29 March 2014

Art for Lent (25): The Chapel of Christ
in Gethsemane, Coventry Cathedral

The Chapel of Christ in Gethsemane, in Coventry Cathedral, seen through the large Crown of Thorns made in wrought iron by the Royal Engineers (Photograph: Jim Limwood/ Wikipedia, 2010)

Patrick Comerford

For my choice of a work Art for Lent this morning (29 March 2014), I have chosen the Chapel of Christ in Gethsemane, Coventry Cathedral.

When Coventry was destroyed by German bombs on the night of 14 November 1940, the Cathedral hit by several incendiary devices and burned with the city. The decision to rebuild the cathedral was taken the next morning.

Shortly after the destruction, a cathedral worker, Jock Forbes, noticed that two charred medieval roof timbers had fallen in the shape of a cross. He set them up in the ruins where they were later placed on an altar of rubble with the words ‘Father Forgive’ inscribed on the sanctuary wall. A local priest, the Revd Arthur Wales, made a second cross from three mediaeval nails. The Cross of Nails has become the symbol of Coventry Cathedral’s ministry of reconciliation.

The decision to rebuild the cathedral was not an act of defiance, but a sign of faith, trust and hope for the future of the world. The vision of the Provost, the Very Revd Richard Howard, led the people of Coventry away from feelings of bitterness and hatred, and the cathedral developed its Ministry of Peace and Reconciliation which has spread throughout the world.

Queen Elizabeth laid the foundation stone in 1956 and the new cathedral was consecrated on 25 May 1962. The ruins of the old cathedral remain hallowed ground and together the two create one living cathedral.

The new cathedral designed by Sir Basil Spence (1907-1976) is one of the great iconic architectural works of art of the 20th century, and in a national poll on the 1990s Coventry Cathedral was chosen as Britain’s favourite 20th century building.

But if the new cathedral stands as an integral work of architectural art on its own, it also contains many outstanding individual works of art. Large artworks commissioned by Spence include the stained glass baptistery window by John Piper, the bronze sculpture of Saint Michael by Jacob Epstein, the large tapestry behind the main altar by Graham Sutherland, and the Great West Window or ‘Screen of Saints and Angels,’ engraved directly onto the screen in expressionist style by John Hutton.

Inside the cathedral, the Chapel of Christ in Gethsemane, the Baptistery and the Chapel of Unity, although physically attached to the new Cathedral, unique spaces stand apart as important works of art and architecture.

The main body of the cathedral is built of red sandstone. Projecting out are the circular Chapel of Unity and the Chapel of Industry. Zigzag walls let angled windows, designed by by Lawrence Lee, Keith New and Geoffrey Clarke, direct light down the nave towards the High Altar.

The Chapel of Christ in Gethsemane is approached by following the aisle from the Baptistery window towards the altar with Graham Sutherland’s majestic tapestry of Christ above. The intimacy of this chapel is in stark contrast with the size and majesty of the cathedral nave and the High Altar.

Canon Adrian Daffern, in a Lenten sermon in Coventry Cathedral in 2010, spoke of the Chapel of Christ in Gethsemane as “my favourite part of the Cathedral.” But he asked people to stop calling it “the Gethsemane Chapel” for short … “It is the Chapel of Christ in Gethsemane.”

This Chapel of Christ in Gethsemane is a beautiful and serene place within the cathedral, and offers a place of prayer for those who wish to withdraw from the focal point of the cathedral.

The chapel is first glimpsed through a screen in the shape of Christ’s Crown of Thorns. This screen of the Crown of Thorns was designed by Basil Spence and made in wrought iron by the Royal Engineers.

Through this circular crown, we see the small chapel with the angel who offers the cup of suffering to Christ as he prayed and a separate panel showing the sleeping disciples.

The chapel is the best-known work by Steven Sykes (1914-1999), a war veteran and war artist who taught at the Chelsea School of Art. Sykes was invited to contribute to the cathedral by Basil Spence, who had also been a camouflage officer in World War II.

The figure of the angel – which has been described by Niklaus Pevsner and Alexandra Wedgwood, as “consciously Byzantine” – and the panel of the sleeping disciples by Steven Sykes are modelled like his pottery figures in reverse relief, but then cast in concrete. The background is covered in gold leaf and blue tesserae, forming a mosaic.

In her obituary of Steven Sykes in The Independent in 1999, Tanya Harrod said “the result was dazzling.”

The Garden of Gethsemane is on the slopes of the Mount of Olives, and the name Gethsemane probably means an oil-press, a place where precious olives have the life squeezed out of them to produce that most versatile and healing of oils. This chapel in Coventry Cathedral is a reminder of suffering and healing in the midst of an overall impression of triumph and light.

Tomorrow:Oia’ by Manolis Sivridakis.

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