THE OVAL AND A ‘DIVINE’ CHURCH
view from church
view of the church
SOUTH OF THE CHURCH
The church of St. John the Divine, Vassall Road, SW9, architect G.E. Street (1871-4)
So ‘divine’, but so little knowledge about this Victorian gem church. Why isn’t it better known?
BBC’s Radio 4, encyclopedic for stimulation, information, vision and imagination alerted me to the church of ‘St. John the Divine in south-west London’, with a brief reference to the art in the church. I guessed it was Kennington from online searches. I was impelled to visit sooner than I might have done, upon hearing the view of some listeners on Farming Today, that country parish churches should just be knocked down so that homes can be built .A rash, quickly made decision to get up and go while listening to the radio at the same time as reading Persuasion, where longed for moneyed marriages are made in reception rooms of country estates rather than ancient country churches. There was no comment in response to this view on what one does with all the grave-stones were the country churches to go. Do one parish church and its graveyard take up so much room? And so there I was unexpectedly at church in London one Saturday morning. Mass had just finished (this is a high Anglican church) and people were busy sweeping, rinsing flowers, clearing out the wax from the candle holders, while their bags and rucksacks waited on chairs for their jobs to end .The congregants who had also been on the chairs had gone.
altar image and mandorla
Part of the high altar painting is in the shape of an oval or more commonly in art history parlance an almond (a mandorla). The church is close to the Oval cricket ground, clearly marked on my now customary little A to Z which takes me to these churches so off the beaten tourist track. But if St. John the Divine was on a known track, it might make more people watch cricket. Or better than that, visit a church they had never heard of. A visit to one thing often lends itself to a visit to another. But human-kind or should I say human-herds need cues; tips, recommendations; we need to be led by the hand and foot. What is seen in London by visitors is what is written about, or heard about (thank you Radio 4). But one day just lead yourself: take two streets down, one to the right, one to the left; a diagonal over there, a turnabout over here, a corner yonder and there is always something to look at. And you will have found something for yourself. You might even find somebody there with whom you have a charming chat. Well that is what happened to me on my outing to St. John and the church divine.
The announcement on Farming Today stopped me reading Persuasion. You might think this would take some persuasion. But wait oh novel. Visual stimulus first. Please. Early Saturday morning in London has a silence about it that is precious just because we know that precious time is not yet the fraught time of later. Its silence is not long-lasting. And as I walked down the road towards the church, I was accompanied by the mellifluous church bells of, well, none other, I had to conclude than that of St. John the Divine. I entered to the right of the main door, just as one does in Italian churches, usually signed with a large arrow, so you enter in without banging on or into the wrong door. The church before me is large, long, lofty and elegant. I look down towards the altar and a Gothic vaulted apse. This is Victorian resemblance in style to Byzantine and then their idea of later medieval church designs. All making a delightful hotch-potch of inaccurate stylising. It is fetching and convincing. But somehow the decoration of strong and vivid colour and bold figure types in paint and stone give its period aesthetic away.
And there was the altar, the altar painting behind and some quasi-like wall paintings partly attached to the altar painting. Here is the partly enclosed, sacred space of any church where if they are going to happen at all, is the locus for visions, voices, virginal beings and the apparition of angels and celestial wings. That is, unless, beings appear before you, when you least expect them. I was in the Dolomite Mountains in northern Italy recently, sitting on a chair, quietly, sedately, reading. I was by the ruins of an old abbey in a hotel, where the crypt of the church had been made into a spa with saunas, pools and massage rooms. Above were the remains of the church and an apse with faded frescoes of St. Ursula and her virgins, old fragments of corbels, guttering, capitals, assorted pieces of stones and architectural broken off shapes and so on. Few people looked round this part of the hotel, but on this occasion, suddenly before me was a man completely naked with a towel draped over his shoulder walking around the apse with a woman, who was instead in a towelling robe. I was not having a vision. And now, as I stood before the high altar at St. John and watched a man hoovering and then by the altar, a woman dusting the altarpiece, I did not see any nakedness. Or even artful nudity. But I may have been responsible for the woman dusting having a vision. By standing there, I frightened this poor lady dusting who had her back to me. She turned round and as she recovered from my presence said that normally she had a good sense of who was around her. We started talking, mainly about the beauty of the church. The church that I would describe as Victorian Gothic, although that is not a term that is or indeed should be obvious to all. After all, churches are not just about cult style or design. And yet, I was talking about a church that it seems even the congregants do not think is that special. She spoke movingly about why she liked church spaces, but also other buildings. She said, ‘you see, I am not like Prince Charles. I like modern buildings’. She added that we all need a sanctuary and upon saying this tears welled up in her eyes. She apologised and said that she was such a soppy person and I told her in response that she was lovely. She then said ‘While we may not agree with the present government, what about the houses of parliament… and all of them that would like to see it knocked down, it would be terrible. How we need these buildings’… and in putting her fingers to her lips blew a kiss to it, once, twice, maybe a third time. How I would have liked her to be a ‘speaking’ visionary for those who do not believe that a parish church has a place in the heart of the countryside. This woman was eloquent, but gentle, firm in her views, but respectful of difference and confirmed for me that in going off the beaten track in a city that you think you know, you see that you don’t. And then, in places where there are fewer people, you start talking.
the rose garden
But what of the art? The art is, to use a cliché, truly divine. From the solidly comforting Victorian red brick with the finely pointed apertures on the tower, the brick contrasting with the stone dressings and articulations, to the shape of a small bee-hive feel apse from the south, to the rose garden courtyard to the left of the north entrance. Added to which, the building is positioned in a road of mixed housing, which in many ways is far more appealing than if the housing was perfectly formed and uniform.
The chief feature of attraction in the church is the colourful, high-relief Road to Calvary sculptures (made, the church website says by mother Maribel), exhibiting some expressive faces of grief and anguish as they witness Christ heaving the cross up to Golgotha. But the power of these scenes is conversely the fact that the faces do not feature as largely as the body types: hung, bent, huddled, stretched, convoluted and twisted. The expression is in the body, not the face. And the cross here is an expression of power. It is set at an angle or semi elevated from a horizontal position in the 12 different scenes. It looks as though it is pushing out into our space. And the heavy mood is brought out by the way in which Christ is shown assaulted and exhausted by having to carry it. The series makes a point of showing the suffering with just that carrying, heaving, and struggling. There are, for example three panels devoted to ‘Christ falling down’, as he carries. He carries and falls, falls and then carries. Falling down, once, twice, thrice. We imagine it might happen again and again. In the scene for the third time, we see a soldier bent over with his arms around Christ to pull him up again. Heads are covered, hands touch the heads in suffering, even Christ’s head is hidden, his body heaving, straining, pushing. We also see Roman soldiers with bright turquoise blue leggings on nailing him to the cross, with the nails, the tools of the Crucifixion, the repetition in all the scenes if I recall of his crown of thorns. And the overbearing mood continues as we see three of them trying to push the cross up, elevated as they are on a stone, while a soldier on the right is shown nailing him down. This contrasts with the way in which the sculptor conveys the raw grief of the females in the scenes –cast as the mourners whose bodies are bent, faces indeterminable by the headdresses and with their backs to us. Yet the images do not feel staged, so they are not acting foolishly. Finally, in the actual Crucifixion scene, there is a sort of calm as Christ is, oddly, after the previous scenes, vertical, while two soldiers, with self-satisfied faces on the left look up; their body language insouciant and triumphant, leg positions jaunty and relaxed – the job, after all, has been executed with success. The nails can now be put away. Colourful high-Victorian art may not be to everybody’s taste, but it is hard not to be moved by the laying out scene, where we see Christ in his shroud, the stone of the tomb pushed back, his crown of thorns beside and a beautiful cluster of ivy leave surrounding. Meanwhile we see Mary to the left, but completely covered in her blue robe revealing nothing but what the tension and bulk of her blue robe convey. The strength of these pieces must have something to do with the colour. And for that they are daring works of art. Quite often Road to Calvary scenes are carved in just the white or grey stone, thus making the emotional effect less visible.
Christ falling down
St. Veronica is also seen in profile, wearing a corn coloured headdress and robe of a more golden hue, as she places the linen cloth over Jesus’s face so as to soothe his sweaty brow. Christ’s face as an emblem of the ferocity of the faith that will endure is imprinted on the cloth and becomes another way in which his life is remembered. Her name is Veronica, because it derives from the Latin vera icon meaning true icon or true likeness. While she might be a legendary saint, this is a commonplace image in Passion cycles and was a narrative from the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus. It is more common though to see the imprint of the face at this event. Here, though, as seen in so many of the works here, the idea is imparted in a less obvious way. The sculptor has exploited the lack of face again, by containing the whole of Christ’s face in the cloth. On the other hand, it might also have been an effective way of not having to carve out intricate facial details! Let us hope that it was passion that she wanted to render. Grief ripples through the vista of people’s backs, their bent bodies, their drapery, and their hands on faces. It is not suggested. It is experienced, but in the most imaginative and achingly boisterous way.
the pulling up of the cross
detail of Christ in his shroud
There is too another powerful image, a large bronze statue ensemble – of the Crucifixion, with a mourning John and a mourning Virgin below. The figures are separated from one another and thus one is able to walk around each figure. While John is usually seen standing straight supporting Mary at the Crucifixion scene, here we see him bent (as are so many figures in this church) with both his hands on his face, obscuring it completely. By contrast Mary’s face is exposed while her arms are outstretched towards the figure of Christ. Her hands do not touch, but they appear as if they are about to cup her son’s face, if she could reach, or even her tears. Her hands are not the expression of prayer or acceptance. From behind, we see the contour and angularity of the bronze cast to evoke her long robe and her grieving body. This is another strategic way in which to express sorrow and solemnity, without the sculptor being a slave to the depiction of sorrow with lips and eyes, facial wrinkles and lines. But as the technique of bronze casting is so cumbersome, this approach gave him more choice in where to stress the intricacies, such as the drapery. So delicate is the technique of bronze casting that the finer parts of any of the process are often knocked off in the casting kiln. The work was done by Charles Jagger and is called Kelham Rood (1929).
St. John – figure ensemble
As I leave the church, the sunlight falls on a widely spreading tree opposite, framing not only the white stuccoed houses it partly occludes, but also the Gothic arch that makes up the portal to the church. A perfect picture formed to end a visual feast that gripped me at the church of St. John the Divine, a truly divine church. The authors of the London Encyclopaedia give it no more than a passing entry. Frustratingly, I cannot tell you any more about this church. Who was this unknown crafts person who made the Road to Calvary pieces? I do know that John Betjeman remarked that it was the most magnificent church in the whole of south London. I could not agree more.
Some other decorative, visual features in the church
a decorative detail
STAINED GLASS DETAIL IN A CHAPEL