The British Art Network seminar on Ecclesiastical Art started at Westminster Abbey, to explore how artefacts are presented, interpreted and displayed in a secular age with authenticity, in ways that connect with the visitor, and explain their function as part of a living church. There was also an opportunity for delegates to learn about the plans underway for the Abbey’s new exhibition space in the Triforium opening in 2018. The afternoon session at Tate Britain described in Part Two comprised of a series of short case study presentations exploring how the museum, the church, and the academy, treat the subject and interpretation of ecclesiastical art and sacred objects.
The Very Reverend John Hall, FSA, FRSA, Dean of Westminster and Chaplain to the Queen met the British Art Network on the morning of the 26th February 2016, and welcomed us into the Jerusalem Chamber.
The chamber is essentially part of the Dean’s household rooms and is the only courtyard house in London. There have been many historical meetings and committees to have taken place in this room, from the historic writing of the Authorized Version of the Bible in 1611 & the Revised Version in 1870, to the death of King Henry IV. It had always been said, and was believed, that Henry IV would die in Jerusalem but it was after his death in the chamber, by the fireplace, that the room was given its current name. Shakespeare refers to this story. The ceiling is more or less original (it was restored in the 1950s due to death-watch beetle damage) and was built in Richard II’s time. The panelling, copied from that in the Jericho Parlour, was installed in the chamber in the nineteenth century, and the tapestries illustrate the Isaac narrative in the main but vary in age from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century.
The Dean also gave some history surrounding the merging and then the separation of the diocese of Westminster with that of St. Paul’s. During this period (circa 1540 – 1550) when the Abbey became ‘co-cathedral’ with St. Paul’s, Westminster lost lands as great as Hyde Park.
The Dean also gave a high level overview of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee gallery project for the Triforium, referencing the architects (MUMA) and the objects that will be displayed (Henry VII’s head) and a digitised fourteenth century missal, the Liber Regalis. It is a major project which will be hugely significant and important for the future of the Abbey.
Canon Vernon White then introduced themes for discussion throughout the day. His emphasis was upon how to responsibly and sensitively bridge the increasing gap between Christian institutions or communities with high religious literacy and those with very little or non at all. It is important that curators and institutions consider how religious artefacts are displayed and how religious buildings display themselves.
The Abbey has over one million visitors each year, and let us not forget that it costs £18 for an adult ticket (consider the turnover). White said that most of the visitors were international tourists and so there was no ethnic or age bias, and that visitors were from both religious and non-religious backgrounds. The type of visitor the Abbey welcomed was similar to those by other institutions. A major focus for the Abbey was that religious semiotics would be recognised as being living signs, resonant of a living breathing contemporary church; even for those who were not religious, the Abbey still wished for the visitors to acknowledge the signs existed. This, therefore, impacts the Abbey’s approach (positively in their view) of being inclusive, religiously sensitive but welcoming and educational.
The ‘Spiritual Capital’ report of 2012 found that 27 per cent of the resident adult population of England (excluding overseas tourists) visited a Church of England cathedral at least once in the last 12 months. Younger adults (18–24) were more likely to have visited a cathedral than any other age group, except the over 65s, in the last 12 months and Christians were more likely to visit a church. However, one of the most interesting figures suggests that somewhere between 1.5 and 3 million people who might be called ‘spiritually unreceptive’ visit a cathedral each year. This is a huge number which institutions such as Westminster Abbey have to cater for. As stated the demographic at Westminster is not atypical and as such its visitors represent all these various trends. There are many who are spiritual but not religious, but equally there are those who have low levels of faith and religious literacy. White reported such low levels of religious literacy that he had even heard complete ignorance of the symbolism of the Christian cross being expressed on occasion. Explaining Christian narratives and the importance of the cross, as well as translating and revealing the architectural reference of the cross is integral to the visitor experience of enrichment. Sensitivity is key to understanding and responding to different levels of religious literacy and White stressed the main premise of the Abbey as an institution was “never to take anything for granted”. However, the problems of overcoming the increasingly secularity of the visitors was complex. There was a time for example when one area of the Abbey was being used as an open space which school trips used for sandwich eating, and over time the sacrality of the space was unintentionally threatened; a counteractive measure for this was to install some icons and to physically alter the arrangement of furniture within the space in order to stress the living breathing nature of the Church itself.
Because the Abbey cannot take any knowledge for granted nor assume anything, they must therefore provide information. White was mindful and conscious of the difficulty between explaining sophisticated religious and theological ideas whilst not dumbing down the information. Art cannot do all the work without the context or awareness of semiotics: it is like reading T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets (1943) without knowing anything about religious practice, possible but unrewarding.
The tone of information has to be open and nuanced, not dogmatic: it has to have integrity. White drew a parallel with the ‘crazy vaults’ of Lincoln Cathedral ceiling. These are deliberately asymmetric, designed to undo the perfection of man, purely because perfection is beyond man. It is impossible to adequately display the perfection of the Divine: we (man) is imperfect so we have, and do, undo our perfections.
Sensitivity is key and changing faith is both possible and human. Thomas Hardy’s ashes may lay in Westminster whilst his heart is in Dorset, but he always maintained the possibility of Christian life and thought. Understanding the Christian heritage of a historically important site like Westminster is vital to having an enriching visit but is also important in promoting ideas of faith, inclusion and tolerance. Seeking or having a knowledge of Christian semiotics can spiritually or educationally enable someone, and whilst a visit could also remain a secular experience, semiotics can still provide layers of meaning for all, e.g. Ian McEwan weaves religious ideals and notions in his novels but is a confirmed atheist. Using texts such as Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (2007) can help confront some of the ongoing dialogues about the sacred and the secular across all demographics, and applying religious sensitivity to a changing world view can help create a living religious space with the utmost integrity. Whilst this sentiment is laudable and was well expressed by White, the Dean’s language was littered with possessive pronouns.
Dr. Susan Jenkins, the first appointed curator at Westminster, introduced the plans and motivations behind the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries (the name the Triforium will be known as). The project is a major undertaking which will open in 2018 and there is much work to be done and many things to be considered: from clearing out the attic space, to enlisting architects, to undertaking archaeology, thermal imaging, object selection, display cabinet design, ticket pricing, visitor numbers, and flow through what is set to 9,600 square metres of usable gallery space. The project will cost around £18 million and tickets will be charged on top of the entrance fee to the Abbey.
The Triforium is a thirteenth century space seventy feet above the nave, built at the time of Henry III. It has enormous beams which have to and should stay, as well as a series of clear leaded tri-lobed windows. It has been used as a loft and a restoration space, full of statues and objects which have not been displayed and it is only recently the objects have been moved out, in order for surveying and commencement of initial stages of work (e.g. removing the twentieth century flooring in places to see what is underneath, and what will need to be done. Up to 30 tonnes of dust replete with pottery, and pieces of sculpture had to be removed from the floor!)
Currently the only access to the Triforium is up a wooden spiral staircase so the intention is for a new lift to be installed in the West Towers, this is the first and key phase of the project. The lift will be the most significant alteration to the fabric of the Abbey and to Nicholas Hawksmoor’s towers since 1745. Even this part of the project has had to overcome hurdles and perform safety checks in order to rule out archaeological finds in the proposed foundation for the lift. This essential activity has been completed and fortunately no archaeological artefacts have been found, so the site is able to be utilised as the team hope. Maintaining and protecting the fabric of the building alongside considering the unknown and the unseen means that each step of the project has to be considered in finite detail.
The space will house about three hundred objects and will be divided into thematic spaces: the Building, Worship of Daily Life, Abbey and Monarchy etc. Visitor analysis has confirmed that interest is mainly in the Royal connections with the Abbey (re-energised since the royal marriage of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in 2011), so certain items like Henry VII’s effigy will be on display. The heads of royal effigies were carried at their respective funerals and still survive in the Abbey collection: Henry VII’s is particularly life-like and was probably made from a death mask (the bodies of the funeral effigies were damaged by water during the Second World War).
There will also be a viewing window at the traverse upper ambulatory which will allow visitors to photograph the chancel. This viewing space will be largely left open with two altarpieces framing the natural alcove, and will allow visitors to luxuriate in the royal experience as they look down into the chancel. There will also be views out over to Parliament, so in some ways the Triforium will become a lens upon the relationship between Church and State and Monarchy. The Abbey after all is a ‘Royal Peculiar’.
The positioning of the objects is dependent on light and sensitivity, as well as the available space within the confines of a trussed space. The gallery is not an airport and as such there will be no signs to direct people around the space; the arrangement of the objects will create a natural flow (although the lift is the only exit and entrance for the public so people will have to weave back upon themselves). Visitors will be able to move around in this contemplative space and to walk in amongst the sunbeams. The cast of the sun has contributed to the overall design but the windows are an integral part of the space and will help create a spiritual and calming environment. The team have had thermal imaging done in order to determine the best place to arrange the artefacts, stone items are less effected by sun but more delicate items can only be placed in limited places, e.g. the piece of velvet from Henry V’s shield will need to be displayed away from light. A darker area will display items such as the drawings by Christopher Wren showing design for a spire which was never completed, as well as a model by Wren, three Morris tapestries and also a fifteenth century altarpiece by Bicci di Lorenzo.
Understanding the space and the subtleties required to appeal to an international and local, as well as religious and non-religious demographic is essential to make this project a success. MUMA are the architects, and right from the commencement of their conversations with the Abbey colleagues, they were equally aware of the invaluable and subtle contribution made by natural sunlight, as well as the heavy wooden trusses and the stonework. MUMA have created modern yet uplifting spaces in the V&A in the Renaissance and Medieval galleries where their design has also been sensitive to light. Daylight is filtered through a series of translucent structural onyx screens in the V&A in order to provide a serene space for the devotional thirteenth century objects, similar to that required in the Triforium – itself a thirteenth century space. The V&A has a limited palette to create simple backdrops to allow the works and the space to speak for themselves, and it seems they are the perfect architects for the project at the Abbey.
The Abbey and MUMA will create an abstract modern interpretation of Henry III’s unfulfilled project to use the space as an additional chapel. With the sunlight through the stone windows, translucent display cabinets, limited signage, and an appreciation of this reflective space you will be rewarded with a new understanding on medieval ecclesiastical architecture. This is one project which will only disappoint through its unavoidable limitation on visitor numbers. As Sir John Betjeman said the view from the Triforium was ‘the greatest in Europe’ and soon, for the first time ever, the public will get to make their own decision about that.