christmas and the Incarnation and Easter and the Resurrection.

Mary Magdalene at Easter … a sculpture by Mary Grant at the west door of Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, p. 54, Lichfield Gazette)

Further Reading:

Michael Greenslade,(ed), ‘Lichfield Cathedral,’ A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 14: Lichfield (1990).
Nikolaus Pevsner, The Buildings of England: Staffordshire (London: Penguin, 1974).
Patricia Scaife, The Carvings of Lichfield Cathedral (Much Wenlock: RJL Smith for Lichfield Cathedral, 2010).
` Patricia Scaife, The Stained Glass of Lichfield Cathedral (Much Wenlock: RJL Smith for Lichfield Cathedral, 2009).

The Lady Chapel in Lichfield Cathedral is awaiting the restored Herkenrode stained glass (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, p. 54, Lichfield Gazette)

This essay and these photographs were first published in the Christmas 2013 edition of Lichfield Gazette, pp 52-54, in December 2013

Art for Advent (19): ‘Madonna of
the Village,’ by Marc Chagall

‘Madonna of the Village,’ by Marc Chagall

Patrick Comerford

My choice of a work of Art for Advent this morning is ‘Madonna of the Village,’ by Marc Chagall. This painting, which dates from 1938-1942, is oil on canvas. It measures 102.5 x 98 cm and is in the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.

Marc Chagall added his signature and two dates to the bottom left corner of the painting (“mArc ChAgAll 1938-942”), referring to its start and completion dates.

In 1938, Chagall was living in Paris, and spending some time also on a farm at Villentrois in Indre-et-Loire. In 1939, he became concerned about his possible arrest and decided to move to Saint Dyé-sur-Loire. He collected his paintings from his Paris studio and took the works to Saint Dyé in a taxi with the help of his daughter Ida.

As German troops advanced towards northern France, the family moved to the south of France on 10 May 1940, and Chagall bought a house in Gordes in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region, and his works were brought there in a van.

In the winter of 1940-1941, he resumed work on ‘The Madonna of the Village’. The painting in its final state shows the Madonna holding the Christ Child in her arms, surrounded by angels singing and playing music accompanied by a flying cow with a violin. The scene is set near a small village. The Madonna, rendered on a monumental scale and wearing a bridal gown, floats in a fantasy world that is so characteristic of the painter.

The canvas, which was initially around 20 cm taller, was cut down at the lower edge, so that Chagall removed the motif of the cockerel, symbol of sun and fire. From the 1930s, this bird is linked in Chagall’s work with pairs of lovers and can be associated with love. It could also refer to the bird sacrificed on Yom Kippur.

The removal of this motif from the composition altered the relative importance of the three layers into which it is structured, reducing the earthly zone painted in grey-brown tones at the Virgin’s feet and giving more importance to the blue area of the sky and the upper level in yellow that is filled with angels.

The image of the Virgin is similar to the votive images in Catholic tradition believed to offer protection against catastrophes. Chagall had already made use of Christian iconography, particularly in ‘White Crucifixion,’ in which Christ represents the suffering of the Jewish people.

Chagall continued working on this ambitious canvas and repainted some of the areas that were already sketched. The painting was not entirely completed until 1942, while he was staying in New York.

The Russian-French artist Marc Zakharovich Chagall (1887-1985) has been described as “the quintessential Jewish artist of the 20th century.” He worked in virtually every artistic medium, including painting, book illustrations, stained glass, stage sets, ceramic, tapestries and fine art prints.

Marc Chall, ‘America Windows’ (1977)

His stained glass windows are in the cathedrals in Reims and Metz, the Fraumünster Cathedral in Zurich, and Saint Stephen’s Church, Mainz, but his best-known windows are probably those in the UN Building in New York, the Jerusalem Windows in a hospital in Israel, and his ‘America Windows’ (1977) in the Art Institute of Chicago. The six-panel work ‘America Windows’ celebrates the US as a place of cultural and religious freedom, detailing the arts of music, painting, literature, theatre and dance.

He was born Moishe Segal into a Jewish family near Vitebsk in what is today Belarus on 6 July 1887. His family steeped in religious life and his parents were observant Hasidic Jews whose life was defined by their faith and organised by prayer.

He moved to St Petersburg, then the Russian capital, and before World War I, he travelled between St Petersburg, Paris, and Berlin. During that period he created his own mixture and style of modern art based on his idea of East European Jewish folk culture. He spent World War I in Belarus before leaving for Paris in 1922.

In December 1940, the Emergency Rescue Committee found Chagall in Gordes. As a Jew who was classified as a “Degenerate” artist, he was a target for the Nazis. An invitation to exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, facilitated his departure from France. The Fund for Jewish Refugee Writers collected the funds needed for his travel and visas.

On 7 May 1941, Marc and Bella Chagall left for New York, leaving their daughter Ida in France. Their journey took them across the French-Spanish border and through Madrid to Lisbon, where they had a lengthy wait before embarking for New York in mid-June.

Their heavy luggage included 600 kg of paintings, some completed and others still being worked on, as well as gouaches and drawings, all in trunks and packing cases.

After an eventful journey ‘The Madonna of the Village’ was reunited with Chagall, who resumed working on it again and completed it in 1942, even before he received his first major commission in the US.

In 1946, the Museum of Modern Art in New York in collaboration with the Art Institute of Chicago devoted a major retrospective to the work of Chagall, which was the first in the US. He returned to France in 1947. Back in France, he painted the ceiling of the Paris Opera in 1963.

“When Matisse dies,” Pablo Picasso once said, “Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what colour really is.” He died on 28 March 1985 at the age of 97 in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France.

The only church in the world with a complete set of Chagall window-glass is in the tiny village of Tudeley in Kent. His last commissioned work is the window on the north side of Chichester Cathedral. This stained glass window, designed and created by Chagall at the age of 90, was commissioned by Dean Walter Hussey and was inspired by Psalm 150: “Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord.”

Tomorrow:Love and the Pilgrim,’ by Edward Burne-Jones.