02 April 2014

Seeing and believing … two stories
of healing and restoration in Lent

Do we see clearly? Do we see what is before our eyes? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

Church of Ireland Theological Institute,

2 April 2014,

5 p.m., The Community Eucharist,

I Samuel 16: 1-13; Psalm 23; Ephesians 5: 8-14; and John 9: 1-41.

May I speak to you in the name of + the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Last Sunday [30 March 2014] was both the Fourth Sunday in Lent and Mothering Sunday. It’s a Sunday when we probably hear little about this Gospel reading (John 9: 1-41) at the expense of a lot of repeat sermons on the benefits of motherhood and apple pie and the stellar qualities of “Mother Church” or of a cathedral as the “mother church” of the diocese.

But I wonder and worry at times how many women feel isolated and marginalised by some of those sermons on Mothering Sunday – women who have had miscarriages or seen their children suffer and die; women who would love to but have never given birth to children; people who have grown up in families where the mother figure was absent or ill, died early, or was abusive or violent?

In our Gospel reading this evening, Christ meets a young man in Jerusalem who has been blind since birth. The disciples ask Christ: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (verse 2) He answers them: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (John 9: 3-5)

Many grieving and suffering mothers hearing this Gospel reading on Mothering Sunday must have wondered why their children are suffering and how or where their sufferings and the sufferings of their children fit into God’s plans for the fullness of creation.

Indeed, while we must agree the blindness of this young man could not possibly be due to his sins or the sins of his ancestors, how many of us blame other people for their plight, and how many of us still believe that those in poverty and deprivation simply need to “pull themselves up”?

In healing this young man, Christ puts into action what he has already proclaimed in the synagogue in Nazareth as being the heart of the Gospel. We heard this in the first reading here in the chapel yesterday evening [Tuesday, 1 April 2014]:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ (Luke 4: 18-19)

This evening, Christ moves beyond compassion for the young blind man in Jerusalem to actually healing him and restoring him to the place in society those around him would deny him. But he avoids falling into the trap others want to set for him, those who want him to pass judgment on those they see as being sinful and deserving of divine wrath.

Christ’s compassion, his caring and his non-judgmental response, are in stark contrast to some of the attitudes we find today. For example, I recently came across this posting: “Christians who by their failure to proclaim the Christ of the gospel of the kingdom while they treat AIDS victims in their suffering here and now show themselves not really to believe all that the Bible says about fleeing the wrath to come. In the end, it is a practical atheism and a failure in love.”

Practical Christianity is reduced to practical atheism in this sharp judgment without any reference to the example of Christ in the Gospel.

Compare this with Christ’s own words later in this Gospel, the end of the Gospel reading on Maundy Thursday: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13: 35; see I John 3: 14; I John 4: 20).

John Myatt’s mural on a wall in Bird Street, Lichfield, commemorating Samuel Johnson (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Meanwhile, it is worth asking: What would you miss if you were blind?

So often, we take for granted not just our health and well-being but our physical senses too – our sight, speech, hearing, sense of smell and touch.

Even when we have the gift of sight, when we have 20/20 vision, we do not necessarily have the gift of being insightful. Throughout the Fourth Gospel, there is sharp contrast between darkness and light, and also between seeing and believing. It is an interplay worked out very carefully yet very dramatically in this chapter, and also, for example, in the post-resurrection story of Thomas who refuses to believe until he sees (see John 20: 24-29).

Our eyes can play some nasty tricks on us, catching us out by surprise, not allowing us to see what is actually there.

Things are not always as we see them or as they seem.

Many of you are familiar with the match-stick play on the letters that make up the name of Jesus. It takes some time to puzzle it out. Then, once we have worked it out it becomes impossible to see the composition the way we had seen it in our ignorance.

In art, I particularly like mosaics. If we look at the detail we miss the whole picture. Sometimes 20/20 vision can be a barrier to clear vision and we have to squint our eyes to see the full picture, to see what the artist wants us to see.

I don’t have 20/20 vision and I am also colour blind – yes, I actually have a form of red/green colour blindness that means I see some shades of green and orange as brown, which all goes to make an interesting political point.

So, in looking at mosaics in old churches or on Byzantine floors and walls, I have to squint my eyes or even rely on someone else to help me pick out the colours before I get the full picture.

I had to do this for the first time when I saw a mosaic of Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) on a street corner near where I once worked in Lichfield. This mosaic, by the controversial artist John Myatt, is based on a portrait of Dr Johnson by Sir Joshua Reynolds and was completed in 1976.

Perhaps it is appropriate that you have to squint when you are looking at this mosaic for the first time so that you get the whole picture, because Samuel Johnson was almost functionally blind since childhood, and to read he had to squint and peer. Yet he became one of the most important writers in the 18th century, and next only to William Shakespeare he is perhaps the most quoted English writer.

Samuel Johnson could have identified with the story of the blind young man in today’s Gospel reading. A childhood infection left him deaf in his left ear, almost blind in his left eye, with impaired vision in his right eye, and with scar tissue that disfigured his face. He was so blind and disabled that a family servant carried him on her back to and from school each day.

But he refused to allow his near-blindness and his visible disabilities to put him on the margins of society, or to blame his parents or himself for the disabilities that made him almost sightless and almost unsightly (see I Samuel 16: 7). Indeed, all this served to strengthen and to grow his faith as he matured.

In his diary he wrote one Easter:

“Almighty and most merciful Father, who hast created and preserved me, have pity on my weakness and corruption. Let me not be created to misery, nor preserved only to multiply sin. Deliver me from habitual wickedness, and idleness, enable me to purify my thoughts, to use the faculties which thou hast given me with honest diligence, and to regulate my life by thy holy word.”

As a young man, he was deeply influenced by reading William Law’s A Serious Call To a Devout and Holy Life, and he went on to live such a saintly life that he is commemorated by the Church of England in the calendar of Common Worship on 13 December. Later in life, he bemoaned the fact that the observance of Lent had fallen into neglect in Britain and in Ireland in his time, and he fasted strictly on Good Friday.

He is best known for his pioneering Dictionary of the English Language (1755), editing Shakespeare’s works, and his essays. Before writing those essays, he would pray in these words:

“Almighty God ... without whose grace all wisdom is folly, grant, I beseech thee, that in this my undertaking thy Holy Spirit may not be withheld from me, but that I may promote thy glory, and the salvation both of myself and others.”

I find Johnson’s last prayer, as he was about to receive Holy Communion for the last time, an appropriate prayer to mediate on during Lent, and also before receiving Holy Communion:

“Almighty and most merciful Father,
I am now, as to human eyes it seems,
about to commemorate, for the last time,
the death of your Son Jesus Christ our Saviour and Redeemer.
Grant, O Lord,
that my whole hope and confidence may be in his merits and his mercy;
enforce and accept my imperfect repentance;
make this commemoration confirm my faith,
establish my hope and enlarge my charity,
and make the death of your Son Jesus Christ effectual to my redemption.
Have mercy upon me and pardon the multitude of my offences.
Bless my friends, have mercy upon all.
Support me, by the grace of your Holy Spirit,
in the days of weakness and at the hour of death;
and receive me, at my death, to everlasting happiness,
for the sake of Jesus Christ. Amen.”

He died quietly on the evening of 13 December 1784.

Samuel Johnson turned his back to the smiters and did not hide his face from shame. His life story is one of darkness turning to light, of moving from blindness to sight, of rising above the harsh judgments of others to redemption, restoration and a living faith.

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) ... the portrait by Joshua Reynolds inspired John Myatt’s mural in Lichfield

John Myatt’s mosaic in Lichfield depicts the recognisable face of Samuel Johnson, including his squinting eyes. It is made of small plywood blocks painted with emulsion and marine varnish in a variety of colours. It is larger than life, measuring 2.32 m (7.61 ft) high x 3.36 m (11 ft) wide.

John Myatt is a controversial artist and a convicted forger who carried out “the biggest art fraud of the 20th century.”

At art school in Stafford he discovered an amusing talent for mimicking the styles of other artists. He began teaching art at a school near Tamworth in 1968 and opened a studio in Lichfield, where he created original works and in 1976 painted this street mural of Samuel Johnson.

Meanwhile, he was also travelling to Birmingham at weekends to study paintings by the Pre-Raphaelites and artists like Pissarro. It fuelled a passion that turned into quite a skill – undetectable fakes.

His first wife left him in 1985, and he gave up teaching and tried to make a living by painting original works in the style of well-known artists. In 1986, while struggling to raise two children on an art teacher’s salary, he placed a notice in Private Eye offering “genuine 19th and 20th century fakes for £200.”

John Drewe, a regular customer who claimed to be a professor of nuclear physics, resold some of these paintings as genuine works, and forged papers for their provenance. When he told John Myatt that Christie’s had accepted one of his paintings as a genuine work and paid £25,000, he became a willing accomplice to Drewe’s fraud, and began painting in the style of masters like Marc Chagall, Le Corbusier, Matisse and Graham Sutherland.

Drewe sold them to auction houses, including Christie’s, Phillips and Sotheby’s, and to dealers in London, Paris and New York.

Myatt was arrested in 1995. He quickly confessed, admitting he had created the paintings using emulsion paint and K-Y Jelly. He had made around £275,000, and he offered to return it all and to help to convict Drewe. They went on trial in 1998, and a few months later Myatt was sentenced to a year in prison and Drewe was sentenced to six years.

On his release, John Myatt’s arresting officer from Scotland Yard became the first new customer for his “Genuine Fakes.” Since his release, John has continued to paint portraits and copies, now marked indelibly as fakes. Some have sold for up to £45,000.

In 2005, he and Stephen Sanders restored the mural of Samuel Johnson. Now John is a well-known Sky Arts presenter and is happily remarried. He is back living in Lichfield, where he is a committed Christian, and where he plays the organ in his local church every Sunday.

His story is not just a story with a happy ending, but a story for Lent about wilderness times, fall, redemption and restoration.

A street view of John Myatt’s mural of Samuel Johnson in Bird Street, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Both John Myatt and Samuel Johnson found themselves in the wilderness, but they moved from the trials of Lent to the hope of Easter.

Their stories are stories of compassion, and of how the compassion of Christ not only extends to but also embraces those who are pushed to the margins by others.

Those we think are blind can often see clearly and come to full faith in hidden ways. We can see, but do we have a faith that others can see in us, in how we live, how we pray, and how we show compassion to those who others would push to the margins or all too easily think are suffering because of their sins and the sins of their families?

Tertullian quoted a pagan official saying about the Christians: “Look at how much they love each other!”

We may see, but do we show we believe? We may believe, but do others see that we believe?

And so, may well we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Wise words from Dr Samuel Johnson in the Hedgehog Vintage Inn, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)


Lord God
whose blessed Son our Saviour
gave his back to the smiters
and did not hide his face from shame:
Give us grace to endure the sufferings of this present time
with sure confidence in the glory that shall be revealed;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post-Communion Prayer:

through your goodness
we are refreshed through your Son
in word and sacrament.
May our faith be so strengthened and guarded
that we may witness to your eternal love
by our words and in our lives.
Grant this for Jesus’ sake, our Lord.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Trinity College Dublin. This sermon was preached at the Community Eucharist in the institute chapel on 2 April 2014.

Art for Lent (29): ‘Christ in Glory’ by Graham
Sutherland, tapestry in Coventry Cathedral

‘Christ in Glory’ by Graham Sutherland, tapestry in Coventry Cathedral (Photograph: David Jones/Wikipedia)

Patrick Comerford

On Saturday (29 March 2014), my choice of a work Art for Lent was the Chapel of Christ in Gethsemane, Coventry Cathedral. President Michael D Higgins is visiting Coventry later next week, so this morning (2 April 2014) I am looking again at Coventry Cathedral this morning through my choice of a work of Art for Lent, which is Graham Sutherland’s majestic tapestry, ‘Christ in Glory.’

The high altar is the focal point in Coventry Cathedral, and is dominated by this majestic tapestry hanging above. The altar stands out from the backdrop of the tapestry for its stark simplicity. It is made of a simple block of concrete, just as the functional, non-decorative elements of the cathedral are generally characterised by extreme simplicity.

This tapestry was completed in 1962, and measures 74’ 8” x 38’. It was designed by Graham Sutherland (1903-1980) and was woven by the Frères Pinton in Felletin, France.

Sutherland was born in London, and trained initially as a railway engineer. Then, from 1921 to 1926, he trained as an artist at Goldsmith’s College, London. From 1928 to 1939, he taught at Chelsea School of Art.

Sutherland’s experiences as a war artist during World War II changed his style dramatically, and he moved from romanticism to a harsher, spiky approach that reflected the horrors of war.

After the war, when Basil Spence was designing the new post-war cathedral for Coventry, his plans included a tapestry depicting the Crucifixion for the space behind the altar. After seeing Sutherland’s tapestry Wading Birds and buying it and admiring and liked his Northampton Crucifixion, Spence invited Sutherland in to undertake the tapestry for Coventry Cathedral in 1951.

Spence told Sutherland he wanted the tapestry to depict Christ in Glory in the Tetramorph (four forms), with the marks of his suffering, including the wounds from the nails in his hands and feet, clearly visible.

The initial cathedral brief asked the artist to use four themes:

● the Glory of the Father as light unapproachable;
● Christ in the Glory of the Father, with Christ shown either standing, sitting, blessing, helping, ruling, giving the sacrament or drawing humanity up to himself;
● the Holy Spirit and the Church, represented by some symbols and by the apostles;
● the Heavenly Sphere, represented by angels or saints.

The Provost of Coventry, the Very Revd Richard Howard, told Sutherland that depicting the face of Christ would be difficult: “Victory, serenity and great compassion will be a great challenge to combine. Just as the Italians boldly conceived an Italian face for Christ and the Spanish a Spanish face, it may come to you to conceive an English face, universal at the same time.”

Sutherland undertook several religious paintings before he accepted the commission. For 10 years, he worked intermittently on the tapestry working to guidelines set by both Spence and by the cathedral dean and chapter. Both wanted a design that would speak to the ordinary person and not through something highly abstract.

Throughout his design, Sutherland had to adapt his ideas to meet the requirements of the cathedral, especially so in the case of the lower panel. In the end, he asked for an additional fee to reflect the extra work brought about by differences between the church authorities.

But Sutherland also had to take account of architectural changes. At one stage, there was to be a reredos. Then in 1956 Spence decided to use a white-toned finish to the walls rather than sandstone, allowing Sutherland to change to brighter colours for the tapestry.

The main themes of the tapestry is taken from the apocalyptic Johannine visions in the Book of Revelation:

“At once I was in the spirit, and there in heaven stood a throne, with one seated on the throne! And the one seated there looks like jasper and cornelian, and around the throne is a rainbow that looks like an emerald … Around the throne, and on each side of the throne, are four living creatures … the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with a face like a human face, and the fourth living creature like a flying eagle.” (see Revelation 4: 2-3, 6-7.)

The dragon in the chalice under Christ’s feet is referenced here:

Then another portent appeared in heaven: a great red dragon … with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads.
Then I heard a loud voice in heaven, proclaiming,
‘Now have come the salvation and the power
and the kingdom of our God
and the authority of his Messiah,
for the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down,
who accuses them day and night before our God. (see Revelation 12: 3 and 10)

Saint Michael hurling down the Devil is also an image in the Book of Revelation:

“And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon … The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world – he was thrown down to the earth …” (see Revelation 12: 7-9).

Sutherland carried out a considerable amount of research as he worked on the tapestry, and was also influenced by art he saw at first hand:

● Egyptian sculptures in France
● Mosaics in Italy
● The Pantocrator in Greek Orthodox churches
● Romanesque and early Gothic cathedrals in France.

The tapestry was not designed to be seen at its best on entering the cathedral, but from three quarters way down the cathedral nave – but it is clear whether he means from the tapestry or from the entrance.

The design is centrifugal in nature, most of the design has a double meaning, and he achieved balance by not using absolute symmetry in his design. He saw the large image of the ascended Christ, which is composed of ovals and squares, as a figure with life and presence, a concentrated force, slightly remote.

But there is a studied ambiguity in portraying the stance of Christ ... is he sitting, or is he standing?

But surely this is the majestic figure of the resurrected Christ in all his glory, the King of the universe. He turns defeat to victory, he turns death to resurrection, for in this majestic figure we have signs of the suffering that came before the resurrection in the form of the marks of nails in the hands and feet of Christ.

The crown and the cross are subtly combined as they were in the life of Christ. At his feet, between his legs, stands the figure of a human being, representing the whole of redeemed humanity.

For the head of Christ, Sutherland browsed among sources from Rembrandt to Egyptian art and even photographs of cyclists, but not, as some thought, by el Greco. He made Christ bearded, but only after some thought.

Sutherland connected the crucifixion at the base with the sufferings of those in Buchenwald and elsewhere in the 20th century, and the people in the congregation become he mourners at the crucifixion.

The figure of Christ is surrounded by the symbols of the four evangelists, with the defeated figure of Satan at the left hand side of the figure (the viewer’s right), a reminder of sculpture on the wall outside the cathedral showing the devil defeated by the Archangel Michael.

Sutherland tried to avoid using traditional heraldic motifs in drawing the four beasts. So for the four evangelists he made studies of eagles and lions from birds and animals in Maidstone Zoo and in books. His image of the lion was also influenced by representations in Italy.

Tapestry was Sutherland’s preferred medium, and he disliked older tapestries. So how did he work with the manufacturing process?

During his work, Sutherland produced three cartoons in 1953, 1955 and 1957. The relatively small final cartoon had to be enlarged. WA Cook, a Wimbledon photographer, photographed the tapestry and produced horizontal strips which were then blown up. In all, 24 strips (39' x 3') were produced. The definition was good but some inconsistencies in scale meant that the process had to be repeated again in France. Sutherland had to correct some of the details on the enlarged strips for the weavers.

Spence originally wanted to use the Edinburgh Tapestry Company but the final choice was Pinton Fréres in Felletin near Aubusson. Unlike the Edinburgh Tapestry Company, Pinton Fréres could weave the tapestry in one piece at 12 stitches to an inch. The contract required the weavers to follow Sutherland’s painting exactly and to the satisfaction of both architect and artist.

While the weaving was in progress, Sutherland visited the workshops nine times. He had to amend, and then send, each photographic band. Several sections, such as the skirt and the hands, had to be redrawn. The artistic director was Marie Cuttoli and 12 weavers were involved, the three most skilled weavers working on the figures.

The French weavers started at the bottom of the tapestry and worked from the back. The photographic bands guided them. A specialist marked in the colours in chalk and the weavers were guided by Sutherland’s final cartoon which hung in the room where they worked.

They followed the Aubusson method of achieving nuances in colour not through graduations but through using patches of different colours. In all, they used about 900 colours. The nearby River Creuse, which was lime-free, was good for fixing colours. After weaving, the slits between different colours had to be sewn up.

Sutherland wanted to see the completed tapestry after it came off the loom to check it. At one stage, there was a strong move to exhibit the completed tapestry in the Louvre. But this was neither feasible nor desirable from the cathedral’s point of view. So Sutherland checked the tapestry while it was on the floor in the Building Trades School at Felletin in February 1962.

The tapestry arrived in England the following month. The hanging took two days, and its squaring took another month. Sutherland himself saw the tapestry only once in Coventry, on 20 August 1962. Reports at the time say he praised the weaving and said to his friends: “Well, it could be worse.”

Many of his studies and sketches are still held in the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, Jordan Well, Coventry. The Herbert Art Gallery also houses the trial weaving of the eagles. The final cartoon is in the Visitors’ Centre in Coventry Cathedral. Other sketches are in private collections.

Tomorrow: Art for Lent (30): Art for Lent (30): ‘Dublin’s Last Supper’ (2004), by John Byrne’ (2004), by John Byrne.