27 September 2023

‘Walls and Trumpets’:
a triumph in blue on
a grey, dreary office
block in Southwark

‘Walls and Trumpets’ by Ofra Zimbalista on the walls of Maya House in Southwrk (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

Over the years, I have become very familiar with Borough High Street in Southwark, through my visits to Southwark Cathedral close to London Bridge and USPG offices at the other end of Borough High Street on Trinity Street.

Between the two there are so many place of interest: the literary connections with Chaucer, Shakespeare and Dickens; the many reminders of John Harvard, who gives his name to Harvard University; Saint George the Martyr, the church of Little Dorrit; the old coaching inn courtyard of the George; and the array of enticing and appetising food stalls in Borough Market.

Walking along Borough High Street, I might never have noticed Maya House on the west side of the street, but for the Costa coffee shop. It is a dreary, drab-looking, almost soulless 1970s office block at Nos 134-138.

However, as I said earlier this week, I benefit from walking around London instead of taking the tube, with my head up and my eyes open. And Maya House has an impressive art installation of three blue figures that make the building worth looking at.

‘Walls and Trumpets’ is an art installation on the walls of Maya House created in 2007-2008 by the late Israeli artist Ofra Zimbalista (1939-2014).

Ofra Zimbalista was one of the most important female artists in Israel, where she was born, lived and worked. She studied lithography, etching and screen-print at the Kalisher Art Academy, in Tel Aviv. She exhibited throughout Europe and Israel, and her works are displayed in public spaces around the world. Her human-sized figures casted from aluminium and bronze were often engaged in acrobatic activities.

A common feature of her public artworks was to show her groups of people in transitional situations: hanging and climbing as though trying to find their place.

Blue figures are a recurring motif in Zimbalista’s work. The figures are created by moulding real people in fibreglass, coloured with a deep blue pigment she imported specially from Morocco where it is used in house paint. This Yves Klein-like deep blue is one of Ofra Zimbalista’s signature motifs.

Maya House on the west side of Borough High Street in Southwark (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Her installation at Maya House, ‘Walls and Trumpets’, consists of three life casts. They were cast from real people who adopted their poses and then held them while they were covered in alginate and plaster. She created her initial moulds from these, and then shaped the final figures in blue fibreglass.

These three figures, each a vivid shade of brilliant blue, appear to be clinging to and climbing the wall of Maya House; they might be window cleaners, they might even be absailing. Looking more closely, you see two climbing figures, one holding a trumpet, the other holding a bugle, and a third seated figure who seems to be marching triumphantly atop the others, playing a drum – perhaps celebrating the fact that he has reached the top place he was trying to get to.

These three figures, with their vivid shade of blue and their musical instruments, add a splash of colour and joy to the drab fa├žade of Maya House and they brightened up my rainy autumn day.

The best-known Biblical encounter between ‘Walls and Trumpets’ is, of course, at the Siege of Jericho, when the priests marched around the city walls for seven days, blowing their trumpets until the walls came tumbling down (see Joshua 6: 1-20). Being so close to Southwark Cathedral, it might not be too difficult to find priests seven days of the week. But, did the artist wish to see the drab and dreary walls of Maya House come tumbling down as these three blue figures blew their trumpets?

The three figures in vivid blue appear to be clinging to and climbing the wall of Maya House (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Daily prayers in Ordinary Time
with USPG: (122) 27 September 2023

In the cloisters of the Church of San Michele in the Venetian Lagoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

We are in Ordinary Time in the Church Calendar, and this week began with the Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity XVI, 24 September 2023).

The Calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship today (27 September) remembers the life and witness of Vincent de Paul (1660), Founder of the Congregation of the Mission (Lazarists).

Before the day gets busy, I am taking some time this morning for prayer and reflection.

Later this week, the Church celebrates Saint Michael and All Angels (29 September). So my reflections each morning this week and next are taking this format:

1, A reflection on a church named after Saint Michael or his depiction in Church Art;

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

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

The Chiesa di San Michele in Isola, designed by Mauro Codussi in 1469, was the first Renaissance church in Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

San Michele, Venice:

Venice is a collection of islands linked by canals and bridges, interconnected by narrow alleyways, squares of all shapes and sizes and the vaporetti or water buses. While tourists find their way from Rialto to San Marco, or from Cannaregio to Giudecca, few move beyond the main highlights found in their guidebooks.

More discerning visitors may spend a few hours in the islands of the lagoon, especially the Lido, Torcello and Murano and Burano.

But the smaller islands are generally missed, and few make it in any great numbers to the Isola di San Michele, a former prison island that takes five or ten minutes to reach by water bus, half-way between Fondamente Nuove on Cannaregio and the island of Murano on vaporetto routes 41 and 42.

Perhaps they are deterred by the name of the vaporetto stop for San Michele: Cimitero. For this has been Venice’s cemetery since the early 1800s, when the occupying Napoleonic forces told the Venetians to start taking their dead across the water instead of burying them in Venice itself.

It was all in the name of hygiene and because of a growing shortage of burial places.

The lagoon was once the preserve of fishermen and hunters, and the stories of the islands is shrouded in myth and legend. Murano is the island of glassmakers and Burano the island of lace, but other islands were monasteries, used as prisons and gunpowder factories, or serving as market gardens or cemeteries.

Cimitero, with a large number of cypress trees and enclosed within high terracotta walls, was originally the two islets of San Michele and San Cristoforo della Pace.

The Hermits of the Camaldolese Order moved onto the island in the 12th century, and founded the Monastery of Saint Michael (San Michele di Murano), which became a centre of learning and printing. The famous cartographer, Fra Mauro, who drew maps that helped European explorers, was a monk of this community.

The landmark building on the island is the Chiesa di San Michele in Isola, designed by Mauro Codussi in 1469. This was the first Renaissance church in Venice, and the first church in Venice to be faced in white Istrian stone.

But the monastery was suppressed by French forces under Napoleon, in the course of their conquest of the Italian peninsula, and the monks were expelled in 1814. The Napoleonic administration decreed that burial on the main islands of Venice was unsanitary, and these two small islands then became Venice’s major cemetery. The canal separating the two islands was filled in between 1837 and 1839, and the larger island became known as San Michele.

Jan Morris, in The World of Venice, compares the cemetery island to a ship where ‘the director stands as proudly in his great graveyard as any masterful cruiser captain, god-like on his bridge.’

The cemetery is wide and calm, with a series of large gardens, studded with cypress trees and cluttered with hundreds of thousands of tombs and graves. Some are lavishly monumental, with domes and sculptures and wrought-iron gates; many more are stacked in high modern terraces, like filing cabinets.

Most of San Michele is reserved for Catholics. Walls separate the different areas, and the graves lie in neat, tightly-packed, serried rows, separated by paths. Some graves are neglected, but most are well-tended, often with recently-laid flowers.

The island also has two smaller, separate graveyards for other Christians. Those who are buried in the Greci or Greek Orthodox cemetery include the composer Igor Stravisky (1882-1971) and the Russian ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev (1872-1929). Venice has always had a sizeable Greek population, and here too are the graves of bishops, merchants and refugees who fled Smyrna in the 1920s.

In the Evangelisti or Protestant graveyard are the graves of the American poet and critic, and fascist collaborator, Ezra Pound (1885-1972), who influenced the work of TS Eliot, James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway, and of Pound’s mistress, the violinist Olga Rudge (1895-1996). Here too are the graves of the Russian and American poet and essayist Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996), and the German painter August Wolf (1842-1915).

One gravestone has an awkwardly-composed inscription: ‘In loving memory of Frank Justice Stanier of Staffordshire who left us in peace, Febry 2nd 1910.’ His family lived at Madeley Manor, Staffordshire, and at Moor House, Biddulph. Another gravestone is of Edward Douglas Guinness (1893-1983), a member of the banking branch of the family and a partner in Guinness Mahon.

In contrast to the formal, tended graves and gardens of graves in other parts of the cemetery, the Greci and Protestant sections have an atmosphere of rustic decay. Some tombstones are covered in moss, a few are leaning over, and others are collapsing.

The Chiesa di San Michele in Isola was designed by Mauro Codussi and built ca 1469. This is the first Renaissance church in Venice, and the church and the monastery also served for a time as a prison.

The other churches and chapels on the islands include cemetery church of San Cristoforo, designed by Gian Antonio Selva (1751-1819), the Cappella Emiliana chapel, and a small Greek Orthodox funeral chapel.

If San Michele is not crowded by living tourists, it is certainly crowded by dead Venetians. It is so crowded that graves are on short-term leases. The bodies in each row of graves are allowed to decompose for 12 years, and are then dug up.

When families could not pay for reburial, the bones of the dead are taken to the ossuary island of Sant’Ariano, near Torcello. That island is described vividly by Michael Dibdin in his novel Dead Lagoon. Today, after a respectful passage of time, bones are transferred to small metal boxes in tall grey cement-block piles that look more like gigantic filing cabinets.

Does the name of the vaporetto stop at Cimitero deter visitors to San Michele? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Luke 9: 1-6 (NRSVA):

1 Then Jesus called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, 2 and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. 3 He said to them, ‘Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money – not even an extra tunic. 4 Whatever house you enter, stay there, and leave from there. 5 Wherever they do not welcome you, as you are leaving that town shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.’ 6 They departed and went through the villages, bringing the good news and curing diseases everywhere.

Ballet shoes on the grave of the Russian ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev on the cemetery island of San Michele in the Lagoon of Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayer:

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), is ‘Flinging open the doors.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday by the Revd Anthony Gyu-Yong Shim, Diocese of Daejeon, Korea.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (27 September 2023) invites us to pray:

Let us pray for churches re-opening – that their doors will be flung open to welcome in all who seek the Lord.

The church and the monastery of San Michele also served for a time as a prison (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Collect:

Merciful God,
whose servant Vincent de Paul,
by his ministry of preaching and pastoral care,
brought your love to the sick and the poor:
give to all your people a heart of compassion
that by word and action they may serve you
in serving others in their need;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post Communion Prayer:

Merciful God,
who gave such grace to your servant Vincent de Paul
that he served you with singleness of heart
and loved you above all things:
help us, whose communion with you
has been renewed in this sacrament,
to forsake all that holds us back from following Christ
and to grow into his likeness from glory to glory;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The graves of Igor and Vera Stravinsky on San Michele (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Yesterday’s Reflection

Continued Tomorrow

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 graves of Ezra Pound and Olga Rudge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)