Monday, July 23, 2012

New Calvary Chapel at the London Oratory

This past Friday, the Apostolic Nuncio to Great Britain, the Most Reverend Archbishop Antonio Mennini, visited the London Oratory for the purpose of the blessing of the new Calvary Chapel, which has recently been installed in the Oratory church.

As part of the new chapel, we find sculptures of Christ on the Cross, the Blessed Virgin Mary and St John the Evangelist, all work of the Spanish sculptor Darío Fernández of Seville.

You can read more about the event on the Oratory website (see link above) and here too is Fr. Anthony Symondson's piece on the same subject.

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by Fr. Anthony Symondson SJ

English converts once equated the Church with Baroque Catholicism. This impression was fostered by the Oratory of St Philip Neri, brought to Britain at Birmingham by Blessed John Henry Newman in 1848. In 1852 Fr F. W. Faber bought a plot of land in Brompton, then a semi-rural western suburb of London, and established the London Oratory. Earlier, when he had appalled Pugin as much as the Protestant Establishment by turning a dance hall at King William Street, Charing Cross, into a Classical Chapel richly embellished with Italianate church art, he brought full-blooded Continental Catholicism to London.

Second only to the Gothic Jesuit church in Farm Street, Mayfair (where converts imbibed Baroque spirituality), Brompton Oratory, as it is popularly, if erroneously, known, became a Mecca for rich and influential Victorian converts, and Henry Fitzalan Howard, 15th Duke of Norfolk, became a principle benefactor. This is reflected in the Northern Italian Baroque grandeur of Herbert Gribble’s great church, started in 1874 and sumptuously furnished with new and original Baroque furniture and sculpture, vestments and altar plate.

The Northern Italian character of the Oratory church has remained consistent until modern times. This has, however, been significantly broken by the installation of a new Calvary group with figures of Our Lady and St John, in the Spanish Baroque style, set within the chapel of Blessed John Henry Newman, situated beneath the organ gallery in the south aisle, behind the life-size, seated figure of St Peter. Traditionally this has been the place where a Calvary has been placed since the church was built but a fire in the 1950s destroyed the original crucifix and it was replaced by an austere substitute. The new chapel provided an opportunity to commission a new Calvary.

One of the principle art exhibitions in London in 2009-10 was the landmark The Sacred Made Real at the National Gallery of naturalistic Spanish sculpture and painting executed between 1600 and 1700. It presented a quest for realism of uncompromising zeal and genius which shocked the senses and stirred the soul as no other exhibition bar that of Southern German Rococo art mounted at the Royal Academy soon after the Second World War. Attending the exhibition was a religious as well as an aesthetic experience and one could not fail to notice the devotion and reverence of many Catholic visitors in the presence of these polychromatic (meaning many-coloured because they were painted) masterpieces. These works brought people to their knees and tears to their eyes, so affecting was their spiritual power.

The Sacred Made Real exhibition was mounted by Xavier Bray, the Senior Curator of the Dulwich Picture Gallery and a leading authority in Spanish Baroque art, and the Oratorians consulted him about commissioning the new Calvary at Brompton. A notable exhibit was a partly-executed modern Spanish Baroque figure of St John of the Cross made to show visitors the processes that went into making these images. This was executed by Darío Fernández, a young Spanish imaginero from Seville who continues to carve in the Baroque manner. His work is influenced by Juan de Mesa and Juan Martines Montañéz, the greatest Spanish Baroque sculptors. The sculpture and subdued painted surfaces, softened by varnish, of the Calvary are combined with spectacular force as good as the originals. When completed, it created a sensation when it was exhibited in Seville town hall.

In the classic Baroque style, the focus is on the person of Christ and the saints. The heightened realism of this group may shock because nothing like it has been done in this country for quite 100 years. That quality is intensified by the angular folds of the clothing of the figures which provide additional drive and vigour as well as depth of shadow. But is this merely religious kitsch or, still more, pastiche? Some critics regarded The Sacred Made Real exhibition as the grandfather of kitsch because of its lifelike, exaggerated fervour. But kitsch means worthless and pretentious and neither could be said of this Calvary group which is instinct with naturalistic religious feeling. Nor is it pastiche because it is part of a living sculptural tradition that uses the Baroque language of art which is indigenous in southern Spain. Its realism is the realism of the Gospels or the imaginative intensity of the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius Loyola that had a powerful influence on Spanish Baroque art.

The group is contained within a niche on the left of the chapel and the background is delicately painted on canvas with a distant view of Jerusalem flanked by trees beneath a clouded sky, executed by Alan Dodd, a muralist. Dodd has restored and decorated many of the noblest rooms and interiors in the country, often in trompe l’oeil, but here he has subordinated his work to the peace and strength of Fernandez’s Calvary and both are complementary. In this softly-lit, understated way polychromatic sculpture and painting are unified as a whole within an architectural setting.

Currently, major commissions for art are rare in Catholic church architecture in Britain. Exceptions are commissions for mosaics in Westminster Cathedral and the recent exemplary restoration of St Patrick’s, Soho. In recent years the Oratorians have made significant new additions to their London church and this Calvary group marks a milestone for being inspired by an outstanding exhibition and for maintaining the artistic tradition illuminated by it. It exemplifies the Holy Father’s emphasis on traditional Catholic art. Not only is the Calvary a work of art but also a powerful aid to devotion.

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