Art and Liturgy should not be swayed by emotions. I’ve said before how I distrust worship that aims for an emotional response. The same goes for the visual arts. Sentimentality and shock are surface feelings that it is relatively easy to engender. Work of value swims deeply in colder, darker and, ultimately, richer waters. Somebody the other day said that my recent art project just about reduced them to tears, which made me feel as if I had done something wrong. As I grow too settled into the liturgical groove so I have noticed a tendency to aim for a ‘feel-good’ factor in worship, and I have used levity too much to keep control over the liturgical drama. I can easily accuse myself of the very thing I am uncomfortable with – the triumph of the bland over the thoughtful. Now, it may be that my liturgical formation is far too indebted to Aidan Kavanagh’s classic text Elements of Rite, which, along with Peter Brook’s The Empty Space and the explorations into liturgy and sociology of Kieran Flanagan, have moulded my thinking. According to Kavanagh liturgy should never be a game of compromise, it is far too serious for that, it is the pivot on which the doorway to the divine hinges. So, no carpets, no pews, no microphones and try to avoid the dreaded concept of relevancy. Liturgy is telling timeless truths timelessly, it needs no interruption from the everyday, but it does need the participants to be knowing, to be schooled in the language of symbol. I guess that’s the point where I do part company with these tutors, I do see the context as vital, liturgy grows out of the community, is a response to the situation of the community and is a means whereby communities are formed, honed and tested. But I am also with them that symbolic language is elliptical, multi-layered, open to varying interpretations
So, what do I make of St Teilo’s, the medieval church moved from Llandeilo Tal-y-bont in north Wales to the National History Museum of Wales? For St Teilo’s has been recreated internally as it is supposed it would have looked in the late medieval period. Which means that it is a church full of colour, the walls crowded with wall paintings, the rood screen decorated in a bright and vivid visual style, the wood carvings telling the life of the patron saint, the lectern, the altar, all luminous and dazzling. Firstly, the wall-paintings were based on the designs found underneath 500 years of lime wash, so they do have historical precedent, however there are some scholars who would argue that such decoration was the exception rather than the rule in our parish churches. The guide booklet to the church notes that these wall paintings date from about 1520, approximately ten years after Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel. Which gives you a European context, a placing in the history of art and in a society where the majority of worshippers were illiterate, not understanding the holy language of Latin. It has long been said that it was through stained-glass windows that the populace learned the Gospel. But what if your church was too minor, too poor and too isolated from the centres of culture and industry to have access to such rich jewels of colour? Then a local artist would be employed to unfold the Bible on the walls using pigments made from whatever materials could be found in the area.
Knowing this before we walked through the porch way didn’t stop us from being shocked at the total take-over of the building by huge images, rendered simply but expressively in a vivid but limited palette. There was order and jumble – a roughly chronological telling of the Passion jostling for space with key Old Testament stories – Christ enthroned in majesty looking for all the world like a medieval monarch and saints with the instruments of their martyrdom. The base colour of the walls was white, the floor was rough, there were no pews, the sanctuary was highly decorated and the windows fitted with plain glass flooded the space with light. In a large cathedral this profusion of images is grand and expands the space. In a small parish church it is quite overwhelming.
We know from texts, such as the Sarum Rite, that the liturgy of the period was highly formalised with few spaces where the priest could interpolate his own material. Spontaneity was not catered for, or approved of. So how were these visual images used? If one of the Bible stories illustrated was read, would the priest, or any altar party, move to that area of the church, or somehow indicate which picture was relevant? Would there be a focus during the Eucharistic Prayer on the painting of the Last Supper? Would candles be lit and offerings left near specific images on feast days? Or would everything be left to the congregation – they couldn’t understand the Latin of the liturgy, so their eyes would wander freely around the pictures and they would tell each other the stories as the service proceeded?
Kavanagh argues that there should be one main focus – one large Crucifix, preferably above the altar – and that everything else should point towards it. But St Teilo’s tells us that ancient liturgies were more complex. The mass of competing images offers to 21st century viewers a sort of medieval post-modernism. If you are not versed in the symbolism then it is hard to tell if there is one dominant meta-narrative. Presumably for the medieval church-goer this imagery was part of the daily round, the yearly calendar and the way that life was ordered. Even so, despite the simplicity of many of the images, en masse they provide an intricate theological system.
I like the idea of limiting the number of foci in church – usually one, which shifts during the service from the lectern/pulpit to the altar which is regularly used for Holy Communion. But I can also see that as we all respond differently to different aspects of worship – some through music, others through words, or actions, or visual images, or even smells – so it is vital that we provide symbols which are both timeless and relevant to the needs and the language of the community. Hence, the Church still needs artists in all media and fields who can come out of the community and produce work which is both simple and complex, comforting and challenging, readily understandable but opening gateways to deeper spaces. In essence there need to be aspects of St Teilo’s in all our churches and, for those whom church is in itself a symbol without meaning, in those areas in our lives which provide us with space to think, and be and understand our place in the world. At the end of the day St Teilo’s confirms for me that complexity is good, that providing for the lowest common denominator each time degrades society and that it is only when we move beyond reacting to, or simply providing for, an emotional response that we will create art, liturgy, government which is lasting, meaningful and truly relevant.