TWO ROTHERHITHE CHURCHES AND FEIBUSCH

I park, I arrive, I look around. I smell a farmyard. I hear sheep bleating. Am I in the right place?

 

Quintessential London. Fortuitous diversity, but not coherently planned. An area where diverse things become part of a slightly eccentric whole. And just the thing I love about London. An assortment of difference which gives the locality a sense of place. Unrelated things built to become cheek by jowl, to become  something peculiar and particular. They reside in their own entirety, unaware of the other thing. But they are all growing and developing and existing in a sort of hotchpotch of concrete, green and water.  From the green beans on stakes growing up to meet the sky in Surrey Docks farm, to the mural in the church at Holy Trinity, to the old Victorian school in the graveyard of the church, to the vertical modernity in the buildings on the Thames horizon, to the muddy mire, and the lapping water of the river, to the smell of farmyard and the noise of the ewes. This is London. Or to be exact this is Rotherhithe. What is it that draws me to this unplanned diversity gathering in a hard and barren world of flats and houses on the riverside, to summer growth and grass, not to compete, but to provide something else beyond? Quirky things of interest in a rarely seen corner in a pocket of land by the Thames. And then the church – an image of longevity from a turbulent history, destroyed and fragile, but keeping up with modern change.
There is something about this incongruity between church, graveyard, farm, water and modern buildings that brings a big big heart to this place. This unlikely place in London. But which shows us all human life in its most imaginative range.
And all the while people come and go – to the farm, to look at the water and the buildings on the shore beyond. There are few boats and vessels on the water now, when once, in the 19th century, so full was the river that one could tread from one board on one boat to another on another boat. So the area is marked by the passage and path of feet – finding their way from one side to the other, since bridges were not necessary. But unlike the 19th century, there are no boats coming and going, except for those taking eager tourists from one Thames bus stop to another. So instead we can watch the people glide along the Thames Path, curious, captive to the Thames, its reaches and its less than perceptible delights.
As a mural artist in Westminster said, ‘None of us knew that fresco painting required not only fresh plaster on which to work, but fresh air to preserve the work when done… The Thames was the main sewer of vast London and … was charged with foul and most destructive gases… whilst coal gas was pouring its destructive powers both day and night.’
From Bond, Works of Art in the House of Lords, 1980 p. 34
The word Rotherhithe is all watery too. It may have stemmed from two Saxon words – redhra or rothra meaning mariner and hyth meaning haven. And looking, the A to Z reveals a patch of the water that rises in a steep arc, upon which are many named wharves, reminiscent of the important Docks area that I was soon to learn about from chats with engaging, friendly and most knowledgeable vicars.
And as Dickens recalls in Our Mutual Friend, the area embodies the great, exhilarating diversity found with people – he writes of Eugene Wrayburn finding humanity washed from higher ground and taken down by sewage. The imagery here is all body and water, body and filth and body and poverty. And then the critical disease of all, but so much for the poor – the cholera.
The Father of Holy Trinity, as he referred to himself opened the church for me. My timing was good enough. The football had just finished. He sat, leaning against a table while I looked.

 


And so to our artistic hero – Hans Feibusch, the principal reason for my visit to Rotherhithe and the most majestic mural I have yet seen by him. This mural was painted in 1960, and the artist had been in England for nearly 30 years, his talent recognised. He tells me that he knew parishioners who, having since died, said that the artist, whom they watched working on the mural, was a quiet, but affable man. How did he reconcile his Jewish faith with painting a monumental image of Christ at the Cross, but significantly here without the obvious additions of his mother Mary or John the Evangelist. With the confident painting he displays, there is no sense that this was an artist who doubted. Harkening back to the terracotta and ochres of the Italian Renaissance, his figures, despite being painted in light-touch colours have vim and vitality. And just behind the cross and close to the foreground, he paints a substantial view of Jerusalem imagined, I presume, in his own eyes. As seen before, the bodies and the gestures are graceful but theatrical, energetic, but also subdued, some surprising, some really muscular and masculine.

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Praying apostle

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Floating, figures, city scenes

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Crucifixion

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Robust angels

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floral detail

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View of Jerusalem

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Vigorous angels

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Coming out of tomb

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Dead/alive man

The Father told me:
1. Many of the parishioners of the church were dock-workers.
2. The church was originally Victorian and was built to house 1,500 people. The church was bombed in the Blitz (on 7 September, 1940) and was the first London church to be so. A map made in 1947 refers to the church by the word ruin. There is a photograph of the bombed out church with its 19th-century Gothic arch at the chancel end. The church is now a 1950s church and has that cool, modernist aesthetic that I am beginning to appreciate in post-war church architecture.
3. He shows me a tiny Crucifix, now in a glass case which was found in the ruins of the bombed out church. The object was saved by a parishioner. This must be work of art category, just for its historical resonance.

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Bombed out church and small crucifix

4. The church had a school right beside it. A building which is now the Church hall. He showed me a watercolour painted by an artist of people walking towards the church which also shows the school. There is a tall man in a tall black hat, who I thought could be the school teacher passing by talking to his pupils, or the vicar in his formal dress, talking to his congregants.
5. He told me how the church cherishes the Feibusch. Although there are some who detest it. Now it has weathered, it looks a little less modernist than it did. I also read that Feibush completed over 40 church murals. My journey with him is only just beginning.
6. I wonder why Mary is absent, even though this is part Crucifixion and part the Trinity. Or the Resurrection as the church notes tell me. Is nobody really sure? I note a man emerging from a cave, who the vicar refers to as a ‘dead person, coming alive.’ I assume therefore it could be Lazarus. And thus we see the bitter irony, as now Christ is dead on the cross, and not yet risen, but Lazarus is alive in a scene where normally we do not see him.
7. The vicinity of the church was a very poor area. Dead bodies were piled one on top of the other. Given the proximity of the graveyard to the water at the Thames, the bodies were a sort of filter for the water as it drained down and then moved back upwards. As this caused dreadful choleric outbreaks, the church had to close. In the graveyard he showed me the headstone of what must have been a pauper’s grave, as it was not made of stone, but of wood.

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Wooden headstone

 

This list illustrates just how much historical and artistic information one church can offer; but how, too, the vicars and clergy of the church are themselves instructive un-sung guides. And that was the case with the vicar at the next port of call.

I telephoned him prior to visiting the church he looks after – St. Mary the Virgin, a nearly sea-borne church, by the Thames bank at Rotherhithe, as I was intending to visit towards 6pm, the hour of his Evening Prayer. He offered to let me park in his car-park. I expressed gushing gratitude, to which his response was, ‘Well of course I am going to do this, I am a good Christian!’ I was amused, but also enchanted by his quip. And when I arrived at the doorway to what is now an elegant brick-faced 18th-century church, surrounded by effulgent greenery, I saw the tallest vicar I have ever seen. In his long, swishing black over-tunic, he was going about snuffing candles. He handed me the tallest church information leaflet giving service times that I have ever seen too. I have just measured its length and it comes to 45 cm. It is not really something to place comfortably into the pocket. The church was filled with that hard to describe late afternoon misty light, a bewitching time, that in-between the clear light of the high- sun afternoon and the descent towards the end of the day, when a church interior, can be magically filled with an extra light that altogether appears to have come from nowhere. It might be that the windows provide the changing light from the outside which is intensified in the darker space of the church.  Here the pooled light is caught into the evening quiet, in an interior, also stewing with the smell of incense. Here is a church with a vista there, a glittering structure there, a sight here and a gaze over there. An interior, as heir to how the church has always created and consumed and exuded a desire to please and pacify as well as ponder how best to reach back to Christianity, touching on our deepest needs to sense the tactile, light, colour, form and shape to try and make real the invisible. Christianity is about seeing and believing as well as about reading and persuading.

 


I see a memorial to one parishioner, who fell victim to the cholera. While we are now by the water, Rotherhithe was once an island, which means that if the tide was in, victims of the disease could be land-locked and so allowing for further contamination.

The tall vicar points out some paintings that are rather well copied by a female artist, whose name I wish I could remember, particularly as he asked me if I had ever heard of her.

 

He shows me something that I would not have noticed if he had not pointed it out. To the left are two chairs. They are somewhat diminished from what they once belonged to. This was a vessel that was diminished by its last mournful move up the Thames to stop at Rotherhithe on its final journey after the Battle of Trafalgar (1805). The event was marked in a painting that made Turner so famous – The Fighting Temeraire (1839). Picture

The timbers that made up the ship are now some of the timbers made into these two chairs for a Bishop – utilitarian objects, hardly visible in the dark chamber of the church. And in the painting, we see the beginnings of his indistinct, blurred, misty, formless style that was to make him the champion British Impressionist of the mid-19th century. He takes a historical subject for eulogy, but also for elegy and renders it into something that breaks the bounds of all history painting where form and line, volume and shape have absolute clarity, driven by a compulsion to record in what was thought to be the most accurate way possible. But for Turner, there was another way. And that was through indistinctness, through the power of setting a sun in a sky that has no definition. His desire was to create mood and for Turner, the image of the ship drifting silently and solemnly up the Thames was an opportunity to paint in the modernist, atmospheric aesthetic where a lack of form soon becomes a ‘form’ of subject matter. Imagine the broken ship, destined for the fiery pit, broken up into bits, some of which end up in a church so close to the river where its wet timbers had lashed the stormy sea and then scaled the lapping tide of the river, a far less dangerous journey than its earlier passage through battle and strife. And here that final passing takes place while the sun is setting, the mood is dipping, the day of glory is going down. The chair provides a meager  substitute here at Rotherhithe, but somehow my inadvertent arrival at the church at the end of day was fitting to be reminded of Turner’s sublime work. The vicar pointed things out and then, like the Temeraire, became invisible. I was left alone in the church, trying to imagine this as another church full of about 1,000 people at a service.
Then I looked above, an upturned look alike ship’s timbers aside the arabesque type angles and which complete the elaborate line of vision. We see here an excess of display in this church. It arouses our ability to look there, here and hither, our looking is stuck as if like a human giant in a honeyed bee-like web, our eyes rest so closely on the same thing that we fail to see anymore. The experience of looking is not always that easy.
A great swell of land at the bulging curve of the Thames divides the two churches I visit today. One is like a grandiose old dame of a ship that has moored permanently, while the other, a lovingly made rowing boat that has been turned out onto the river for a little gentle row at the moldering edge of a water channel that has seen and known so much.

Interlocking art

Church interior

A shy corner of a graveyard

 

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GORING BY SEA AND HANS FEIBUSCH

GORING BY SEA

 

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Who would have believed it? A little piece of Rome in Goring by Sea in Sussex? Here is a complete replica of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in a Catholic church near the A27 on the way to Chichester, where some of Hans Feibusch’s work is located in Chichester Cathedral. And to boot, more tourists and devout Catholics there than any church I have visited for a very long time. Enthusiastic tour guides and purveyors of decent Catholic goods in the shop, such as you would find in a liturgical shop in Florence or Perugia. The purpose of the visit was to see another Feibusch mural known as Christ in Majesty at the church of St. Mary’s, dated to 1954. A smaller scale, less ambitious project than those I have seen in south-east London. But a work of some considerable majesty nonetheless painted on the chancel arch and using his characteristically muted colours: soft summer earthen browns and clays, fresh grass green and flecks of pink or brown. While Feibusch’s colours may seem muted, while his figures are mute, there is something intense and physical about participating in his images. He paints angels, but they have the force and vigour of giants. He paints floating figures, but they have the power to move and move stones. Perhaps his art is that much more intense because he is not easily accessible in a museum where we are guided towards his art and his style and his period through helpfully worded captions and panels. And he is not a name popularly acclaimed or recognised. Names of artists go hand-in-hand with what is viewed nowadays. But no, we have to do all the work in experiencing Feibusch’s art. And is it also a case of periodisation and time lines that restrict our capabilities? After all, the man was painting in the 1950s and this is hardly a time that we associate with religious painting, let alone religious art in unknown churches. And in Goring by Sea of all places? But suspend belief, forget consternation, eschew laziness and if you single out a Feibusch figure, you could be in the wildly gesticulating visual culture of the Italian Baroque.


As for me, his appeal is the emotional intensity of his work, always with angels of the ethereal so concretely enriched against a usually pale background where something is made out of nothing.
The image cannot be out-done by the Sistine Chapel replica, but all the same the kind warden of the church where the Feibusch mural is told me about the Catholic church with the Sistine Chapel frescoes only two minutes away. The building shown belies what you will find inside (see slide right). You will not quite believe that this building contains a host of brilliant colour and image making.  Alongside the enthusiasm of guides and visitors, you will be able to mimic a visit to the Sistine Chapel, for free, and in a way that you can really see, even study the figures of Adam, Eve, God, David, Joshua, Noah.  Close as they are to us, they become real, rather than remote figures up above.  Near as they are to us, their stories become vivid, alive and down-to-earth, witnesses as they are in a small church on the coast in the south of England.


I have always struggled with the Sistine Chapel. I think this is partly owing to the fact that you cannot really see the images, positioned as they are so high up. But I have often wondered if they are over-rated and whether their fame is down to the knowledge that Michelangelo sacked all his assistants and worked, allegedly using the true fresco technique single-handled, in the most unwieldy and uncomfortable position on his back until the job was done. And is it a case of not admitting it that the chapel might even disappoint? Who wants to break such a spell after all? Who would dare debunk the allure of all well-known masterpieces like the Mona Lisa?  But if you brave the Vatican’s entry systems, you are led through corridors upon corridors, steps and steps, passages through passages, not knowing when the chapel will appear before you.  You have also parted with a lot of money to see one of the most famous works of art in the world.  But what will you really think when you get there and look up? Well, there are a lot of bodies and a lot of exaggerated bodily forms.  Like the sculptures on the pediment of the Parthenon, where the sculptors had to compensate for distant viewing by carving massive bulky knees, elongated bodies, wild, deep and trench-like drapery folds, Michelangelo fine brushed attenuation and muscle, anatomy and limb accents so as to capture the essence and character of what is going on, to be seen from afar.   Beyond that though, there is a lack of a background in many of them and how could the rather childish pose of God create Adam and Eve all dressed in pink?  And if you look at the sibyls and the ignudi and their almost grotesque forms, you know that for Michelangelo, compared to Leonardo, painting was a very inadequate medium.  And yet people go every year in their millions to see the Creation of the World and of man with a few OT stories mixed in for good measure. But what can they really see and what do they really think beyond the daily expressed hyperbole – amazing, wondrous, magnificent, outstanding, incredible etc etc.

However, here in Goring you really can see, you can really look at Michelangelo’s creation. His bodies are brought down, within our reach and all the more in scale for that.   Furthermore, you can spend hours without a goitre in the neck studying the replicas also painted by just one man, from about 1987.  His name was Gary Bevans, a man without any art training, but who had an indomitable spirit and determination to complete a job, not only that had to replicate or imitate, but with a smaller scale and size to work with. His venture began following a trip to the Sistine Chapel and he set to decorating his own parish church. But instead of this occupying him throughout the day, as with the indefatigable zest of stamina of Wainwright with his project to write about the walks in the Lake District, Gary worked on the ceiling after a working day for about five years.

So, in executing the images to re-create the Sistine Chapel ceiling, the artist had to think about how to make each figure fit in and still retain the complete overall sense of Michelangelo’s work. Indeed, he worked out a scale that is about 2/3rds of the original ceiling.

 

The Beasts of the East

The Beasts of the East were closed.

I had no camera on me, and so to visit churches for a blog that relies on the visual seemed pointless. But I had the sun with me and I had feet and I had a bag and the pocket mini A to Z. Finding myself on the same page I used to visit some east end churches before, I saw black ticks made against black crosses to denote visits that had happened. On this previous occasion, I had been traipsing eastwards aligned with, as I moved, the east end orientations that I was following on east end churches around Commercial Road and the East India Dock Road in E14. Now today, I was being guided by pp. 36-7 and then a part-repeat of pp. 34-6 as I effectively walked backwards. A few more churches to ‘black tick off’ before I could (in my ever intense OCD way) rip the pages out to throw away with the mission of church visited accomplished. So this time, out of joint, out of the east and this time heading west towards what was to become four locked, bolted and empty churches. Some of them had grand iron gates – with rusty padlocks, some had gates to a huge garden set before the church. So somehow the lack of a camera did not matter.. Instead, I looked at stone-work, light jumping around on brick-work and then the signs of life, of decoration, craftsmanship on the exterior, even a person.

I was in a sort of geographical no-man’s land, with watery fingers, tucked in around the curve of the River Thames straddled populous areas and where other sorts of nestling land and water collisions cradled themselves against post-industrial neglect – the Basin of Limehouse, the creeks of Bow, the wharves and buoys, docks and piers around the pit of the Thames, and near to where routes north and south, and west and east are fast and furious, and ugly and polluted. And here where once mills would have churned, and pushed and spewed out water when London was surging out the full vigorous force of the Industrial Revolution. And all of this was happening at a place by the main artery of water for London, which did not yet know major roads, ways and highways. And the roads barely bearing up, with the weight of car and coach and all throbbing, wretched, announcing their existence alongside them with badly conceived social housing both high and low, the odd Victorian, but now utterly neglected municipal building, such as a public baths, one-stop shops, ‘Bible and Book’ churches, Baptist chapels and information centres and the procession of cars bringing in pollution and fumes and smog as they speed up, slow down, pouring forth angst, energy, music beats and heart-beat. And then we view the ‘church’ beasts from the east standing there, so sullen in their steadfast majesty that they seemed fittingly uninhabited and silent today.

Maybe when the churches were built, the architects were thinking of the water that lay so close, where the slightest tilt of stone could slip down to surf and stew in the water-pit of a London that then had no Thames barrier. And so through these gates I peered. Through these gates I peered to gaze at a building that had the stately, but unguarded poise of a castle, which could monitor those in and those out.

And these beasts of the east clinging on in the outermost regions of the City’s shores stand high and mighty, bulky, dominant, shapely and statuesque. All around them on the watery ways, the boats chug, while the cars groan. The river curves accordingly and willingly while north are areas of congestion still digesting their post-war creation and grim development as part of the east end’s housing growth in the areas of Poplar, Tower Hamlets, Stepney.
The first two beasts (All Saints, Poplar and St. Anne’s Limehouse) are built in an exaggeratedly large and imposing classical style, complete with columns topped by ionic capitals, bulbous semi-domes sitting within blind arches and portals, apsidal porches and ends, topped up apertures and rising structures and steeples cutting the eye with their corners, projections, turns and smooth faces. Catch the gentle glinting spring light on the buildings and you might believe you are gazing at ivory. The bulk of them though is such that ivory would be far too costly, as would have been marble. Though they stand, as if slowly passing ships on slowly moving water where the windows look like portholes. They looked like church containers, but sadly today containing nothing. Or what is contained is kept hidden. These are ferociously bold, audacious classical designs, but the stone and the buildings stand forlorn beside the troubled waters and roads of an area of the city that is dropping its way and weight down to the river and the road tunnels and highways, and near to where the DLR, on its narrow track-way has trains on it, that look ready to tumble; mapped onto an area that became a necessary outer fringe for London’s expansion. All Saints was built in 1821-3 in order to give the newly forming Poplar parish a place to worship. St. Anne was built even earlier in 1712-24, when the stones invaded the green of lush fields. The first vicar had been the rector of St. Dunstan (see below). It is the design of Hawksmoor and in the shape of a Greek cross.

I also tried to visit a large Catholic church called St. Mary and St. Joseph, which was also resolutely closed. A statue of the Virgin Mary standing safe within a wide porch is also gated. How endlessly useful and fascinating is Google Maps, for on my return, while checking the churches I had visited against their layout with streets – I found this http://www.cdcgvietnamlondon.org/ and wondered if it had been open.

By contrast, I then visited a church I knew years ago. I wanted to see how I remembered it. This is the church of St. Dunstan and all Saints in Stepney. On the way, I walked past a small patch of ‘fenced’ grass, with some very ancient graves and grave-stones dotted around. I read that this had originally been a burial ground for the Puritans in an area where from the 17th century many dissenting religions practised.

St. Dunstan’s looks like a Kentish flint Gothic church. It is situated in a church-yard that once was country, where apple and cherry and pear trees may have flourished. And by contrast to the previous churches, it still has the genteel feel of a parish country church. And yet, the mood of the church is heavy, bearing the weight of its very ancient past with boulders of stone, rather than graceful curls, loops, and flourishes made to conceal the stone, which is what you find in classical architecture. This is the style of no messing with me, fundamental, we are what we seem sort of architecture. The rest is done inside. As for hope of an opening, the notice board gave me hope, even though the door was also firmly closed. It said that on Saturdays the church was open from 10-4pm. But it was nearly 1 pm, and I was still surrounded by silence, except for the odd bird-song. This was the fourth and final church of the day to be closed.

Four churches wielding a mysterious strength, none of which were exerting a state of preparedness for four weddings; but which were not precarious enough to set sail in the filters of my eye amidst the wateriness of east London, now, nourished by the April light. These are massive stone stages upon which a play could be cast, but I am the only ready actor. And even no vicars at the door to direct, a visible church office, or even the guffaws of birds and screeches of a bat in the belfry. Virtual tourism is one thing, but do open your doors and let visual tourism in – even if we all bring our cameras. For these are four churches that demonstrate the extraordinary diversity and vitality of church building in just one small area of London. They are the stone valets of God refusing entry while the would be visitor waits. Silence was soon replaced with human sound. As I walked out of the tube nearest my home, a bellow of a sound cracked the air. God and a Christ who loved me was being spoken about through a microphone, by a man standing half in the road, and who, once I had got to the bus stop started to sing.

Crystal Palace, the church of St. Constantine and St. Helen (and I guess, of the 19th century) ______________________________________________

 

 

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An arrangement of exacting colours and clouds in non-exacting gatherings. Panels and boards depicting religious bodies, angels and holy ones on columns, cupboards, walls and any other surface designed to draw and still the eye. All a haphazard assembly, with no obvious hierarchy in how the images are placed. The effect is rather like a junk shop that displays china and glass on tables, and pictures on surfaces higher up where they can be attached to another support or structure, or where they can lean against a surface whether a table, a chair, a wall, or even a chair. Here, it is not clarity of organisation in display that matters, but the overall effect of conveying the authority of Christianity for all to see.
If only you knew it was there…
A little bit of eastern Orthodoxy on yet another cold day in London during yet another winter where I have lost about four gloves, leaving me the four from the other half of the pair.

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A church interior full of smoothly painted surfaces, dazzling colours, reflected light, grainy marble and porphyry. I am in a Greek Orthodox Church on one side of an unobtrusive street, not endowed with a capacious and majestic driveway or precincts to announce its splendour. Indeed, it is not best positioned to announce its arrival, located as it is on a narrow street, riddled with traffic, close to a petrol station and a small block of flats over the road. In fact, it must be so easy to pass by without knowing it is there. The location is not down-town Athens. I am in the heart of Crystal Palace suburban clamour in south-east London. I had not chosen to visit a church today. I had chosen Crystal Palace as I had heard that the town centre had vintage and junk shops and I was looking for an armchair for about £10.00, or pushing it, £20.00. I found quite the opposite: artful vintage shops selling this and that from the 1950s mixed with the ultra- modern and a coffee shop briskly serving easy eggs and mugs of coffee at every turn, corner, angle and face. Crystal Palace is fast becoming like many trendy areas in London: a place to be seen with a laptop in a café, wearing yoga clothes and beards to keep out the brazen elements. And so to step into the world of Greek Orthodoxy was not what I was expecting. Today. Or even any day as I go about my irregular itinerant ways.
I am a little nervous to write about this church, or include the pictures, as a kind, but firm custodian, who was preparing for a wedding, asked me not to take photos of the icons. So those you shall not really see.
And so here I gather by a roughly- hewn, clumpy stone exterior on a cold, whistling, wind-raging day, masking another world, that is hidden within: warmly-glowing, translucent, resplendent, honey wax candle-filled and icon rich. The exterior looks like a high Victorian Gothic model and familiarly recognisable: a tall tower replete with tracery and mouldings, a pointed arch framing the doorway, surmounted by a pointed gable broken up with a gentler pointed tracery filled window. There is though no stained glass. The colour slowly awakens and then dazzles as you go inside.
And where Greek is spoken. Greek is heard. The movements of people inside are slow, serene, and monumental. Black coats are worn. An old man is selling the thinnest candles I have ever seen. The church feels reverential, hushed, and meditative, despite the over-filled colour palette, but the mood is sombre and simple and yet all so out of place in Crystal palace, heaving in traffic with its precarious one way system. But this is just what I love about London. You just never know what is there. Be brave and enter. Churches are so much more than what they used to represent.
And the panels and the boards that I describe are icons. Rather than one large image at the high altar and perhaps a few other altarpieces dotted around the church, either in small chapels or arranged in progression on the aisle walls, the icons are everywhere. Up and down, here and there, on strips of wall, on parts of wall, tucked into corners, by the back entrance, the vestry, the cleaning cupboard, jutting into richly carved corbels, hanging down too into the painted space of an icon, by door frames, decorated windows, by lights, some near the roof, the sky, and the street. There are even mini icons on window ledges and on shelves. Icons lead the way for the viewer; icons are like the ways to the cross. In other words, the whole church weighs with the image of the sacred. The aisle is not just a thoroughfare to move towards the altar. Everywhere you look is iconic, icon splendour, where the eyes of the camera need to hesitate. I took a few photos from far away. And that is why some of the shots seem a little obscure. There are exceptions – for example the place to light the candles, lodged into pools of sand and framed by two windows chequered and lozenge like by small glass panels. And then a close up shot of a rich repertory of marble in the form of a column, with a base, rounded smooth and polished by the sheer versatility of the marble’s flexibility.

 

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And behind you see the light of the chandelier, bathing the church in light that throws specks of dust around like star dust. The pews wait patiently, for I am told a funeral is about to start. At the place where the altar is tucked away, a mandorla shape containing a Christ triumphant, arms raised to the painted Heavenly blue above, while angels, picking their way through balls of cloud stand to protect him beside.

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The screen, rather like a rood screen painted with images of the medieval saints – here is a wonderful medieval example at the church of St. Helen, Ranworth, Norfolk – http://www.norfolkchurches.co.uk/ranworth/images/Dscf4405.jpg is a showcase of other saints, such as St. Michael, protecting and screening the altar area behind. Gold backgrounds regally reign here, the figures stationary, firm, steadfastly strong.
The church is dedicated to St. Constantine and St. Helen, a son and his mother. As far as I know, these are not common dedicatees for English parish churches. Let me start with the mother first. Helen (or Helena, c. 255-330) is a pillar of female courage and bravery, but not from the perspective of modern day feminism. She was a guiding leader, not requiring a category and when there was no need for a way in which to describe here. She mothered the boy to be Emperor, she spoke for Christianity in the Holy Land, she founded churches and she found the true cross – which is radiantly commemorated in a painting, as part of a cycle of frescoes at the church of St. Francis, in Arezzo by the Renaissance artist – Piero della Francesca – https://www.wga.hu/html_m/p/piero/2/7/7find01.html – you will see Helen on the left, slightly bent, wearing a black cape, a white headdress and a cream conical hat as she stands beside the cross she has just discovered and then on the right – kneeling in veneration of the true and only true find. This took place just outside Jerusalem and there it is prominently dispayed as if a Tuscan hill town to the left. One of my favourite figures in this image is of the man looking back towards Helen– and mirroring her in his choice of dress: a white tunic and a sharply tailored black coat with buttons, with bare legs. Except that he is wearing ‘short’ while she is bedecked in ‘long’. And his lesser status signalled by a cloth, and softly moulded cap, instead of an angular crown like hat. Helena in her solemn, silent, elegant pose seems to capture the tentative, even dangerous early stirrings of Christianity. And meanwhile her son’s turning to that is reflected in this early morning, night-dreamy state of the vision – https://www.wga.hu/html_m/p/piero/2/4/4vision1.html – where he is offered the way as he sleeps. In power from 312, Christianity was finally and formally established under his watch. But is he really sleeping? Yet, is he dreaming? For he gazes out sleepily at us, to say look, look at this, behold what is happening to me, and it shall happen to you. Light or dark, sunrise, or sunset, the light is radiant, ethereal, for something has happened. Or has it? Is this anything to do with the change to Christianity, for the sleepy dream represents the soon to be victory seized from another – as he waited for the day to fight the Emperor Maxentius at a battle by the Tiber. And while he sleeps or dreams, he is given the message ‘By this sign shalt thou conquer’.
I could not really linger. I was poised, on toes, twitchy, nervous, in case the eye found me out. I was taking pictures; I was casting a modern glow on that of the mysterious, but bold Greek icon. The sensation was one of watchfulness – both by the eyes in the icons, large, all-seeing, all-knowing and then mine – checking on my custodian, checking all around for the next image of beauty I wanted to capture. I was frozen, held captive by my delight and my nerves.
There were too many distractions, too many chambers to root in, too many gaps for my curiosity to be piqued.

 

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And with just a brief conversation, how I learnt. There is no obvious high altar. I had asked where it was. That is concealed by some wooden gates, which lead into a small vestibule which is the altar area. And in that area I just about glimpsed some more icons. And there is no obvious altar table given a permanent place before the altar. It is merely a table wheeled out upon which the Eucharist items are laid out, when the gates are opened for the ritual during service times. Compared to the Latin Catholic church, the high altar is preserved, hidden and concealed from roving nosy eyes like mine. I was also shown the relics (although I could not tell which bodily bits exactly), of a bishop that had attended the Council of Nicaea, now Turkey in AD325. This was an important mission, on a global, truly international scale convened by Constantine in a religious and civic role. It was a massive gathering of bishops and priests, deacons and acolytes, all travel expenses paid. A great assembly for and to represent Christendom in which matters such as the date of Easter (still a movable feast), and the establishment of the Nicene Creed, still said today etc were discussed.
And so, here in a church in south-east London on a windy mad-March day comes a worldwide, all embracing gathering of visual and historical unity – to celebrate the easterly forms, patterns, ways and visions of Christianity, an understanding of some of its eastern history and a coming into glorious technicolour from a dreary, drab London street.
Sometimes churches give so little away to us outside. But maybe that is how it should be. Otherwise, what else, apart from driving rain might encourage us to step inside?

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FEIBUSCH TWO

FEIBUSCH MURAL– ALL SAINTS, HERBERT ROAD, SE18
Being, Body, Truth, Essence, distilled by Feibusch in one large church mural.


The exterior of All Saints is no preparation for what is there inside at the high altar.
It is Friday morning. In the Christian way, it is the day to eat fish. The red-bricked church of All Saints in Herbert Road, SE18 is open. The vicar Herbert (and yes, he is of the same name as the road) had invited me to see the mural. I am told the church used to be in another location along the road. See the proof in the the memorial stone outside which commemorates the re-dedication of the church by the Bishop of Woolwich on 18 February, 1956. Ladies in the church this Friday morning were busy: sweeping, cleaning, re-arranging, preparing chairs with service sheets. A Friday service was about to take place and would I like to join them?

I demurred.  I could, I thought, but I was here to see the mural.  And only the mural.It is large and overwhelmingly impressive in another 1950s church that is light-filled, airy, spacious, if a little stark. This is a mural of large-scale proportions and drama: the bodies all flesh, all gestures, all arms and emotion. How does an artist create spectacular vision with watery, limpid colours, as if they have been mixed with rain-water freshly mixed with a puddle as a palette? This is the power of Feibusch – look close and you wonder how with seemingly so few brush-strokes he creates awe and wonder. Sparing with paint and form, he creates atmosphere and intensity. So here was Feibusch working hard mixing paints, standing on scaffolding, using large paint brushes  and watery colours to cover large surfaces in the lean post-war years in south-east London. I wonder how many knew what he was painting, where or when or how.

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The subject is the Ascension of Christ. At the centre is Christ with angels below him – both figure and figures are in pink/ochre, redolent of Sienese Renaissance art, like their terracotta pink towers and turrets. Except this is Woolwich on a dreary day in February, not a heat-filled land blessed with vines and grapes, olives and oil. What was Feibusch imagining as he painted in pink? Radiating outwards both left and right the colours become stronger and sharper. Instead of focussing our eye on the centre with the strongest colours, Feibusch does the opposite. Just like a modernist painter, he inverts all pictorial traditions.
The strong force of the Ascension precludes the angels beside Christ looking. Instead they look the other way. They should be supporting Christ, even with just a look.  But somehow they cannot.
And the angels are not the graceful, air-borne, dreamy feminine angels we might be used to. These, like the apostles that surround are fleshy, muscly, tall, facing towards us. One has his hand stretching out, the other back towards Christ, as if to push away. The other, also with his back to Christ has one bent leg revealing thigh, a raised right hand – pointing to the action, slightly lowering the head. While Christ too, is like the angels – graceful, balletic in flight with both hands gesturing down and excitable drapery. There is no radiant sunlight – but one figure looks as though he is covering his head to protect from something strong, something strange and furious. Even something angry. All is inversion with Feibush – the colours are arranged in unexpected ways, while body positions and gestures are the wrong way round. He cannot contain the energy of his figures.
I wonder if he was a mystic at heart – I wonder if he was ever drawn to the eastern religions.
He gives us body and bodily weight and substance, but his figures are also ethereal, lofty and spiritual. The light colours, an audacious way to depict an Ascension contrasting with the glistening heavy oils of an earlier Master – see Titian’s Assumption of the Virginhere in the Frari in Venice for example.
Feibusch is incapable of being doctrinal, dogmatic or dour. He is the Modernist painter of sublime religious art and form and I liken him to Stanley Spencer.
All is unity between the space, the rising Christ, the apostles and the angels. This artist defies hierarchy. The figures are all really in the space together. Christ, the angels, they are with the apostles. And the apostles are with them. Feibush plays with our perception of earth and the far distance of heaven. As this is the quintessence of equality – Heaven is just an extension of earth.
The trees are quivering and agile, framing a thick clump of green behind, as well as the apostles.The figures curve round the trees. The trees act like an arc round the figures. Nature and people inhabit the same space, remote together among the trees. Apostles’ faces are like ancient rock formations, creased or lined, jutting jaws, and high foreheads, seared and skeletal torsos. Their hands, – smooth, but pushing upwards, added to which are straining, arms and elbows tense and taut. A multitude of responses with limb, muscle, sinew and form to their Master up above.

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In the crook of a tree crouches one apostle with a flock of red hair, hands as if about to pray, head bent, in a manner of disbelief or despair, it is hard to know. Feibusch gives us few clues – the apostles seem bewildered, but seem to resist at the same time. And then there is one figure sheltered by a green and yellow overhang, who also expresses dismay. But he does not shelter his skin. Standing apart, he wears merely a pair of white shorts, his flesh taut, strong, smooth, while looking up as if to ask the question.  20180202_105038

To the left, a figure, who is maybe not an Apostle, but a bystander. Holding a staff in his right arm, by contrast his left arm is placed parallel to his torso. Look closely and a slightly open mouth suggests he might be gritting his teeth.

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And in a detail, you can see the marks of bold, flat, forms conjuring up elements from a Biblical garden. Apart from the ochre, earthy colours of the central scene of the Ascension, vivid greens make up a sort of Elysian wood: vibrant, green brushes making rushes against pink earth, pink, peach blossoms and ivy growing up a tree.

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We are deep in a sort of folk-lore laid bare forest, redolent perhaps of the German woods of ancient myth and lore that Feibusch left behind. And gloom is not so far away. The pink he seems to love has shadows cloaking it – around the bottom of the trees and then below the apostles’ feet. Bodies react with feet as well as hands. The flesh feels ancient too. He shows us the crumpled skin of the soles of feet from one who is kneeling – just how the skin looks when it comes out of a long, hot bath.

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This must be a majestic mural  to cherish and yet, as as far as I can tell so little seen.
Feibusch embodies our love of beauty in religious art without us having to be at all religious.