Tag Archives: Don’t phone in it’s just for fun

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.

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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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What is this medieval saint doing raising the heavy metal horns?

There’s a curious painting in Christ Church Picture Gallery in Oxford, St John the Baptist Enthroned. It depicts the precursor of Christ, J the B, in his trademark camel skin cloak, but rather than chilling in the desert, he sits on a magnificent marble throne with delicate Gothic canopies with finials and pinnacles with a luscious red robe draped over him. In his left hand, he holds his usual staff and a scroll which reads “Ecce Agnus Dei, ecce qui tollit peccata mundi”, essentially the saint’s catchphrase: “Behold the Lamb of God, behold He that takes away the sins of the world”. But his other hand, instead of pointing to the Saviour of mankind, is held in a very unexpected gesture. Perhaps appropriate for his rather bushy light-brunette mullet, he extends his first and little finger upwards, his second and third fingers curled into his palm with his thumb hidden behind.

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Close Follower of the Master of Saint Cecilia – John the Baptist Enthroned, first or second decade of the fourteenth century, 101 x 59.5 cm (Christ Church Picture Gallery, Oxford)

Someone who has grown up in the pop culture of the last thirty years can only read this gesture as one thing. ROCK.

The picture was of course painted long before Blue Cheer even turned up the gain on “Summertime Blues”. It was painted in Italy, in the early 14th century: what art historians call the Trecento. It is characteristic of how artists of the time experimented with space and volume, away from the flat character of Byzantine icons. John is impressively bulkly and architectonic, something emphasised by the canting sides of his throne with foreshortened Gothic trefoil arches. The painting is first documented in the sacristy (a common dumping ground in Italian churches for old medieval paintings) of the church of Santa Maria degli Ughi in Florence. Around 1834 it was given to the library at Christ Church College Oxford: an unusually early interest in such a “primitive” painting. In 1857 it was exhibited at the great Manchester Art Treasures exhibition under the name Buffalmacco, a 14th-century painter famous from Georgio Vasari’s 16th-century Lives of the Artists as a great prankster, although he has no surviving signed works. Richard Offner’s Corpus of Florentine Painting now gives the artist as “Close Following of the Saint Cecilia Master”. Essentially, the painting looks very close to 1300, when the great Giotto was making a name for himself in Rome and Padua with the revolutionary plastic style of the Florentine School.

So why did the anonymous artist of this panel paint the Baptist seemingly showing us how metal he was? The connection to the modern meaning is actually closer than you might think.

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fiorino d’oro coin, 1484 (wikimedia commons, (cc) sailko)

John the Baptist was especially important in Florence: he was the patron saint of the city. The art historian Robin Simon, who wrote his MA dissertation at The Courtauld Institute on this panel, noted that the gesture first appeared on the florin financed by the Arte di Calimala, the Florentine guild of clothmakers, in 1252. The fiorino d’oro stayed essentially the same in metal and design, with fleur-de-lys on the obverse and the city’s patron on the reverse until the end of the republic of Florence in 1533. While some mintings are too indistinct to see what John is doing with his right hand, and others do have him doing the usual finger-pointing-at-unseen-Saviour thing, many, like this fifteenth-century example clearly show him extending first and fourth finger like a laidback metalhead.

Ken Kelly – cover art for Love Gun LP (1977)

Gestures are extremely important in medieval art and visual culture. They can also vary in cultural meaning, and the so-called “mano cornuto” is no exception. You can look at the Wikipedia page yourself, I’m sure, to see how it can be used to taunt a cuckold or support the University of Texas longhorns. But if the symbol fluctuates, the sign is rigid: horns. To understand why this saint is raising something so aggressive, it may help to look at the history of its current preeminent meaning in Western culture. A number of rock musicians used the sign of the horns in the early 1970s as a devilish symbol that resonated with heavy music’s use of the occult for counter-cultural shock value. For example, on the cover of the KISS album Love Gun, entrepreneur and sometimes-bass guitarist Gene Simmons, in his trademark make-up as the character “The Demon”,  emphasises his devilish nature with a horned fist. But the gesture became solidified in music culture by that much-missed and truly iconic vocalist of heavy metal music, the great Ronnie James Dio.

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Dio and fans showing the “metal horns”, at Black Sabbath show supporting the Mob Rules album, HemisFair Arena, San Antonio, TX, 13 May 1982 (Photo: Fin Costello/Redferns)

Ronald James Padavona (1942 – 2010) had an extraordinary musical career beginning in New York state during the late 1950s, but coming to international prominence in 1975 when he and his band Elf were taken over by all-round British sociopath and Deep Purple’s guitar genius Ritchie Blackmore to be in his new band Rainbow. After he inevitably fell out with Blackmore, Dio joined Birmingham’s heavy-metal pioneers Black Sabbath in 1979 to write and record the Heaven and Hell album, the subsequent tour of which he popularised the sign of the horns during concerts. This was the first time a musician had really pulled the horns in a manner to encourage imitation in the audience (see the brilliant archive photo above). It came at just the right time: when Dio formed his own eponymous band in 1982, heavy metal was consolidating as a distinct genre rather than just a derogatory label for particularly heavy rock music. This gesture was just the sort of thing the burgeoning sub-culture required. However, the traditional roots of Dio’s use of the gesture are subtly different from the way someone like Gene Simmons had used it as an attribute of mock-Satanism.

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Ronnie James Dio, c. 2004

Dio often told the story of his adoption of the horns, which takes us back to the part of the world this medieval painting came from. His parents were Italian immigrants who came to New York probably some time in the 1920s (it is hard to research because Ronnie was a very private person, allowing the notion to circulate that he was a decade younger than he actually was). He recounts how his Italian-born grandmother taught him the gesture to ward off someone giving you the “evil eye” (malocchio). In this sense the gesture is apotropaic: an image or symbol that has the power to ward off evil. And that’s what our 14th-century Florentine John the Baptist is doing. On the coins and the Oxford painting, he’s fulfilling his special role as protector of the City of Florence by exhorting them to stay hard as iron to scare away the devil and the malocchio of any other jealous city states through the use of a vernacular superstition.

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Grimacing pointy-eared face from the centre of the Tomb of Christ / Sacrament Shrine at Hawton (Nottinghamshire), late 1330s.

So any initial surprise you might have at a medieval saint apparently giving the sign of the devil actually says a lot about art and culture. Dio’s lyrics show a fascination with the concept of evil. From his “Holy Diver”, facing the apparitions in the midnight sea to the night terrors that lurk in your own mind in “Dream Evil”. Of course, they are adolescent fantasy that pervades much of heavy metal, but not that far removed from the Middle Ages. As everyone knows, medieval artists put monsters everywhere, as apotropaic symbols but also acknowledgement and morbid curiosity in the darker side of existence. Church water spouts were in the shape of grimacing gargoyles who vomited down the rain onto the churchyard. The margins of rich people’s prayerbooks were full of bizarre creatures. The statues of saints on altarpieces were held aloft by all sorts of profanities we find difficult to understand. This is because the Church embraced everything: both the divine and the human fascination with the grotesque.

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Headstop between chancel sedilia and piscina, St Mary in the Marsh (Kent), probably last quarter of the 13th century: the spitting image of Iron Maiden mascot, Eddie.

It reminds us that art should only be obsessed with virtue, but also explore notions of vice to understand the human condition. I often say it’s curious that the two genres of music I love to listen to that basically sound like white noise unless you sit down with the lyrics and concentrate are sacred polyphony (Josquin Desprez, Thomas Tallis, William Byrd, Palestrina) and death metal (Suffocation, Cannibal Corpse, Gorguts, Necrophagist). In some twisted way, this painting encapsulates that for me.

On and on and on, it’s Heaven and Hell!