Tuesday, December 01, 2020

The Frescoes at St Francis of Assisi, Baddesley Clinton, England, Part 3: the Chancel Arch

Here is the third posting about the fabulous frescoes at little St Francis of Assisi Catholic Church, in Warwickshire, England, in the Archdiocese of Birmingham, the works of the artist Martin Earle. (To see previous parts click here: part 1, part 2.)

Before showing photographs of the third and final section, the chancel arch, I want to explain why I think this is so important. First, this is a schema that is intrinsically liturgical (as distinct from devotional) in its conception. Second, while it is painted in a contemporary English iconographic style, absolutely appropriate for its time and place, it incorporates discerningly other more naturalistic styles of liturgical art and statues inherited from past communities of this parish, and therefore, one presumes, particularly dear to them. In regard to this Martin told me:
The rather dark and intense colour scheme (though the orange is less saturated in real life) was dictated partly by the pre-existing oil painting. Trying to find a way that the new paintings (which the parish asked to be in a sort of neo-Romanesque style) wouldn’t clash too badly with the old was a headache. In the end, I opted to paint the new murals dark enough so that the oil painting didn’t pop forward, as it would have against a lighter background. We also reflected some of the colours - especially of Christ in Glory - in the new works.

Obviously, the oil painting is incorporated thematically as well. In the end, a curious and good effect is achieved by having the heavenly scene below the nativity. Earth gone up to heaven and heaven come down to earth.
My hope is that every person in this parish is catechized, perhaps through the homilies, so as to understand the images they see and how to engage with them as they pray the Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours. Then, when people visit the church to see the paintings, as they surely will, any parishioner can be a docent who takes them on a tour of the church, and in so doing becomes an evangelist for the Faith.
The Chancel Arch
On the chancel arch, the liturgical hymn Gloria in excelsis Deo (Glory to God in the highest) repeats the idea that what is sung in the earthly liturgy echoes the praise of the heavenly liturgy, and the themes of both the First and Second Comings of Christ are both repeated and lead into what is displayed in the sanctuary.
At the apex is the Lord’s Cross, seen as an object of glory and veneration, triumphant, bejewelled and containing the sacred monogram ‘IHS’. Below this, and over the altar, is suspended the crucifix, akin to the Rood in medieval churches, suspended between earth and heaven, the point of entry from one to the other, and contrasting with the triumphant cross above, but also positioned so that, from the nave of the church, Christ in glory on the east wall is seen below it, the bottom of the cross in line with the head of Christ.
Surrounding the cross are angels of the apocalypse, as St John relates in his Revelation, one with a trumpet, the other rolling up the moon and stars; the clouds behind them are red and blue, representing the sunrise at the end of time. The same clouds are repeated on the east wall, surrounding the Hand of God, showing that he is Lord of time and of history.
On the spandrels of the arch are stylised representations of Bethlehem and Jerusalem, the two poles of salvation of Incarnation and Redemption, with sheep representing the apostles who continue the saving work of Christ. Jerusalem, of course, is not just an evocation of the earthly city, but also of the heavenly Jerusalem, described in the liturgy of All Saints and in the Dedication of a Church as ‘our mother, where the great array of brothers and sisters gives you eternal praise’ and representative of the Church, the Bride of Christ, ‘mother of countless children.’
Beneath these are four Old Testament prophets, holding scrolls that tell of both Comings of Christ, the Second Coming already foreshadowed in the First Coming, which is completed in the Second Coming:
Isaiah 7, 14 - ‘Behold the virgin will conceive and bear a son [and shall call his name] Immanuel’
Malachi 3, 1 - ‘The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple’
Ezekiel 34, 12 - ‘I will rescue my sheep [from all the places where they have been scattered] on a day of clouds and thick darkness.
Zechariah 9, 9 - ‘Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you, the Just One and Saviour’.
Notice how the two- and three-dimensional images have been combined so well!

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