02 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.

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