Recently in Tewkesbury abbey I saw an exhibition by Christian artist and priest Iain McKillop. It was incredibly vivid, sensual, physical depictions of Jesus, focusing on his last days. As a consequence it was also heartrending and brutal in terms of subject matter. There were a lot of paintings – Gethsemane, last supper, cross bearing, depictions of crucifixion. There were also images inspired by religious crisis. It was incredible art work, and at the same time, almost unbearable to look at.
Coming to it as a non-Christian, as someone outside the story, I was simply shocked by the intensity of pain. The abbey contains plenty of older, more traditional art. Usually, the crucifixion is portrayed in a very clean, peaceful way. Beautiful colours, peaceful faces. Often Jesus looks like he’s taking a little nap, not dying by one of the most tortuous punishments ever devised. Those older paintings must have informed a lot of perceptions of what the death meant. Jesus dying is usually a gentle, soulful affair. To see it offered up, so bloody, extreme and agonised, is a bit of a shock.
As a druid, I’m very open to art, beauty and expressions of soul. I also seek to be aware of reality in all its complex shades, the pain as well as the pleasure. And still I am stumped by what I’ve seen. Trying to imagine the journey of the artist into creating this kind of work. What does it mean to live with such brutal images? To work on them, unrelentingly? And more importantly, what does the depicted pain and suffering mean?
I believe that everything has the scope to bring meaning and religious experience into our lives. It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it. Pain is no exception. Except that kind of extremis makes it nigh on impossible to think. There comes a point when both physical and emotional pain start to blot you out, so that nothing seems real, nothing is truly experienced beyond it. Is that a religious experience?
It’s easy to turn away from that which horrifies. Especially in art. It’s easiest to close down senses, refuse to engage and go somewhere safer. I stood those paintings for as long as I could bear, and I’ve meditated on them since, and I know I do not understand. All I can offer here is a profound sense of confusion. What does it mean, to offer such suffering as spirituality? For me, pain has taken me away from my spiritual self, not deeper into it. In the aftermath of pain, I have learned compassion and tolerance, and no doubt other things too, but that requires a time after, a peace, a space to regroup and move on. There are things here I feel a need to understand, but I have no idea what to ask, or whom. (Suggestions most welcome).
Tewkesbury abbey also features modern stained glass windows by Thomas Denny. He has windows at Gloucester too. They are beautiful, vivid, detailed and use colour in the most amazing ways. The more you look, the more you see. Light coming through the glass fills the chapel with warmth and every shift of light affects the image. Standing in front of Denny’s work, I see an expression of pantheism, God shining through in all things. It’s not emotionally uncomplicated or free from shadows, but is rich, moving, challenging and inspiring all at once.
I stand before those windows and I see something that fills me with wonder and a sense of the numinous. Just encountering Denny’s art is a religious experience for me. It fills me, nourishes my soul and sends me out into the world wakeful and hopeful. My Druid self loves what he does, and the different sources of our inspiration don’t seem to matter at all. This kind of Christianity, I understand.