Canon Charles Pickstone, Vicar of St. Laurence Church, Catford, who is on the Editorial Board of Art & Christianity and whose particular interest is in the overlap between the visual arts and theology, reviews Gerry Judah’s recent installation.
Context is all. The monumental interior of St Paul’s Cathedral is a plinth that can destroy any sculpture. Bizarrely, for so decorated an ensemble, it drowns most images in iconoclastic noise.
Gerry Judah has placed two vast white crosses (modelled on those used for World War I graves, which he thus commemorates) on either side of the nave of St Paul’s, just before the crossing (fig.1). Insofar as they survive and even thrive in this context, the same white crosses that Stanley Spencer’s resurrected soldiers in the Sandham Memorial Chapel are patiently queuing to hand back, here hold their own against the vastness of the great interior. There is a folk story in which a brave young hero manages to trick a dragon that is terrorising his kingdom into biting on an iron stake, thus clamping its jaws together. Judah’s pair of crosses similarly dampens the almost overwhelming resonance of St Paul’s: they stick in the craw.
The crosses which on closer examination turn out to have two cross pieces rather than one, rather like a ship’s anchor or a tank-trap are encrusted with tiny mouldings of half-destroyed cities which add to the scale and the monumentality of the work. The terrible forces of history, the work suggests, destroy the mightiest achievements of human civilisation, sloughing off even the skyscrapers that ride on its back. This is clearly an appropriate theme for Lent, the Christian season of penitence and reflection upon the transitory nature of life, and for the centenary of the outbreak of World War I.
And yet if its Cathedral context gives this work the resonance it needs to sing effectively, it also reveals its heartlessness. Many works of art have used the great tides of history as backdrop to give a sense of stature; one thinks of the cave of swimmers in Minghella’s film The English Patient, where the walls of the desert cave in which the heroine has been abandoned are covered with ancient paintings of apparently swimming figures. Here the symbolism of the image is unconsciously one of hope: one person sustained in their lonely and crippled abandon by the images of so many mobile figures, of water in the desert. Judah’s crosses – to this writer at least – have, apart from their strength, an absence of redemptive qualities, a soul-lessness. The tiny scale of the ruined cityscapes make these crosses monstrous; whereas surely the single most important function of the cross, as used in Christian iconography with or without a corpus, is to be a cipher for the human form (fig.2). The Christian cross places the human image firmly into the forces of history, inserting the human into the context of the inhuman magnitude of time and space.
Thus the absence of any human scale to this relentless work, and its unwillingness to negotiate with its surroundings, from which it might have drawn some sense of potentially redemptive hope, makes a Christian cathedral precisely the wrong context. It works to exaggerate St Paul’s already evident tendency to monumental inhumanity rather than to enter into dialogue with its equally powerful human aspects. In the end, Spencer’s picture of soldiers with their white crosses queuing for their new life is the more Christian image. This is not to say that Judah’s work is a bad one: simply and finally, it is irrelevant to its Christian context (fig.3).
Main image (photo: David Barbour)