Although to some, such as Anselm Franke [i], ‘Faith is incompatible with art’ and even ‘destroys the sovereignty of art,’ the practice of a church like St Martin-in-the-Fields eloquently demonstrates that that need not be so. By contrast with Franke’s view, commissions like Bill Viola’s ‘Martyrs’ and ‘Mary’ installations at St Paul’s Cathedral, exhibitions such as ‘Divine Beauty: From Van Gogh to Chagall and Fontana,’ conferences such as ‘Modern Gods: Religion and British Modernism,’ and books such as ‘Modern Art and the Life of a Culture,’ all explore and illustrate the reality that there have been strong religious impulses which positively shaped and continue to shape modern visual art.
The 15-year programme of commissions and loans at St Martin-in-the-Fields began as part of the renewal of the church undertaken by Eric Parry Architects. Modus Operandi Art Consultants were appointed to create an Art Strategy for the Grade I listed church and, through a competitive interview process, overseen by an Art Selection Panel chaired by Sir Nicholas Goodison, a series of major new artworks were commissioned. These included: Tomoaki Suzuki’s Christmas Crib (limewood carved and coloured sculptures representing the key figures in the Nativity), Shirazeh Houshiary and Pip Horne’s East Window, a poem by Andrew Motion (which was realised by letterer Tom Perkins and set into the balustrade of the Light Well), a new Altar by Shirazeh Houshiary and Pip Horne, and furniture for the Sanctuary and the Dick Sheppard Chapel, designed by Eric Parry. These commissions have been complemented by a Processional Cross, Candleholders and Paschal Candleholder by Brian Catling, Chalice, Paten and Candleholders for the Dick Sheppard Chapel by Giampaolo Babetto and loans of work by Mark Francis, Brad Lochore, Fiona Rae and Gerhard Richter.
The Bishop of Salisbury Nicholas Holtam, who as Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields began the programme of commissions at St Martin’s, has argued that there has been a renaissance in the relationship between Christianity and the arts; of which these commissions are part. Based on his experience, Holtam suggests that there is an enormous willingness on the part of artists to explore meaning and faith creatively and with imagination. He argues that whilst there might be safety for the Church in accepting only the work of Christian artists, the more important engagement is with good art that respects its Christian context. It makes us bigger people and deepens both our cultural life and the life of faith.
Sam Wells, the current Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields, has reflected theologically on the art of St Martin’s: ‘One may fruitfully think of art and faith under three headings – the Old Testament offices of prophet, priest and king coalesced in Jesus. (1) Prophets hold a mirror up to society or individuals and point out glories, failures, anomalies, and mysteries. Prophets challenge, reconfigure, expose, highlight, ridicule, and shock. So do artists. (2) Priests seek to make every experience and every material thing an icon, through which the observer can look and see the ultimate truth, profound wisdom, the heart of God. Artists are high priests of creation: they gather around them all the fruits of creation, just as a priest does around an altar, and orders those gifts in such a way as to show the divine in the human and earthly. (3) Kingly art is art that thrills, and delights, and excites, inspires, and enthralls – art that stretches our imaginations to their limit in exaltation and awe and delirious rejoicing, and raises our sights to power and glory. It is fundamentally art that enjoys, cherishes and highlights the materiality and visibility of life.’
He argues that the art of St Martin-in-the-Fields reflects this threefold diversity of heritage, identity, and vocation and must continue to balance the three into the future, as to become too strongly identified with one of the three aspects would endanger the good regard of vital elements of the St Martin’s community.
On Sunday 13 November 2016 St Martin-in-the-Fields celebrated its 15 year programme of art commissions and loans with a reception for those who have been involved (including Vivien Lovell of Modus Operandi, who curated the programme, and Sir Nicholas Goodison), a tour of the artworks, an exhibition by artists and craftspeople from the congregation, and a service in which recent metalwork commissions by Giampaolo Babetto and Brian Catling were dedicated.
This service included reflections from St Martin’s clergy on the Babetto and Catling commissions, a survey by Vivien Lovell of the 15-year programme, a sermon from Sam Wells connecting the Arts to Christian praxis, and prayers of thanksgiving for creative skill and insight from artists and craftspeople in the St Martin’s congregation.
Ali Lyon (one of the craftspeople at St Martin’s) led the congregation in a prayer which makes the claim that the heavens are telling the glory of God and so are the many artworks at St Martin’s. Her prayer for this service was eloquent in its belief that there is a real and continuing engagement between the visual arts and Christianity, of which the art of St Martin-in-the-Fields is part:
‘Your story, God, is shown in wood, stone, yarn, metal, string, glass, paint, fabric. Your glory, God, is told in images from birth to death, and beyond; from outside to inside, and back out again; from light to dark, from dark to light. Your challenge, God, is given in words and in wordlessness. Your glory, God, is shown in colour, shine, shadow, shape, space, form. Your story, God, is shared by those who dream, those who create, those who install, those who fund, those who support, those who look, those who advise. And so we give thanks for the materials, the skills, the artworks, that illuminate God, that draw people in and send people out. And we pray that all these creations will continue to bless this place and all the people who come here.’
Words: Revd Jonathan Evens, Priest-in-charge at St Stephen Walbrook and Associate Vicar for Partnerships at St Martin-in-the-Fields
Image: East Window (Detail) Shirazeh Houshiary and Pip Horne, 2006-08 – image © Liam Bailey
‘The Art of St Martin-in-the-Fields’, produced by Modus Operandi Art Consultants, 2016. £9.99 from the Shop at St Martin’s
 ‘Question of Faith: Is There a Return of the Religious in Contemporary Art?’, ArtMag by Deutsche Bank –