Saturday, 31 May 2014

A visit that seems to fall out of
sequence in this in-between time

The Visitation of the Virgin Mary to Saint Elizabeth … a panel from the triptych in the Lady Chapel in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

We are in a strange in-between time in the calendar of the Church this weekend.

On Thursday evening [29 May 2014], I was in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, for the Cathedral Eucharist, celebrating the Ascension. On Sunday week [8 June 2014], I am celebrating the Eucharist in Saint Michan’s Church in the city centre and All Saints’ Church, Grangegorman, marking the Day of Pentecost.

In the meantime, what happens to the Disciples in Jerusalem?

In the reading from the Acts of the Apostle on Thursday [Acts 1: 1-11], two angels in white robes ask the disciples after the Ascension why they are standing around looking up into heaven.

In the Gospel reading [Luke 24: 44-53], they return to “Jerusalem with great joy,” and seem to spend the following days in the Temple. As the story unfolds in the Acts of the Apostles, the disciples, as well as Mary and other women (see verse 14), spend their time in prayer, choosing a successor to Judas, and praying, as we read in the Revised Common Lectionary [Acts 1: 6-14] tomorrow [1 June 2014, the Seventh Sunday of Easter].

Then, ten days after, they are filled with Holy Spirit, who comes as a gift not only to the 12 but to all who are gathered with them, including Mary and the other women, the brothers of Jesus (verse 14), and other followers in Jerusalem – in all, about 120 people (see verse 15).

But for these few days we are in that in-between time, between the Ascension and Pentecost. It is still the season of Easter, which lasts for 50 days from Easter Day until the Day of Pentecost.

So, it may seem a little out of sequence that in the Calendar of the Church, today [31 May] is the Feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary (see Luke 1: 39-56).

This feast, which is of mediaeval origin, was kept by the Franciscans before 1263, when the Franciscans adopted it on the recommendation of Saint Bonaventure.

In 1389 Pope Urban VI, it would help to end the Great Western Schism, placed this feast in the Calendar of the Western Church on 2 July, the day after the end of the octave following the feast (24 June) of the birth of Saint John the Baptist, who was still in the womb of his mother, Saint Elizabeth, womb at the time of the Visitation.

In 1969, Pope Paul VI moved it to 31 May, a date that might continue to seem out of sequence but for the fact that it falls between the Feast of the Annunciation (25 March) and that of the Birth of Saint John the Baptist (24 June).

In the Book of Common Prayer (2004) of the Church of Ireland, the Visitation is celebrated as a Festival today [31 May]. However, Anglicans who use the 1662 Book of Common Prayer continue to celebrate the Visitation on 2 July, and in some Anglican traditions it is a commemoration rather than a feast day.

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the celebration of a feast day marking the Visitation is of relatively recent origin, dating only from the 19th century. The Gorneye Convent in Jerusalem, built on the traditional site of the Visitation, celebrates this Feast on 30 March, but the Feast has not yet been accepted by all Orthodox jurisdictions.

In recent months, I have written for both the Lichfield Gazette and for the Annual Report of the Friends of Lichfield Cathedral about the triptych in the Lady Chapel, which includes a beautiful 19th century interpretation of the Visitation.

This carved wooden reredos or altarpiece dates from 1895. The high relief scenes, carved in from Oberammergau, the Bavarian town that is better known for its Passion Play, were designed in England by the Tractarian artist Charles Eamer Kempe (1837-1907), best known in the late Victorian period for his stained-glass windows.

‘Mary meets Elizabeth’ (1996), by Dinah Roe Kendall, from ‘Allegories of Heaven: an artist explores the greatest story ever told’ (Carlisle: Piquant, 2002)

However, another of my favourite depictions of the Visitation is Dinah Roe Kendall’s painting, Mary meets Elizabeth (1996), which is in acrylic on canvas.

Dinah Roe Kendall was born in Bakewell, Derbyshire, in 1923 into a family of professional artists. Her grandfather and great-grandfather were both well-known artists. Her great-grandmother was the daughter of the Victorian sculptor whose statue of Lord Nelson stands in Trafalgar Square, London.

Her father planned for her to proceed to full-time training, but World War II and his early death occurred before these hopes could be realised. After her wartime nursing, she attended Sheffield Art School and was then received an ex-service grant to enable her to study at the Slade School of Fine Art in London (1948 to 1952).

There Lucien Freud asked her to sit for him, Stanley Spencer’s daughter Unity was a fellow-student, and Dinah learned from Jacob Epstein, Stanley Spencer and many other artists.

The nostalgic world of primitive painting is far removed from her vibrant Biblical scenes, placed in modern contexts and painted in modern materials. Although the influence of her teachers can be seen in her work, she has moved on from them, developing a style that is distinctly her own.

Her paintings are drenched in colour, reflecting five years of living in Cyprus and the influence of modern artists she has admired, including Peter Howson and Ana Maria Pacheco.

She usually paints in acrylic on board or canvas, mixing the paint with thickening media. Her angels wear robes built up of thick knife and brush strokes flecked with gold. She paints the cross as a visual sermon: no mere philosophical concept, but a hunk of wood along which, as Francis Schaeffer used to remark, one could have run a finger and got a splinter.

Despite changing fashions and much pressure to explore abstract art, she has always remained a figurative painter. Her biblical scenes are cast in modern contexts: Christ visits a school in Sheffield; Lazarus is raised from the dead in an alcove in a wall borrowed from Chatsworth House; Jairus’s daughter wakes up upstairs in a modern home, surrounded by modern neighbours as an abandoned teddy-bear on a chair in by the window watches on in amazement; the infant Christ presented in the Temple is looking right at the viewer; in the case of the Woman taken in Adultery, Christ’s finger writing in the dust points out of the canvas and at the viewer.

Her ‘Entry into Jerusalem’ is set in the playground of the Porter Croft School in Sheffield, where the painting now hangs, and the Baptism of Christ takes place in a swimming pool.

Her paintings constantly engage the viewer, but show intimacy too. At the ‘Supper at Emmaus,’ Christ sits at the head of a table, with two disciples whose hands reach out towards his. He is holding a loaf of bread; wine and glasses stand ready. His pose recalls Stanley Spencer’s 1939 painting of a lonely Christ in the Wilderness, cradling in his hands a scorpion.

There is social comment and humour too in her work: the Good Samaritan is a black man; ‘The Marriage at Cana in Galilee’ is a witty footnote to a famous painting by Breughel; and ‘Jesus visits Bethany’ is a delightful depiction of an off-duty Christ, even though the crowds are pressing in at the door. Inside the house in Bethany, Lazarus sits apart from the others in a curtained alcove as if the shadow of the tomb has not quite left him. His eyes are fixed not upon Christ but upon some faraway place, as if contemplating a landscape that only he has seen.

At the opening of an exhibition of her paintings in Winchester Cathedral some years ago, Dinah Roe Kendall said that she wants to show that meeting Christ is an unsettling and life-changing experience that could happen at any point in time.

This painting, Mary meets Elizabeth, is among her many paintings included in Allegories of Heaven: an artist explores the greatest story ever told (Carlisle: Piquant, 2002), drawing on texts from The Message text by Eugene Peterson. The Revd Tom Devonshire Jones, Founder and Director Emeritus of ACE (Art and Christianity Enquiry), has commented: “Dinah Roe Kendall’s fresh, sassy and devout paintings are breathing new life into religious art at the start of the third millennium. Already receiving the grateful attention of worshipper and enquirer alike, they are finding a secure place in the world of faith and of art.”

An icon of the Visitation by the Romanian icon writer Mihia Cocu in the Lady Chapel in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Readings:

Zephaniah 3: 14-18; Psalm 113; Romans 12: 9-16; Luke 1: 39-39 (50-56).

Collect:

Mighty God,
by whose grace Elizabeth rejoiced with Mary
and greeted her as the mother of the Lord:
Look with favour on your lowly servants
that, with Mary, we may magnify your holy name
and rejoice to acclaim her Son our Saviour,
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post-Communion Prayer:

Gracious God,
who gave joy to Elizabeth and Mary
as they recognised the signs of redemption at work within them:
Help us, who have shared the joy of this eucharist,
to know the Lord deep within us
and his live shining out in our lives,
that the world may rejoice in your salvation;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

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