In the Eye of the Beholder

I have not been able to find a photo of David Hockney’s new window for Westminster Abbey that is not subject to copyright, but I trust most people have seen it. Personally, I do not care for it. I can cope with the fact that it makes no reference to God or the Queen, such as one might have expected given its setting and the subject it commemorates, but those great splashes of primary colour that look, to me, like a nightmare vision of octopus tentacles, no. Other people, of course, are enthusiastic, seeing in the window depths of meaning and beauty that escape me. Close-up photos of the window under construction have revealed details of the craftsmanship that has gone into its making which I can, and do, admire; but the window as a whole, no. Yet it would not be fair to say that I have no appreciation of or liking for contemporary art. I just happen not to like this particular work.

That, in a nutshell, is one of the problems that confronts us whenever a new church is planned or an old one is restored or has something new added to it. Personal taste counts for such a lot. Sometimes, too, there can be an artistic overload of things good in themselves but which do not work together. I still remember the frisson of horror I experienced when the Rubens altarpiece was placed below the East window of King’s College, Cambridge: window, painting and altar frontal all vying for attention. I decided that the window ‘won’ but I think I am in a minority on that.

There is, however, one point I hope is less controversial. It is encouraging that churches are still keen to commission original works of art. Not every generation will throw up a Julius II or Dean Hussey, nor artists of the stature of those whom they commissioned, but we have not abandoned the quest to enrich the buildings in which we worship, or the articles set aside for use in the liturgy, with every form of beauty we can. Long may we continue to do so!


9 thoughts on “In the Eye of the Beholder”

  1. I always appreciate it when you share art on your blog or discuss art. A favorite was an image you posted of a sculpture of the three Wise Men on the building of a 13th century church, which you posted a long time ago. I have often recalled that image over the past several years. Thank you.

    • Thank you. I love the Autun sculpture you refer to. I’d probably share many more of my favourite things — art, music, poetry, fine printing, buildings — but I don’t often have my own photos/recordings. Copyright is such a minefield.

  2. The trouble with making churches better through such innovations of new art pieces, is their relevance to their current context and people and how will that relevance be viewed in 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years ahead. Will we have the shock horror of the piece of art being relegated to the Vestry, or worse, sold on the commercial open market. This can cause disquiet and horror to those who are familiar with the item and love or loathe it, but have been used to it all of their lives of worship in that particular church.

    No wonder the temperature can be raised by any such innovation or removal of it. I happen to like painted walls in church, but they need to be well maintained and not peeling or damaged, otherwise I don’t see the point of creating something at huge expense, which will also cost a great deal to maintain by future generations.

    So, Westminster Abbey is welcome to it’s artifact and I hope that they have sufficient income in the Royal Peculiar to maintain it in the future.

  3. Recently visited Stydd Chapel, structurally restored to prevent collapse but left with no new features – not even electricity. All services after dark are by candlelight only. Atmospheric even in broad daylight – would be ruined by added art/decoration. Other places of worship host wonderful new/old artwork and are also a joy to behold. Art and beauty are certainly in the eye of the beholder but taking time to look and be challenged – even if the last word is – “no thanks not for me!” must be a good thing.

  4. I had a look online. I incline to agree, not for me. Modern art/windows can work very well in old churches, but this strikes me as unsympathetic to its context.
    I can hear my mother-in-law saying wryly” Eeeh, the things you see when you haven’t got your gun!”

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