A sacred artist whose work graces churches and homes throughout his native England, Nicholas Mynheer (pronounced MY-neer) works in paint, glass, and stone. He was born in 1958 in Horton-cum-Studley, a country village in the wetland region of Otmoor, Oxfordshire; he loves the locale so much that he decided to start his own family and establish his studio practice there.
Mynheer’s style is very distinctive, evoking a blend of primitivism, expressionism, and medieval art. His figures are non-naturalistic and generalized, with long faces and stiff, wavy hair, while their environment often warps around them, creating a sense of dynamism.
‘The style in which I work is one of simplification and stylization,’ he writes. ‘Anything that I feel is not essential is omitted and anything deemed important emphasised.’
I met Mynheer in 2013. Some words to describe him are warm, humble, hospitable, folksy, spiritual, wonder-filled. His love of God animates his way of being in the world, as does his love of place—the geography, seasons, history, and culture of Oxfordshire, and more broadly, England.
He is enchanted by things like checkered farmland (the inspiration, he says, behind the chess game in longtime Oxford resident Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass) and an old chair that King Charles I dined on when he visited Studley Priory during the English Civil War (now in the Church of St. Barnabas in Horton-cum-Studley).
Mynheer is also fond of poetry, quoting often from Traherne, Blake, Christina Rossetti, Hardy, and the like. His paintings Harvest (an agricultural scene doubling as a Deposition) and The Stillness (the dead Christ in the earth) were inspired by lines from G. B. H. Wightman’s “English Seasons”:
Praise the autumn when the land
Bears the fruit of love
Praise the winter when the land
Sleeps in love that lives forever.
God-in-nature is a concept that resonates strongly with Mynheer. He introduced me to the Green Man, or foliate head, a pre-Christian icon of fertility and rebirth that shows a face made of or spewing out vegetation. Medieval churches adopted this image as a symbol of flourishing life in Christ, and Mynheer follows suit.
The natural world also appears in various other ways in Mynheer’s body of work. His 2010 Corpus of Christ, carved for a Lenten music and art event at Queen’s College, Oxford, bears a garland of brambles that he cut from his garden. He notes that as he was mounting it outside to photograph, a cloud of gnats swarmed directly over Christ’s head in a perfect circle, forming a halo.
‘I don’t illustrate the Bible,’ Mynheer told me. ‘I respond to it.’ In other words, he is interested not in creating literal, historically true representations of biblical stories but in connecting those stories to one another and to the life of the community that has commissioned the piece.
An example of this fusion are the three fused-glass Term windows in the chapel of Abingdon School for boys, which integrate scenes from the everyday life of the students with biblical tableaux. Named after the three academic terms—Michaelmas (Fall), Lent (Spring), and Summer—they feature rugby players, a choir, John the Baptist, the Virgin Mary presenting a lamb to St. Edmund of Abingdon, and the Nativity; students in the library and running track, the Three Kings following the Star across a chessboard, St. Anne teaching the young Virgin Mary to read, and Jesus as the Tree of Life; and cricketers, campers, rowers, a Good Samaritan, and the Last Supper, with two uniformed students holding a plate out invitingly to the viewer.Mynheer also designs sandblasted glass, such as the Islip Screen in Oxfordshire, which shows scenes from the life of St. Nicholas, the church’s namesake (and the artist’s!), and St. Edward the Confessor, a native of Islip, in parallel. The central group alludes to one of Saint Nick’s miracle stories but can also be read as Christ blessing the children. (During the Sunday service, children are dismissed through the double doors to their upstairs classroom.)
The Abingdon School windows and the Islip Screen were fabricated by D. Walmsley.
More recently, Mynheer was commissioned by Southwell Minster, the cathedral of Nottinghamshire, to design a Great War Memorial Window. ‘It was extremely difficult to try to come up with a design that acknowledged the sheer horror and waste of the Great War but found in it some sort of redeeming hope, some good, and could point to God,’ he said in a lecture, “Glimpses of the Divine.” He decided to adopt iconography associated with Christ’s descent from the cross to honor the acts of love carried out on both the battlefront and the home front. The window was fabricated by S. & D. Cowan and installed in 2016.
When I was in Oxford, Mynheer’s Sarum cycle was being exhibited in Christ Church Cathedral. Comprising thirteen paintings on the Passion of Christ, the cycle is named after Salisbury (“Sarum” is the Roman name for the city), where it was originally exhibited in 2007; it has since been rotating throughout the country. If viewed out of context, the final painting, Jesus Appears on the Shore: The Calling, could easily be read as Jesus’s calling Peter and Andrew at the beginning of his ministry. But as a conclusion to the Passion cycle, it shows his resurrection appearance to the two—and their redemption. Here they are, being called back to the one they abandoned, to receive not rebuke but embrace.
Windows and paintings are not the only church commissions Mynheer has done. He has also carved figurative sculptures (both freestanding and wall-mounted), altars, aumbries, and lecterns. He is even trying his hand at mosaic, currently working on a large reredos based on the life of the Anglo-Saxon saint Kenelm.
Mynheer is friends with fellow British artists Thomas Denny, Roger Wagner, Mark Cazalet, and Richard Kenton Webb—the five of them periodically get together for lunch. He says they often “compete” with one another for commissions—cordially, of course; they also support one another in their vocations. Sometimes they exchange their works to build up their collections, and occasionally they are given the opportunity to collaborate, as with the font cover at St. Mary’s Iffley in Oxford, which Mynheer and Wagner designed and produced together.
Being in the company of Nicholas Mynheer, it is impossible not to catch his infectious enthusiasm for this whole wide, holy world God made, and all the creative potential it holds. Freshly plowed furrows, the smooth curve of a stone, a nursing lamb, a child’s gesture, a musical chord—in his sacramental worldview, all of these bespeak divine glory and grace and inspire his work as an artist as much as his Anglican heritage. In his work, traditional religious themes find vital expression, which explores the joy and sorrow, death and life, that are part of both God’s story and our own.
To view more of Mynheer’s art and to follow his blog, visit www.mynheer-art.co.uk.