Saturday, 24 March 2007

Praying the Gill Stations

One of the great privileges of being at the Cathedral is to lead the Stations of the Cross on Fridays in Lent - this powerful devotion draws large crowds, as we walk with our Lord on his last journey. These images were taken last night, when Fr Tim was leading the devotion.

An added privilege at the Cathedral is that we boast the stupendous Stations of the Cross carved by Eric Gill. These are probably the greatest work of art we have in the Cathedral, and repay long and prayerful consideration. It is a joy to use them, not merely as artistic adornments, but as a real aid to prayer.

The Stations were carved by Eric Gill from 1913 - 1918, out of Hoptonwood stone. They are almost the first work he created, and the commission came as a result of swift decision by Cardinal Bourne - Gill later joked that the Cardinal had determined to give the commission to the first Catholic man he met in the street!

We are well used to them now, but at the time time they were startling and revolutionary. Gill is best known as a letterer (London Underground and W H Smith among those who adopted his lettering), and in his Stations he uses the low relief imagery and lettering side by side, to create a powerful statement, that is simple yet direct.

As they were being installed in the Cathedral, a woman came up to Gill to say that she did not think they were very nice carvings, to which he snapped back that it was not a very nice subject! art

Eric Gill (below) 1882 - 1940, was undoubtedly a genius. He professed a devout Catholicism all his life. Yet in his private life, he was tortured, and his behaviour was depraved. In 1989, Fiona McCarthy wrote a biography which revealed, from his diaries, a side of Gill that had been hitherto unknown, which was sickening and deeply at odds with his Catholic faith. Since then, we have had to come to terms with the fact that our greatest Cathedral artwork is the product of a man who was in many ways detestable. There were many calls for the Stations to be removed.

However, wiser counsel has prevaled; we recognize the redemptive quality of art. As so often in the Church's history, works of great beauty and inspiration have come from those who seem less than worthy of their talents. God uses vessels of clay to perform his great works, and sometimes it is shocking to us how weak those vessels are - yet his grace shines through, and even mediated by sinful hands, allows others to experience his presence.

We leave Eric Gill, then, in his studio, working not here on the Stations, but on one of his last works, the altarpiece for the Chapel of the English Martyrs. As we pray the Stations, I always offer up a prayer for the soul of this brilliant, tortured and controversial man.

3 comments:

Mark said...

What beautiful sculptures. I hope to one day see them in person. They are also in Chillcott-Monk's Stations of the Cross, which I have happen to have.

Londiniensis said...

" ... God uses vessels of clay to perform his great works, and sometimes it is shocking to us how weak those vessels are - yet his grace shines through, and even mediated by sinful hands, allows others to experience his presence ... "

Caravaggio (murder, louche behaviour) and Mozart (scatological language, freemasonry) immediately spring to mind.

Gill also produced a beautiful and devotional set of Stations of the Cross for Fr John O'Connor (the model for Chesterton's Fr Brown) at St Cuthbert's Church, Bradford in 1921. In 1998 there was a demand from a group called the Christian Survivors of Sexual Abuse for the works to be removed from the church, but it came to nothing.

Stan said...

The redemptive power of art and it's ability to communicate God's love is very clear in Gill's work. His stations are truly icons in the purest sense. Thanks for drawing our attention back to them in time for Holy Week. - Stan