Thursday, 2 July 2015

The Visitation in word, art,
song and Anglican liturgy

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

Patrick Comerford

In the Calendar of Common Worship, the Feast of the Visitation or the Visit of the Blessed Virgin Mary to Elizabeth may be celebrated in the Church of England on 2 July, the date it was once assigned in The Book of Common Prayer, instead of 31 May, the date when it is usually celebrated in both the Church of England and the Church of Ireland.

One 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.

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.”

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

The Canticle Magnificat, in the Anglican tradition, is a fixed canticle in Evening Prayer or Evensong. The original words (Luke 1: 46-55) in New Testament Greek are:

Μεγαλύνει ἡ ψυχή μου τὸν Κύριον,
καὶ ἠγαλλίασεν τὸ πνεῦμά μου ἐπὶ τῷ
Θεῷ τῷ σωτῆρί μου,
ὅτι ἐπέβλεψεν ἐπὶ τὴν ταπείνωσιν τῆς δούλης αυτοῦ.
ἰδοὺ γὰρ ἀπὸ τοῦ νῦν
μακαριοῦσίν με πᾶσαι αἱ γενεαί,
ὅτι ἐποίησέν μοι μεγάλα ὁ δυνατός.
καὶ ἅγιον τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ,
καὶ τὸ ἔλεος αὐτοῦ εἰς γενεὰς καὶ γενεὰς
τοῖς φοβουμένοις αυτόν.
Ἐποίησεν κράτος ἐν βραχίονι αὐτοῦ,
διεσκόρπισεν ὑπερηφάνους διανοίᾳ καρδίας αὐτῶν·
καθεῖλεν δυνάστας ἀπὸ θρόνων
καὶ ὕψωσεν ταπεινούς,
πεινῶντας ἐνέπλησεν ἀγαθῶν
καὶ πλουτοῦντας ἐξαπέστειλεν κενούς.
ἀντελάβετο Ἰσραὴλ παιδὸς αὐτοῦ,
μνησθῆναι ἐλέους,
καθὼς ἐλάλησεν πρὸς τοὺς πατέρας ἡμῶν
τῷ Αβραὰμ καὶ τῷ σπέρματι
αὐτοῦ εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα.

The Canticle Magnificat in the Book of Common Prayer (1662) reads:

My soul doth magnify the Lord:
and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.

For he hath regarded:
the lowliness of his handmaiden.

For behold, from henceforth:
all generations shall call me blessed.

For he that is mighty hath magnified me:
and holy is his Name.

And his mercy is on them that fear him:
throughout all generations.

He hath shewed strength with his arm:
he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

He hath put down the mighty from their seat:
and hath exalted the humble and meek.

He hath filled the hungry with good things:
and the rich he hath sent empty away.

He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel:
as he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed for ever.

Common Worship (ELLC translation):

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour;
he has looked with favour on his lowly servant.

From this day all generations will call me blessed;
the Almighty has done great things for me
and holy is his name.

He has mercy on those who fear him,
from generation to generation.

He has shown strength with his arm
and has scattered the proud in their conceit,

Casting down the mighty from their thrones
and lifting up the lowly.

He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty.

He has come to the aid of his servant Israel,
to remember his promise of mercy,

The promise made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and his children for ever.

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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