Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Candlemas 2016: Mary at Southwell

Southwell Minster has been hosting an exhibition The Art of Mary  here as a lead into the celebration of Candlemas. It presents the work of 22 contemporary artists whose names I've included below. It's a really unusual and exciting exhibition showcasing an amazing variety of images that provoke conversation between themselves and enliven the attempt to conceptualise the Mary hidden in the stories, biblical and traditional, we have about her. This is the interaction of theology and art at their best.

Matthew Askey's very personal oils portray the 'self effacing generosity' required by motherhood while Mark Cazalet's Epiphany Star is universal in scale, combining ideas from the Magnificat and the Magis' profession to produce an extraordinary canvas ranging across the joy and grief of Mary's experience and connecting it to the experience of all humanity touched by the Divine. Nicholas Mynheer's ten Scenes from the Life of Mary encompass most of the narratives we have about Mary 'from the teenage mother (who pondered the word of God in her heart) to the young mother who seemingly overrides Jesus' words at the mature mother at the foot of the cross.' Each picture introduced me to some observation or question about Mary I had not encountered before. Karen Thompson's photographs, although 'inspired by the art of Renaissance painters and 'Old Masters',' had a very contemporary feel and raised for me questions about memory and generational wisdom passed between mothers and daughters. One of the most striking paintings, (perhaps its impact was enhanced as it was the first one I saw) is Roger Wagner's Writing in the Dust. At first viewing, it does not seem to be about Mary at all but about the woman taken in adultery in John 8. The artist's comment explains why this depicts something significant about Mary but I won't spoil the impact by repeating it here. However, the painting is haunting in the many, many questions it raises about first century and twenty first century relationships between religions, genders and communities. Jean Lamb's Our Lady of Mercy and Our Lady of Sorrows, displayed to good effect in the Chapter House, brings Mary's open, potential-drenched womb to the heart of the exhibition and adds the teasing detail of unknown divine? human? hands holding or, perhaps, presenting Mary herself as gift among us. Susie Hamilton depicts the post-annunciation moments following the angel's departure, showing Mary deep in thought amid gorgeous, light-filled emptiness. Sophie Hacker's First Communion of the Virgin is inspired by Oliver Messiaen's Vingt Regards Sur L'Enfant Jesus and returns us to the universal significance of the Christ event - Mary's womb with a 'fragment of nascent life' presents over a background of star-scattered space. 

The other artists are Hester Finch, Chris Gollon, Lee Harvey, Ellie Hewitt, Rebecca Hind, Iain McKillop, Hannelore Nunn, Celia Paul, Gill Sakakini, Anna Sikorsky, Helen Sills, Hanna-Leena Ward, Tom Wood and Sandra Cowper. Matthew Askey led a schools-based project (the Minster School, Huthwaite and Selston schools) to create an origami nativity.

The exhibition as a whole is a wonderful preparation for meditation on the mysterious story of Christ's presentation in the temple. I went twice with different friends and both times found it rich with insights into the way sorrow and joy, practicality and dreams, specific detail and universal significance, fear and hope are brought together in the words exchanged between Simeon, Anna and Mary. 

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