15 December 2013

Art for Advent (15): ‘Christ
in Majesty’ by John Piper

‘Christ in Majesty’ (1984) by John Piper … the East Window in the Chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

This morning is the Third Sunday of Advent [15 December 2013], and the readings in the Revised Common Lectionary focus us on Saint John the Baptist, the traditional theme for this Sunday, also known as Gaudete Sunday: Isaiah 35: 1-10; Psalm 146: 4-10 or the Canticle Magnificat; James 5: 7-10; and Matthew 11: 2-11.

On Gaudete Sunday, the liturgical colour changes in many churches from Purple or Sarum Blue to Pink, and we light the third, Pink candle, rather than one of the purple candles, on the Advent Wreath to remind us of Saint John the Baptist.

So, for this morning’s work of art to meditate on this day in Advent, I think it is appropriate to return to the Hospital of Saint John Baptist without the Barrs on Saint John Street in Lichfield. On Friday [13 December 2013], I wrote about ‘Noah and Dove,’ the sculpture by Simon Manby in the grounds of Saint John’s. This morning, I invite you to look at the stained glass in the East Window of the chapel: ‘Christ in Majesty,’ by John Piper.

Saint John’s Hospital and its chapel date back to 1135, and the chapel is open daily to the public. Saint John’s Hospital, which provides sheltered housing for retired people, is one of the finest 15th century brick buildings in England. The chapel and the east range facing Saint John Street are part of the original mediaeval foundation, but ancient and modern come together with John Piper’s magnificent interpretation of ‘Christ in Majesty’ in stained glass, which was installed in 1984.

John Piper is best-known for his Baptistry window in Coventry Cathedral. He was born John Egerton Christmas Piper in Epsom, Surrey, on 13 December 1903. His father, a solicitor, Charles Piper, wanted him to become a solicitor too, but instead he trained at the Richmond School of Art and the Royal College of Art, London.

At an early stage in his career, he turned from abstraction concentrating on a more naturalistic but distinctive approach. His work often focuses on the English landscape and English churches.

From 1940 to 1942, he was an official war artist in World War II. The morning after the air raid that destroyed Coventry Cathedral, Piper produced his first painting of bomb damage, Interior of Coventry Cathedral. It has been described as “Britain’s Guernica” and is now in the Herbert Art Gallery.

Sir Osbert Sitwell invited Piper to Renishaw Hall to paint the house and illustrate an autobiography he was writing and Piper made his first of many visits to the estate in 1942. The Sitwell family still holds 70 of his pictures.

Piper collaborated with many others, working with the poet John Betjeman on the Shell Guides, and with the potter Geoffrey Eastop and the artist Ben Nicholson. In later years he produced many limited-edition prints.

Working closely with Patrick Reyntiens, Piper designed the stained glass windows for the new Coventry Cathedral as well as the East Window in Saint John’s, Lichfield.

Later, he worked at the Chapel of Robinson College, Cambridge, and designed a large window The Land is Bright, for Washington National Cathedral. He also designed windows for many smaller churches and created tapestries for Chichester Cathedral and Hereford Cathedral. His work can also be seen in Saint Andrew’s Church, Plymouth, the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Liverpool, the chapel of Eton College, Aldeburgh Parish Church in Suffolk, and the Old Chapel in Ripon College Cuddesdon, where I stayed recently.

As a set designer, he designed many of the premiere productions of Benjamin Britten’s operas at Glyndebourne Festival Opera, the Royal Opera House, La Fenice and the Aldeburgh Festival.

John Piper died at his home at Fawley Bottom in Buckinghamshire on 28 June 1992. The Tate Collection holds 180 of his works, including etchings and some earlier abstractions. In 2012, a major exhibition, ‘John Piper and the Church,’ looked his relationship with the Church and his contribution to the development of modern art in churches.

Inside the chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield … the beginning of a story of faith and discipleship (Photograph: Leon Hawley/Wikipedia)

the East Window, designed by John Piper, is the main attraction for many visitors to the chapel in Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield.

This window is Piper’s last major undertaking, and was executed by Patrick Reyntiens in 1984. Piper’s inspiration for the window came from his drawings and paintings of Romanesque sculptures in the Dordogne and Saintogne areas of western French during his many visits between 1955 and 1975.

The window shows ‘Christ in Majesty,’ dressed in royal purple and flanked by angels within a mandorla surrounded by the symbols of the Four Evangelists: Matthew (angel), Mark (lion), Luke (ox) and John (eagle). They appear aged, perhaps because Piper had in mind the residents of Saint John’s Hospital who pray daily in this chapel.

The window provides a splash of deep, vibrant colour above the altar in the chapel. But it is also a window of great solemnity power.

Look closely and you can also see behind Christ that the cross is in the shape of the Mercian cross, which also features on the coat-of-arms of the Diocese of Lichfield.

John Piper’s cartoon for this window was part of a recent exhibition Dorchester Abbey. His cartoons for his window in the chapel in Eton College are on exhibition in the Verey Gallery, Eton, until 7 April 2014.

For a Flickr group with more images of works by John Piper and Patrick Reyntiens click here.

Tomorrow: Traditional icons of the Nativity of Christ.

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