25 November 2023

Wendy Taylor’s ‘Octo’
is one of the first public
artworks installed
in Milton Keynes

Wendy Taylor’s ‘Octo’ is one of two sculptures in Milton Keynes that are listed (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

After visiting Wendy Taylor’s sculpture ‘Equatorial Sundial’ in Chandos Square in Bletchley recently, I decided to revisit her ‘Octo’ in the centre of Milton Keynes one afternoon last week.

‘Octo’ is one of two sculptures in Milton Keynes that have been listed Grade II. This stainless steel sculpture, created by Wendy Taylor in 1979-1980, is mounted on a reflecting pool in central Milton Keynes, in front of Norfolk House and Ashton House, at the corner of Saxon Gate and Silbury Boulevard.

It has been listed Grade II since 2016 because its ‘formal clarity, equipoise and a sensitivity to its setting combine to create a striking yet harmonious work.’ It is an important work within Taylor’s oeuvre. It is of historic interest as an early example of the Milton Keynes Development Corporation’s public art programme.

The sculpture also commemorates Richard Llewelyn-Davies (1912-1981), the architect who inspired the master plan for the new city of Milton Keynes.

Milton Keynes was designated a new town in 1967 and planning control was delegated to the Milton Keynes Development Corporation (MKDC). Like earlier new towns, it developed a policy of commissioning and acquiring outdoor works for public display, particularly outside buildings designed by MKDC. A significant collection was developed, including works by Elisabeth Frink, Liliane Lijn, Bernard Schottlander and Wendy Taylor.

The sculptor Wendy Taylor specialises in permanent, site-specific commissions. She is known for her sculptures in the public realm, especially in London, and she says she is one of the first artists of her generation to take art out of the galleries and onto the streets.

Her work typically consists of large sculptures that appear to be carefully balanced. Her abstract sculptures explore themes of equilibrium, materiality and fabrication. Much of her sculpture incorporates an element of illusion, such as knots created from what look like bricks or steel ‘frames; suspended in the air by chains. She views her artworks as communicative devices.

Wendy Taylor’s ‘Octo’ is mounted on a reflecting pool in central Milton Keynes (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Wendy Taylor was born in Stamford, Lincolnshire, in 1945, and was an award winning student at Saint Martin’s School of Art (1961-1966). Her first solo show was in 1966 at Axiom Gallery, and she later exhibited in many group shows and solo at Angela Flowers Gallery, the Oliver Dowling Gallery, Dublin, and the Hayward Annual at Hayward Gallery. She won a gold medal in the Listowel Graphics Exhibition in Co Kerry 1977.

She has taught at Ealing School of Art (1967-1975) and the Royal College of Art (1972-1973), and she was a design consultant for the Commission for New Towns (1986-1988).

Three of her works are Grade II listed structures: her ‘Virginia Quay Settlers Monument’, her ‘Timepiece’ in Saint Katharine Docks, by Tower Bridge in London, and this ‘Octo’ sculpture and reflecting pool in Milton Keynes.

‘Octo’ has its origins in an aluminium maquette Wendy Taylor made for a full-scale work in stainless steel but with no specific commission in mind. She then made a full-scale plywood model and had the architectural photographer John Donat photograph both the maquette and model.

Derek Walker, architect to the MKDC, and Donald Ritson, assistant to the general manager Fred Lloyd Roche, noticed ‘Octo’ in John Donat’s portfolio. They visited Wendy Taylor’s studio and commissioned the work for Norfolk House and Ashton House, an office development designed by MKDC in 1978-1979 for a central site near Saxon Gate.

Wendy Taylor suggested mounting the sculpture on a reflecting pool to bridge the gap in scale between passers-by and the large office blocks, while echoing their mirror-glass surfaces. To demonstrate the importance of the water feature, the plywood model was sprayed silver and set up in her studio yard, which was flooded to simulate a reflective setting.

Wendy Taylor’s ‘Octo’ commemorates Richard Llewelyn-Davies, who inspired the master plan for the new city of Milton Keynes (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

‘Octo’ was one of the first public artworks installed in Milton Keynes. It was unveiled in 1983 by Baroness Llewelyn-Davies (1915-1997), a Labour politician, to commemorate the role of her husband Richard Llewelyn-Davies (1912-1981), who inspired the master plan for the new city of Milton Keynes.

Lord Llewelyn-Davis was a founding partner in Llewelyn-Davies, Weeks, Forestier-Walker and Bor, the practice that prepared the master plan of Milton Keynes in 1970. He was also Professor of Architecture at the Bartlett, University College London (1960-1969), and Professor of Urban Planning and Head of the School of Environmental Studies (1970-1975). He was a grandson of the Irish journalist and MP James O’Connor (1836-1910), and a cousin of the Llewelyn-Davies boys, who were the inspiration for the Peter Pan stories by JM Barrie.

Wendy Taylor’s ‘Octo’s is a stainless steel figure-of-eight, about 4 metres high, mounted in the centre of a square reflective pool. An extruded hollow section is twisted into a Möbius strip, with a double rather than a single twist. A Möbius strip is a mathematical term describing a continuous surface created by twisting a long rectangular strip through 180º and joining the ends. This form does not have an inside or an outside, but the sculpture does not follow this form.

‘Octo’ is placed, without visible means of support, on a shallow reflecting pool. This comprises a dark slate-like platform edged by a water channel and a granite surround. A play of shifting reflections is established between the polished surface of the sculpture, its reflections in the pool, and the mirror glass of the adjacent buildings.

In all, four buildings and two sculptures in Milton Keynes are listed Grade II, making the city’s modern heritage unique. The two sculptures – MS Series no 1 by Bernard Schottlander in Bletchley and Wendy Taylor’s ‘Octo’ – were both listed in January 2016.

The first building that was listed was thecentre:mk in 2010. The housing on Silver Street, Stony Stratford, at the back of Cofferidge Close, was listed due to the threat of redevelopment in 2012. However, listing was declined for the office building and shops because they had been altered too greatly. The CMK Bus Station and the Library were listed in 2014 and 2015.

Wendy Taylor’s ‘Octo’s is a stainless steel figure-of-eight, about 4 metres high, mounted in the centre of a square reflective pool (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Daily prayers in the Kingdom Season
with USPG: (21) 25 November 2023

Saint Paul preaching in Thessaloniki … a fresco in the Cathedral Church of Saint Gregory Palamas in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

In this time between All Saints’ Day and Advent Sunday, we are in the Kingdom Season in the Calendar of the Church of England. Tomorrow is the Sunday next before Advent and the Feast of Christ the King (26 November 2023).

Today (25 November 2023), the calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship remembers the lives of Saint Catherine of Alexandria (4th century), martyr, and Isaac Watts (1748), hymn writer.

Throughout this week, I am reflecting on the seven churches in cities or places that give their names to the titles of nine letters or epistles by Saint Paul: Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi, Colossae and Thessaloniki.

My reflections this morning follow this pattern:

1, A reflection on a Pauline church;

2, the Gospel reading of the day in the Church of England lectionary;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

The katholikon or main church of the Monastery of Vlatádon … tradition says it stands on the spot where Saint Paul preached when he visited Thessaloniki in 50 CE (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Saint Paul’s Thessaloniki:

The Apostle Paul wrote 14 of the 27 books the New Testament. He founded several Christian communities in Asia Minor and Europe from the mid-40s to the mid-50s AD, and wrote letters to the churches in Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi, Colossae and Thessaloniki. The two Letters to the Thessalonians (I and II Thessalonians) and the thirteenth and fourteenth books in the New Testament.

Christianity first came to Thessaloniki with Saint Paul, who wrote two of his epistles (I Thessalonians and II Thessalonians) to the early church there. In these weeks, in the New Testament cycle of readings in the Revised Common Lectionary, we are reading from I Thessalonians on Sundays since 22 October (Trinity XX).

Biblical scholars agree generally that I Thessalonians is the earliest book of the New Testament to be written, and the earliest extant Christian text. It probably dates from 51-52 CE, although some scholars believe the Letter to the Galatians may have been written by 48 CE. Most New Testament scholars believe Saint Paul wrote I Thessalonians from Corinth or from Athens only months after he left Thessaloniki.

II Thessalonians names Timothy as the co-author. It may have been written ca 51-52 CE, shortly after IIThessalonians, although some scholars date it to as late as ca 80-115 CE.

The Acts of the Apostles recalls that when Saint Paul visited Thessaloniki, he preached in the synagogue on the three successive Saturdays, and was soon supported by some of the leading women in the city (see Acts 17: 1-4).

In Saint Paul’s days, Thessaloniki was the second city in Europe. Today it is the second city of Greece. It is a city with a rich Biblical and Byzantine heritage, and in 1988 Unesco declared many of the churches as World Heritage Monuments.

The Metropolitan Church or Cathedral of Thessaloniki is the Church of Saint Gregory Palamas. The cathedral, which has a round red dome, is named after the saint who was Archbishop of Thessaloniki from 1347 to 1359.

An earlier church on the site was a three-aisled basilica, built in the late 13th century. It became the Metropolitan Church or Cathedral of Thessaloniki at the end of the 16th century.

The church was destroyed in a major fire in 1890. The cathedral was rebuilt after the fire to designs by the architect Ernst Ziller and his Greek colleague Xenofon Paionidis, and was completed in 1914.

The building retains considerable Byzantine influences, but there are neo-classical elements too. It is based on the Byzantine octagonal type, and the main church is cross-shaped form, like many Orthodox churches.

The church holds the shrine and relics of Saint Gregory Palamas, who lived in Thessaloniki in 1325-1359. The walls are covered with bright, modern frescoes depicting the life of Christ and the ministry of the Apostle Paul.

In the hills above the city, the Royal and Patriarchal Monastery of Vlatádon is in a leafy, secluded location. The monastery was founded in the 14th century, perhaps by two monks from Crete. By tradition, the little chapel of Saint Peter and Saint Paul at Vlatádon stands on the very spot where the Apostle Paul preached when he visited Thessaloniki in the year 50 CE.

In recent years, Vlatádon has been renovated and expanded, and has lost much of its old feeling. But the charming, inner, tree-shaded courtyard is a cool and refreshing place to rest and contemplate. This is one of my favourite places in Thessaloniki, and I visit it each time I am in the city. I spent Easter Day there five years ago (2018), and I once met the actress Irene Papas there in the late 1990s.

From Vlatádon, the panorama looks out over the whole city and as far as the peaks of Mount Olympus. The resident peacocks are usually in good voice. They are here because peacocks are an early Christian symbol of faith in the resurrection, perhaps because it was believed that their flesh did not decay after death.

The Turks badly damaged the original frescoes in the church and they have not been restored. Today, the monastery of Vlatádon is the only active monastery among about 20 monasteries in Thessaloniki. Traditionally, the abbots and monks of Vlatádon have close links with the University of Thessaloniki and the Theological School in Chalki. The Patriarchal Institute for Patristic Studies was founded there in 1965, and it has a library and publishes the journal Klironomia.

The most famous church in Thessaloniki is the Church of Aghios Dimitrios, named after the martyred Roman soldier who is the city’s patron saint and whose feast day is on 26 October. The church was first built as a small oratory shortly after the year 313 CE on the ruins of a Roman bath and on the site of the saint’s martyrdom 10 years earlier on the orders of the Emperor Galerius.

A new church was built on the same site in the fifth century. This was a large, three-aisled basilica, but was burnt down in 634. Soon after, the present five-aisled basilica was built on the site, and it remains the largest church in Greece.

The church became a mosque in 1493, but was restored to Christian worship in 1912. It was destroyed by fire again in 1917, but restoration work began immediately after the catastrophe of 1917. Very few fragments of sculptures, mosaics or frescoes survived the fire of 1917, but those that have survived are representative of the successive phases of the church’s history. Today, the church often functions as the de facto cathedral of Thessaloniki.

The crypt under the sanctuary and the transept is said to be the place where the saint was martyred, and has been an archaeological site since it was discovered in 1918.

The remains of Saint Dimitrios were returned from Italy in 1980 and are part of the exhibition open to the public, with items that survived the 1917 fire and others that came to light during recent excavations.

The Church of the Panaghia Acheiropoietos is an old Byzantine church, dating from the mid-fifth century. The church was built on the site of a Roman bath, and was dedicated to the Virgin ‘not made by human hands’ (Acheiropoietos), a reference to an icon rather than an inference of any miraculous role in its building.

Inside the church, a few fragments of mosaics from the fifth century have survived in the soffits of the arches of the colonnades. Several parts of the wall paintings date from the 13th century and are preserved in the south aisle.

It is a three-aisled basilica with a narthex on the west side and a second entrance with a monumental propylon in the middle of the south wall. A building attached to the east of the propylon may have been a baptistery or a diakonikon. A small parekklesion (chapel) is formed at the east end of the north aisle.

This was the first church in Thessaloniki to be converted into a mosque after the conquest of the city by the Turks in 1430. The Turks hammered down practically all the figurative decorations in the church, including the mosaics and frescoes. In 1930 the building was turned back into a church.

One church in Thessaloniki that never became a mosque but that often goes unnoticed because of its location is the 14th century Church of the Transfiguration of the Saviour (Μεταμορφώσεως του Σωτήρος, Metamorphosis tou Sotíros), also known as the Church of the Saviour (Ναός του Σωτήρος, Naós tou Sotíros).

This 14th century Byzantine church is also a Unesco World Heritage Site as one of the ancient Christian and Byzantine monuments in Thessaloniki.

This church stands across the street from the Arch of Galerius, at the junction of Egnatia Street and Palaion Patron Street, between the church of Panagia Gorgoepikoos and the Church of Ipapantis.

The Rotunda is the oldest church in Thessaloniki, and some Greek sources claim this is the oldest Christian church in the world, although there are competitors for that title. It is the most important surviving example of a church from the early Christian period in the Greek-speaking part of the Roman Empire.

The Rotunda, which is close to the Arch of Galerius is, built by the Emperor Galerius as his future mausoleum. But he died in Serbia, he was never buried here, and the Rotunda stood empty for several decades.

The Emperor Theodosius I ordered the conversion of the Rotunda into the Church of Asomaton or Archangelon in the late fourth century. The church has eight barrel-vaulted niches and was decorated with high quality mosaics. Some fragments of the frescoes and mosaics survive.

After the city fell to the Ottomans, it was converted into the Mosque of Suleyman Hortaji Effendi in 1590, and a minaret was added to the building. It continued to be used as a mosque until 1912, when Thessaloniki was incorporated into the modern Greek state.

The Rotunda was reconsecrated as the Church of Aghios Georgios (Saint George), although the Ottoman minaret was left standing. The building was damaged in the 1978 earthquake, and has restored once again. It is now an historical monument, and the Greek Orthodox Church continues to use it for festivities.

The Church of Panagia Deksia, about 150 metres south of the Rotunda, was built in 1956 on the site of an older church, Saint Hypatia the Miracle Worker. Although it is a modern church, its style of architecture is mostly Byzantine, with some neo-classical embellishments such as arcades resting on columns and barrel vaults.

The name means ‘Mother of God Right-Sided’ and is thought to come from the icon above the sanctuary depicting the Virgin Mary holding the Christ Child on the right side. The church interior is illuminated by windows in the dome, and is richly decorated with frescoes, paintings and icons, some considered miraculous. The interior of the dome depicts Christ the Pantocrator holding the New Testament in his left hand and blessing with his right hand.

Saint Irene, Saint Catherine and Saint Barbara … three women martyrs in a fresco in the Church of Panagia Deksia (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

One fresco in the Church of Panagia Deksia depicts three women: Saint Catherine in the centre, with Saint Irene and Saint Barbara on either side. It is an unusual grouping of three women saints. The men in the lives of these three women seem not only to have hated women, but to have hated themselves and to have devalued themselves rather than the three women.

Saint Catharine of Alexandria was a daughter of Constus, Governor of Alexandria in the reign of the Emperor Maximian (286-305). When the persecutions began in the reign of Maxentius, she rebuked the emperor for his cruelty and she was condemned to death. It is said angels transported her body to Mount Saint Catherine, next to Mount Sinai, where Saint Catherine’s Monastery was founded by the Emperor Justinian in the sixth century. Her feast day is today (25 November).

Saint Catherine is the patron of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, where I have studied in Cambridge. To mark her feast, the institute held Vespers at Wesley House Chapel, Cambridge, yesterday, followed by a lecture, ‘Axia Women and the Anthropologist from Mars,’ by Dr Patricia Fann Bouteneff, president and founder of Axia Women, who spoke about the Axia Women mission and women in the Orthodox Church.

To outsiders, the Orthodox Church can sometimes be seen as behind the times in its attitude to women, exemplified in debates about the ordination of women or the exclusion of women from Mount Athos. But the exclusion of women from Mount Athos is more about protecting and honouring the celibacy of the men in the monastic communities, and I am confident that because the debate about the ordination of women is theological rather than misogynistic that it is capable of moving forward in time.

The three women in the fresco in the Church of Panagia Deksia – Saint Catherine of Alexandria, Saint Irene and Saint Barbara – emerged as strong figures in their own right. They continued to adhere to their principles and their insistence on the truth when they were betrayed and sexually mistreated by the men in their lives. They were brutalised and faced court cases in which their truthfulness and their self-worth were publicly doubted. Their public humiliation finally lead to their deaths. Yet it was the men in their lives who were the real perpetrators of injustice, while the women retained their integrity and their own values, no matter what men said about them or projected onto them.

As I have recalled throughout this week, Saint Paul constantly tells his readers that the whole law is summed up in one single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (Galatians 5: 5). On more than one occasion, he summarises the Christian message in this way. In the Letter to the Galatians, for example, he says: ‘The only thing that counts is faith working through love’ (Galatians 5: 6). Then he writes, ‘For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”.’ (Galatians 5: 14).

In I Thessalonians, Saint Paul writes: ‘And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you’ (I Thessalonians 3: 12). He encourages the Christians in Thessaloniki to love one another in a way that inspires others outside the community (see I Thessalonian 4: 9-12).

The Rotunda is the oldest church in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Luke 20: 27-40 (NRSVA):

27 Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him 28 and asked him a question, ‘Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. 29 Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; 30 then the second 31 and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. 32 Finally the woman also died. 33 In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.’

34 Jesus said to them, ‘Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; 35 but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. 36 Indeed they cannot die any more, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. 37 And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. 38 Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.’ 39 Then some of the scribes answered, ‘Teacher, you have spoken well.’ 40 For they no longer dared to ask him another question.

The Church of Aghios Dimitrios often serves as the de facto cathedral of Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayers (Saturday 25 November 2023):

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), has been ‘16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence’. This theme was introduced on Sunday.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (25 November 2023, Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women) invites us to pray in these words:

Let us pray for women and girls, that they may be released from the cycle of gender-based violence.

The Church of the Panaghia Acheiropoietos in Thessaloniki is one of the most important Byzantine churches in Greece (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Collect:

Heavenly Father,
whose blessed Son was revealed
to destroy the works of the devil
and to make us the children of God and heirs of eternal life:
grant that we, having this hope,
may purify ourselves even as he is pure;
that when he shall appear in power and great glory
we may be made like him in his eternal and glorious kingdom;
where he is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

Gracious Lord,
in this holy sacrament you give substance to our hope:
bring us at the last
to that fullness of life for which we long;
through Jesus Christ our Saviour.

Yesterday’s Reflection (Colossae)

Continued Tomorrow

The Church of Saint Gregory Palamas has been the cathedral of Thessaloniki since the end of the 16th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

The Church of the Saviour or the Church of the Transfiguration … it sometimes appears suffocated by surrounding apartment blocks (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)