25 February 2023

Emily Young’s five angels
on columns at Saint Paul’s
are not dancing on needles

Angel I by Emily Young (2003), Paternoster Square, London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

‘How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?’

‘How many angels can stand on the point of a pin?’

Whichever way you phrase the question, it remains a metaphor for wasting time discussing trivial topics that have no practical value, or asking questions whose answers hold no consequence, at times when we have more urgent concerns to debate.

It seems the phrase was first used in a theological context by 17th century Protestant theologians to mock mediaeval scholastics such as Duns Scotus and Thomas Aquinas and their prolonged detailed approach to theological questions.

Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologica, written ca 1270, asks several questions about angels such as, ‘Can several angels be in the same place?’

However, the idea that questions such as this had a prominent place in mediaeval scholarship is debatable, and it is not clear that theologians in the past ever asked questions like this.

The American philosopher Professor Helen S Lang (1947-2016) wrote that although the question of how many angels can dance on the point of a needle, or the head of a pin, is often attributed to ‘late medieval writers, ‘in point of fact, the question has never been found in this form.’

The idea that scholastic theologians wasted their time debating angels dancing on pins may just be a fabrication, concocted to discredit scholastic philosophy at a time when it still had a significant role in university education.

The first reference to angels dancing on a needle’s point may occur in the writings of the English Puritan, William Sclater (1575-1626). He claimed that scholastic philosophers occupied themselves with such pointless questions as whether angels ‘did occupie a place; and so, whether many might be in one place at one time; and how many might sit on a Needles point; and six hundred such like needlesse points.’

Perhaps he first introduced the ‘needle’s point’ into a critique of mediaeval scholastics because he enjoyed creating the pun on ‘needless point’.

A little later in the 17th-century, William Chillingworth (1602-1644), in his Religion of Protestants (1637), accuses unnamed scholastics of debating ‘whether a Million of Angels may not fit upon a Needle's point?’

Dorothy L Sayers argued that the question was ‘simply a debating exercise’ and that the answer ‘usually adjudged correct’ was stated as, ‘Angels are pure intelligences, not material, but limited, so that they have location in space, but not extension.’ She compares the question to that of how many people’s thoughts can be concentrated upon a particular pin at the same time. She concludes that infinitely many angels can be located on the head of a pin, since they do not occupy any space there.

Angel II by Emily Young (2003), Paternoster Square, London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Nevertheless, I cannot escape thinking about the points in these needless arguments every time I see Emily Young’s sculptures of five angel heads in stone on five columns in Saint Paul’s Churchyard, London.

The sequence of heads are mounted on columns under the arcade of a new classical-inspired building to the north west side of Saint Paul's, redeveloped as part of the redesign of Paternoster Square at the top of Ludgate Hill.

Emily Young’s five angels’ heads are placed dramatically on columns in the arcade of Juxon House and almost face the west front of Saint Paul’s Cathedral.

In previous blog postings, I have looked at Emily Young’s open-air exhibition at ENO Southbank and her sculpture ‘Archangel Michael The Protector’ in the gardens of Saint Pancras Church, Euston Road.

Emily Young was once described by the Financial Times as ‘Britain’s greatest living stone sculptor.’ Her works are instantly recognisable and accessible. She deals in spectacular lumps of stone – quartzite, onyx, marble, alabaster – to which she gives an identity by carving a face but leaving the remainder of the rock displayed in its raw, craggy intensity, as if the face had grown or evolved organically.

The Financial Times says: ‘Her sculptures meditate on time, nature, memory, man’s relationship to the Earth.’

Emily Young was born in London in 1951 into a family of writers, artists and politicians. Her grandmother, the sculptor Kathleen Scott (1878-1947), was a colleague of Auguste Rodin, and widow of the Polar explorer, Captain Robert Falcon Scott, known as Scott of the Antarctic. Her works include a statue of Edward Smith, captain of the Titanic, now in Beacon Park, Lichfield.

Kathleen Scott later married Emily Young’s paternal grandfather, the politician and writer Edward Hilton Young, 1st Lord Kennet. Emily Young’s father, Wayland Hilton Young, 2nd Lord Kennet, was also a politician, conservationist and writer. Her mother is the writer and commentator Elizabeth Young; her uncle was the ornithologist, conservationist and painter, Sir Peter Scott.

She was still a student when she achieved fame (or notoriety) in 1971 as the inspiration for the Pink Floyd song See Emily Play written by Syd Barrett. But the song has earlier origins in the 1960s. She was 15 when she met Syd Barrett at the London Free School in 1965. ‘I used to go there because there were a lot of Beat philosophers and poets around,’ she said many years later. ‘There were fundraising concerts with The Pink Floyd Sound, as they were then called. I was more keen on poets than rockers. I was educating myself. I was a seeker. I wanted to meet everyone and take every drug.’

As a young woman, Emily Young worked primarily as a painter, while she was studying at Chelsea School of Art in 1968 and later at Central Saint Martins. She travelled around the world in the late 1960s and 1970s, spending time in the US, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, France, Italy, Africa, South America, the Middle East and China, encountering a variety of cultures and developing her experiences of art.

In the early 1980s, she abandoned painting and turned to carving, sourcing stone from all around the world. Travelling from a London childhood, to a European education, to a life lived as an artist round the world, she began to interact with the timeless quality of stone to produce breath-taking sculptures of luminous intensity and great beauty.

As well as marble, she carves in semi-precious stone – agate, alabaster, lapis lazuli. These not only reflect and refract the light – but glow with a passionate intensity (as Winged Golden Onyx Head), revealing the hidden crystalline structure of the material and the subtle layers the time has laid down, showing the liquid qualities of hard rock.

The primary objective of her sculpture is to bring the natural beauty and energy of stone to the fore. Her sculptures have unique characters because each stone has an individual geological history and geographical source. Her approach allows the viewer to comprehend a deep grounding across time, land and cultures. She combines traditional carving skills with technology to produce work that is both contemporary and ancient, with a unique, serious and poetic presence.

She told an interviewer: ‘I carve in stone the fierce need in millions of us to retrieve some semblance of dignity for the human race in its place on Earth. We can show ourselves to posterity as a primitive and brutal life form - that what we are best at is rapacity, greed, and wilful ignorance, and we can also show that we are creatures of great love for our whole planet, that everyone of us is a worshipper in her temple of life.’

Angel III by Emily Young (2003), Paternoster Square, London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Emily Young’s work echoes a sculpting tradition that looks back to humanity’s earliest relationship with stone. She fuses this sense of tradition with a distinctly contemporary approach, creating a strong paradox between the age-old principles of carving and a progressive, widely informed attitude to form and composition.

She recently explained: ‘So my work is a kind of temple activity now, devotional; when I work a piece of stone, the mineral occlusions of the past are revealed, the layers of sediment unpeeled; I may open in one knock something that took millions of years to form: dusts settling, water dripping, forces pushing, minerals growing – material and geological revelations: the story of time on Earth shows here, sometimes startling, always beautiful.’

Emily Young now divides her time between studios in London and Italy. Her permanent installations and public collections can be seen in many places, including Saint Paul’s Churchyard, Saint Pancras Church, NEO Bankside, and the Imperial War Museum in London; La Defense, Paris; Salisbury Cathedral, Wiltshire; the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester; and the Cloister of Madonna Dell’Orto, Venice.

After years of being feted as ‘Britain’s foremost female stone sculptor,’ the art critic of the Financial Times called her ‘Britain's greatest living stone sculptor.’ The Daily Telegraph has written: ‘Emily Young has inherited the mantle as Britain’s greatest female stone sculptor from Dame Barbara Hepworth.’

The Financial Times said recently: ‘Emily Young is remarkable in that she now stands quite alone in her field, not just as the pre-eminent stone-carver of her generation, but as virtually the only sculptor of her kind at all, a true carver working with figurative imagery, of any real and sustained distinction.’

Angel IV by Emily Young (2003), Paternoster Square, London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Juxon House was designed by Sidell Architects and occupies a highlight prominent site immediately beside the steps of Saint Pauls Cathedral. It forms one side of the Paternoster Square development, with a mixture of shops, restaurants, bars and cafés.

The design of Juxon House was intended to be highly sensitive. Although a contemporary steel structure internally, the façade is faced with Portland Stone and incorporates elements of a classical nature such as piers, pediments and entablatures in an arrangement of arcade, giant order and attic storey.

Ornament is introduced in the Corinthian capitals at the arcade level. These capitals were designed by the Cambridge-based sculptor and stone carver Tim Crawley with a simplified contemporary treatment suitable for the new building, rather than reproducing the more ornate and detailed Baroque models of the cathedral façade.

Angel V by Emily Young (2003), Paternoster Square, London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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