The hangings around the Ambo in the Cathedral Church of St Mary and St Boniface in Plymouth were commissioned to mark the turning of the new millennium, by presenting images of the four Evangelists as Angels in a traditional style yet a contemporary manner.
The origin of the symbolism lies in the book of Revelations and the prophecies of Ezekiel, where they are describe as winged figures with the appearance of a Man, a Lion, a Calf and an Eagle. These became identified with the Evangelists, and also the four stages of Christ's life: Incarnation, Death, Resurrection and Ascension.
In keeping with the balance of the four Evangelists this booklet is similarly in four sections, describing the stages of the hangings production, their meaning, and purpose. The first stage of Christ's life was his incarnation and presence on earth. The symbol of a Man represents this earthly life, and attributed to Matthew, the earthly scholar and writer of the first gospel.
The first stage of this project commenced with the inspiration within the Cathedral Church to commission four hangings to mark the new Millennium. The notes that follow in this section describe the inspiration behind the design and purpose of the hangings that now hang on the columns around the Ambo.
The Book of Kells
The initial, and most significant, influence on the art and design of these hangings has been the Book of Kells, the lavishly decorated Gospel manuscript produced in the eighth century and still surviving today securely in Trinity College Dublin. Like many pieces of Christian art the Book of Kells represent the four Evangelists by symbols - the Man, Lion, Calf and Eagle - but extend the imagery with wings, like Angels, framed in panels around a cross, and embellished with all manner of Celtic Knotwork and curious creatures. In the same way that much of our life today is enhanced by the rich Christian tradition, this illuminated manuscript still offers inspiration for modern works of art, drawing on the dedication and craftsmanship of those early Christians, and their style, simplicity and symbolism.
Preaching the word of God - whether it be verbal and visual, via parables or stained glass, to teach or to remind - the use of pictures and images to tell a story is also part of the Christian tradition. Pope Gregory the Great once explained that images provide 'A living reading of the Lord's story for those who cannot read'. We may today be better off in that most of us can now read, but it is still often the impact of a picture, image or illustration that has the greatest impact and leaves the lasting impression. The second stage of Christ's life was his death on earth. The symbol of a Calf represents that sacrifice, and attributed to Luke the scribe and doctor who offered healing. The second stage of this project involved the study of the subject, the collation of ideas and preparation of samples. This section also describes the history, traditions and theology behind the art, styles and symbols.
As already mentioned the most significant influence on the style of the hangings is the art work in the Book of Kells, which itself was based on the predominant style at the time. This Celtic art that preceded the Christian era was constrained by taboos that barred images of God, so was dominated by geometric patterns and later all manner of curious animal shapes. This Celtic Knotwork and zoomorphic imagery was therefore the style of the period on which the Book of Kells was based, but then embellished with the Christian symbols and luscious illumination we see today. The use of Celtic Knotwork not only creates the shape of the cross itself but is then both the support for the Evangelist figures and the means to intertwine the Evangelists with the cross - intertwining their lives with the meaning of the cross. On each hanging the Evangelist has below him images of the three other Evangelists. Here again this demonstrates the support each gospel writer offers to the others.
The predominant images are those of the Evangelists. The Old Testament book of Ezekiel names four beasts around God's throne as like a Lion, a Calf, a Man and an Eagle, these images - known as the Tetramorph - are the four symbols for the Evangelists. The third stage of Christ's life was his resurrection. The symbol of a Lion, the king of the beasts, heralds the coming of the Kingdom. It is attributed to Mark who made this the theme of his gospel. The third stage in the development was the application of the ideas to fabric and the actual making of the hangings. This section describes the materials used and the techniques applied in their construction.
The fabric and materials used are as far as possible all natural fibres, Shot Silk for its light reflective characteristics, and Cotton for it's stability and consistent texture. The colours are muted yet bold, the background silk a neutral base, and the images built with a range of rich colours.
A variety of threads have been used that are appropriate to the fabric being sewn or the decorative effect required. Silk for its sheen and strength, Cotton for it's density, and Metallic for its lustre. Gold thread is also used to add highlight and prominence to some features.
As each image is drawn it is formed by various shapes and sections knowing that each part will eventually become a separate piece of fabric. The appropriate fabric is then chosen and cut to the outline of each of those pieces and laid on a design board. The main images are then worked onto a foundation starting from what would be the distance in a three dimensional model and working forwards to the near ground. Each piece is overlaid or butted as needed and hand stitched in place. Where required to add texture and decoration pieces are overstitched by hand or machine. This technique of appliqué is continued with each piece in the pattern making up ever larger sections - as can be seen in the segmented image of Mark the Lion on the layout board on the right. The fourth stage of Christ's life was his ascension to heaven. The symbol of an Eagle represents that ability to rise, and fly, and spread the word of God. It is attributed to John the preacher and author of the fourth gospel. The final stage of the project was the installation of the hangings into the Cathedral Church and then to continue the commission to spread the word of God. These notes describe how these modern hangings fit with 2000 years of Christian tradition and hopefully benefit the future.
What is their purpose? Certainly they are decoration, but they are much more. Their placement inside the main entrance to the Church and around the Ambo - a point of focus during worship - means they are readily visible and a ready reminder of the Gospels. They are a visual aid, and an aide memoir - that is they can promote or inspire thoughts and ideas when seen for the first time, and they can remind us of meaning or interpretation when we return and look again. As for what they show, explain, illustrate or teach, that is up to others - and the observer. For just as there is uncertainty about the meaning of symbols in the book of Kells, then one should not attempt to explain every aspect of these hangings - it is left to the observer that they should be wondered at, rather than understood.
These hangings have been designed and made by Nina Humphreys who lives in Cornwall and teaches Design and Embroidery. Nina has also worked with the children in The Cathedral School of St Mary's on a number of textile projects, including the most recent, a millennium project entitled 'Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever'. Its purpose? Not just to teach art and textiles, but to leave a visual image of the parables in the Gospel.