Bad art in cathedrals

Cathedrals used to be depositories of some of the finest works of art in the world. Then the pesky Reformation came round and stripped many of them back to the walls. What has filled the place of the original medieval artworks has, over the years, been subject to changing tastes. While the Victorians despised all classical additions, the twentieth century in turn, had a bit of a clear-out of what they found dowdy and gloomy.

So what tat should be chucked out in a fantasy aesthetic Reformation? Let’s dispense with the polite introduction that pretends this is anything other than just a list of things I don’t like, and find out!

The café paintings in Worcester chapter house

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Worcester chapter house is an immensely important monument. It’s the first in a long line of English centrally-planned chapter houses. The walls retain traces of painting, and the stone vault once contained a complicated sequence of Biblical scenes showing the typology of the New Testament foreshadowed in the Old. These are gone now, so when they put the café in there, they thought the best way to make up for this massive loss to English art it was by putting some paintings up on the dado that they look came for free with the frames from Wilkinsons.

South presbytery aisle screen, Ripon Cathedral,

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I’m surprised this thing survived one night without the cleaners chucking it out. It looks like it’s made out of giant pipe-cleaners. Glitter and Pritt-Stick also involved. Really all it needs is some dried pasta, paper plates and split-pins to really finish it off.

Piper Tapestry, high altar, Chichester Cathedral

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Now, actually, this one is by a proper artist, John Piper, who I actually really like. He’s one of the few artists who can capture the gritty drama of a parish church rather than just making it look like something out of The Darling Buds of May. But not everything in his name is brilliant. His south aisle windows in St Margaret, Westminster, are some of the few in England that can give abstract continental glass a run for its money in sheer grimness. This thing too, I don’t like. It’s trying to hard to be modern and groovy. If it was commissioned for Whitbury New Town Leisure centre, it’d be fine. Worse thing is though, is what it replaced.

A fine altarpiece by Somers Clarke, which had been, shockingly kept into the triforium gallery for half a century until it was finally brought back downstairs only last year apparently.  If you’re going to get rid of art you find old and outdated, you best be sure you are conjuring up something REALLY inspired. Like when Michaelangelo got the go-ahead to destroy some Perugino frescoes for The Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel. Which this is not. The Last Judgement is still unequalled in its terribilità. The Chichester tapestry has been equalled by a Fruitopia bottle.

Various creepy stuff in Durham Cathedral

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There’s loads of weird stuff in Durham. Of course I don’t have any of my own photographs of any of it because I’m not going to be risk being told off by a custodian for the sake of one of these. I found this one on Google images though. Just look at it. It looks like Gumby’s fallen over and a house ornament from seconds at TK Maxx doesn’t look very interested in helping him up.

Basically everything from Westminster Abbey

Regular viewers will remember I don’t like Westminster Abbey much. This of course it is famously filled to the brim with rubbish that distracts from the architecture. Pearson’s mutilation of the north front, Scott’s ugly choir screen, the overbearing reredos, that out-of-place goldback altarpiece on the south side of the sanctuary (seems to have gone now), loads of Hugh Easton glass, the banners in the Lady Chapel which obscure the architecture, Blore the bore’s choir-stalls (makes for a great rhyme though)… WESTMINSTER ABBEY

But worst of all are all the soapy bloody eighteenth-century monuments of admirals ascending into Heaven or a viscount knocking over a pyramid or some lady crying over a pillar that’s fallen down. There was actually a plan in the nineteenth century to build a Westminster “camposanto” for all these and give them the heave-ho from the medieval abbey church. It fell through, of course. Someone needs to treat Westminster Abbey like an elderly parent who’s been hoarding things around their house in plastic bags on the floor, kindly sit them down and say “Mother, we need sort this out”, then hire a skip and get the lot in there.

New Bishop’s Throne, Leicester Cathedral

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P1180013Oh dear. After the excitement of exhuming Richard III and reordering the whole place as a tourist trap, uh, pilgrimage site, Leicester went a bit overboard and decided to redo the liturgical furniture in the crossing. Even though they had a fine carved Neo-Gothic Bishop’s Throne already (in the background there), they decided they needed to replace it with something a bit more “down wit’ the kids”. So they got this thing that looks like the least exciting Transformer ever, made out of MDF (Magnet-tron: ha ha!). As well as looking naffer than a branch of C&A, it also has the disturbing effect of looking like it’s suddenly going to collapse in on itself, crushing any occupant into a perfect cube.

I didn’t really believe this thing was real so I went round the back to try and process it. Then I saw it was attached to the crossing pier, so it’s not going anywhere soon, folks.

The apse clerestory in the Abbey of St Denis, Paris

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I could probably dedicate a whole post to terrible glass in continental cathedrals, but it would probably be so tedious that it would only be worth reading if you got stoned and pretended it was a lava lamp. Anyway, the stuff at St Denis, really takes the cake. All you want to do is deliver Abbot’s Suger’s ecstatic speech about “delight in the beauty of the house of God” but the apse is full of gaudy crap. Worst of all is this terrible pictorial one of Napoleon of all things.

 

Both sides of the west front of Liverpool Cathedral

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1552114_db13328a[1]I love Liverpool Anglican Cathedral. It’s the last gasp of the Gothic Revival. It is truly sublime. It’s almost that the space inside surpasses the mass of the object in its sheer volume. I recommend any medieval cathedral enthusiast visit: it might be a white elephant, but it’s a miracle it was finished, and it’s incredibly moving. However, the problem is that this green thing greets you on your way in. It’s supposed to be the Risen Christ, but it’s hardly Piero della Francesca: it’s more the sort of thing you make out of blu-tack in a boring meeting then crush when the coffee trolley comes in. And then you have some sentimental bit of tripe by Tracey Emin on the counterfacade, that I thought was temporary but it never seems to go away. I’m getting tired now, so time to wind it up. This list isn’t in any particular order, except for comedy potential, and of course I’m going to end on the worst. And most of you won’t be surprised by my top choice.

Statue of the Virgin Mary, Ely Lady Chapel

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So, yes. Ely Lady Chapel’s foundation stone was laid on the Feast of the Annunciation in 1321, but since the crossing tower of the cathedral collapsed the following February, it’s unlikely much was done except the site dug and some bits of the raft laid out. The building was resumed in the late 1330s, and perhaps benefited all the more for it, as this was really the apex for English sculpture. And the plan for Ely Lady Chapel was to have it in spades. The “nodding-ogees” of the wall arcades are vivaciously organic to the point of eroticism. Indeed, since the vescias contain statues of the royal ancestors of Christ, one might wish to hazard that it’s supposed to be quite that suggestive: Honi soit qui mal y pense and all that. It’s an incredible work of art, quite simply a masterpiece of Gothic. With its full sculpture, altars and stained glass, it must have been ravishing. Makes things like Giotto’s Arena Chapel seem like they done on a budget.

Ooh! Do your o

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Ely Lady Chapel as Holy Trinity parish church, before 1938

It is of course, hacked about. The narratives of Mary’s early life and her divine intercessions have been pedantically decapitated by a Reformation busybody, and the whole east wall with the culmination of the devotion to the Mother of God has of course been utterly wrecked. It was, until the early 20th century, kept as a parish church, and all the later paraphernalia such as pews and wall monuments taken out in the late 1930s. In its stripped, naked vulnerability, it has a uniquely eerie, poignant beauty, showing the preciousness and transcendence of art.

Then of course someone thinks “ooh, it’s just missing something” and ruins it by putting this load of old shite bang right in the sodding middle of it.

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I mean, sculpturally it’s pretty poor, I’m never really sure if she’s supposed to be accepting the incarnation of Our Lord through the Holy Spirit, saying “I JUST CLEANED ALL THIS MESS!” or receiving an incoming message from The Big Giant Head.

And there’s also the white-washing, that she looks more like a caucasian Disney Princess than a girl from late-antique Palestine, which wouldn’t be so bad if she was classically recognisable as the classical Virgin Mary. Instead she looks more like the homonymic Queen of Pop circa Ray of Light.

It’s made of Portland Stone, not that you’d know, because it looks like it came from one of these sets:

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Right down to the crappy water-based primary colour paints applied all over the porous surface with no shading or highlights. I mean at least he didn’t go over the lines.

Have you some tat in a big church you love to hate? Tell us below in the comments! Or, if you’re a Russian bot, post some alt-right nonsense! Up to you!

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30 thoughts on “Bad art in cathedrals

  1. Stephen Dunn

    We have, and it’s probably a heresy to say so – but I shall. The Prisoners of Conscience East Window at Salisbury Cathedral. Abstract to the point of making eyes bleed. French, by Jaques and Gabriel Loire – so it must be good, no? No! I admire their skill in it’s design and manufacture, but I’m afraid that’s where my admiration ends. Once Joshua Reynolds had an installation there, although it is said that he was unhappy with it and it disappeared in 1854. However, I’d prefer a poor Reynolds to a migraine inducing kaleidoscope of mostly blues that seem almost constantly in shade, caused by the fact that it’s designed to look its best at dawn – a time that few are there to appreciate its impact, made worse currently by a heavy overcoat of scaffolding. There’s a Mariza Colonna cardboard and ash crucifix too…….. I’d better stop.

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  2. dapplegrey

    I really, honest-to-goodness can hardly believe that statue on the Virgin Mary in Ely. It’s breathtakingly awful. I can’t think of anything as dreadful as that.. But very entertaining. What a great post.

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  3. John Hawes

    Chichester strikes me as being a bit like a museum of bad modern art, although I don’t dislike the Piper tapestry. However the hanging on the other side of the screen is in a league of its own and has migraine inducing properties. But given the choice I’d far prefer the old reredos and liturgy to match. Dean Duncan-Jones’ ashes must be revolving in their grave!

    Nobody has yet mentioned some of the utterly hideous vestments used in some cathedrals, Derby and Wakefield both possessing exceptionally nasty examples. The re-ordering at the latter is pretty dreadful although not quite up there with Leicester where the throne really does beggar belief.

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  4. Sue Vincent

    Hilarious and tragic at the same time. And I agree with you on almost oall of them.
    I have a thing about Piper at the nest of time after the way he painted one of my local churches… making it look like the opening scene from a Hammer horror.
    I’m going to put my foot in it and condemn the Virgin of Walsingham. Nothing wrong with the symbolism or provenance of the design, but its interpretation makes it look as if she was designed purely on the basis of selling souvenirs.

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    1. James Alexander Cameron Post author

      Isn’t it just on long-term loan? I thought it was a mutual agreement so Hirst gets the kudos and advertisement to solidify his position on the art market, and the church gets to show off that they have a Damian Hirst.

      I can’t believe that church could afford to BUY it in literally a million years. Nor can I believe they would want to. I’m pretty much all did was say “yeah, okay”.

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    2. Christin Cockerton

      The statue may be kitsch, but no money was spent acquiring it. The statue is on long-term loan from the artist.

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      1. James Alexander Cameron Post author

        As I thought. I don’t realllly hate it? I mean it’s no worse than a generic Catholic statue of a saint except that it modifies tradition – Vesalius, Michelangelo, that sort of thing. It’s only because it’s related to his whole “bling” phase (remember that skull? anyone?) I find it a little distasteful because it’s all about him and his assistants flooding the art market with commodity but in itself its okay.

  5. beauchatMichael Pickel

    Sacred art is scarcely removed from liturgical expression and theology itself. Insinuating these pieces into the great cathedrals of England, speaks volumes about the theological and liturgical “confusion” or even devaluation of 21st century Anglicanism, and it’s not unique to Britain, just more painful to witness.

    Reply
  6. Tony Dickinson

    I dislike blonde Virgins as much as I dislike a blond Jesus (of which there are quite a few around – St Laurence, Upton, anyone?). Most awful piece of church art I know is the monument to Maréchal Saxe in St-Thomas in Strasbourg (Martin Bucer’s church until the Interim of Augsburg). It’s an anti-resurrection (literally – Death ushers the great general into his sarcophagus) placed where the mediaeval High Altar would have been.

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  7. Alistair

    O Lord, there must be absolutely loads of it. Jesus Poppins in Southwell Minster Nave is game-of-thrones-naff for a start.

    There are some truly repugnant altar frontals around. The 8-bit colour-palette high altar frontal at Worcester is just moronic; how did anyone with normal executive function ever think it would be anything but an eyesore? And it’s also not at all difficult to hate the new-age tie-dye one that’s been festering in Salisbury for decades now.

    Then there’s the nave altar in almost any cathedral you care to mention. Say, the ironing board one with mustard carpet in Ripon, but that’s just the first really bad one that comes to mind. Or Notre Dame in Paris.

    And let’s not forget to deride the new tombliboos on the west side of the pulpitum at St Alban’s. This is maybe the only UK cathedral that could house a nave altar in a way which looks like it’s supposed to be there, but no, the altar has to be kicked westwards out of its architectural context like an un-moored fishing boat and the middle of the screen has to be populated with colourful cartoon figures that look they were made for the queuing area at one of the rides in lightwater valley. I know the medievals would have used lots of colour in their interiors, but the rest of the screen is plain stone, which makes them stick out horribly.

    I know you have plenty to say about St Alban’s so I won’t prod too insistently. At least the tombliboos seem to move around occasionally which gives us hope that they might be temporary: I can’t understand why the people who commission and create this bilge don’t understand that some poor folk are going to have to look at it every sodding day.

    Oh God, I’ve just remembered the massive lady’s garter at the crossing in Hereford. How can you despoil an entire iconic ancient interior at a stroke like that, for no reason? This is getting me down, I’m stopping now.

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    1. James Alexander Cameron Post author

      All good. St Albans used to have some really ridiculous papier-mache things in the pulpitum, they now have some uncanny things I’m not sure whether I like or dislike.
      Cathedral nave altars is a topic by itself (I guess why I didn’t mention the one at Leicester), as are altar frontals. In fact it might be quicker and easier on the eye just to be positive and do cathedrals that still have a good high altar and some naff new-age rug.

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      1. Alistair

        You’re probably right. But Llandaff. Llandaff has a lovely high altar. And a monstrous, daylight-occluding baked bean tin which isn’t even needed in its original role as an organ case any more. Boak.

        The church yard at Southwark is soiled with a waist-high alien cowpat for no reason I can begin to fathom. At least Southwark’s interior tomfooleries have been temporary, so far.

        Who is doing this and can they be removed from the gene pool?

  8. Justin Lewis-Anthony

    The Water of Life sculpture in the cloister garth of Chester Cathedral: it’s a combination of “who let the right one in?” and a fairy wishing well

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  9. Heide

    Goodness, you are hilarious! You could start a caption contest for Ely’s Virgin Mary statue, though I think you’ve nailed it with “I JUST CLEANED ALL THIS MESS!” (Which I suspect all of the Higher Beings are muttering right now given the state of our human species.) Thank you for literally making me laugh out loud with this post.

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  10. Terence McCarthaigh

    I would really like to see some examples and recommendations of good modern art in our cathedrals and churches. I’m happy to ignore poor quality stuff but need advise on where to find the good stuff (modern not old/gothic/pretend gothic etc, I’ve seen plenty of that)

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    1. James Alexander Cameron Post author

      Graham Sutherland’s tapestry in Coventry, Eric Gill’s Stations of the Cross in Westminster Cathedral (indeed many of the modern mosaics there are great too, especially Boris Anrep’s), Tom Denny’s Traherne windows in Hereford (and elsewhere, including the brand new one in Leicester).

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      1. Alistair

        The 1990’s west window of Southwell Minster is delicate, contemplative and absorbing. Some of George Pace’s work is lovely – for example, the interior of St Martin le Grand in York. I’m sure there’s more…

      2. James Alexander Cameron Post author

        There is actually probably less awful glass being made than there used to be since John Hayward and Tom Denny upped the game. With glass it’s as much – if not more – about the quality of material and craft than the idea.

  11. Chaplain J.R.Bunyan

    I am just an ordinary, very ancient, parson though with a great interest in architecture (and a very large library on the subject – if that says anything). At last we have people saying that in many places the emperor has no clothes and how welcome that is. Much of the modern work should be thrown out (but not older work such as the fascinating collection of significant national and historical and cultural memorials in Westminster Abbey which I for one find delightful and of unending interest). Much of the recent “art”, and particularly furniture in English cathedrals (one hideous bishop’s chair with a tall, back leaning over,comes to mind – probably mentioned above) is appallingly bad. My greatest complaint, however, relates to chairs and is a very practical one. Chairs prevent one from kneeling : I toppled sideways from a one of the chairs that have long been in Old St Paul’s, Edinburgh. Without arms on the chairs, I and those like me cannot easily stand up to sing or sit to listen. If there are pews, one has something to lean on when getting up or down, and something to lean against when praying. I still find kneeling for prayer much easier than standing for long according to the liturgical dictators of recent times – and also kneeling more conducive to prayer. Kneeling after the Sanctus for the Prayer of Humble of Access or the remainder of a modern Prayer of Thanksgiving appropriately echoes the pattern in Isaiah 6, whatever the liturgists may say. Hope this debate continues and so glad that it has begun.

    Reply
    1. James Alexander Cameron Post author

      Don’t worry, the Westminster Abbey one was really a bit of a joke one. If you took those monuments out there’d be huge chunks missing out of the walls for the most part (not sure if there’s anything like the St Christopher/St Thomas in the S transept left to be found…. unlikely I imagine)

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  12. David Gouldstone

    Not a work of art as such, but the 14th century scissor arches in Wells. I can’t look at them without seeing a threatening bird, beak agape. Much better to have just let the tower fall, and then maybe they’d have come up with a solution as original and wonderful as Ely’s octagon.

    Reply

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