The Cathedral Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Lincoln (or, to most, simply Lincoln Cathedral), with its once-towering Gothic spires and pale stone, will soon have a new Marian chapel with a sculpture of Our Lady as its centerpiece. This is in line with initiatives at the church to emphasize the importance of the idea of pilgrimage.
Protestants in Britain have historically had an uneasy relationship with the ideas of devotional imagery and religious pilgrimage, which had formed two related Reformation targets. These often became centre-pieces for discussion in the public debate on the Catholic right to worship, falling usually under the rubric of ‘idolatry’. However, attitudes towards religious imagery began to shift, coinciding with a move in some quarters to reinstate theological and liturgical traditions. By the time the revival of the art and culture of the Middle Ages came into vogue in the early-nineteenth century, antiquarians and artists had to reconcile the fact that their newly-embraced medieval Britain was, in fact, also a Catholic Britain – and that meant a time when images were not only decorative or didactic but held a privileged position as an integral adjunct to worship.
Today, Britain has seen a significant increase in revived pilgrimages and related liturgical art commissions. Our Lady of Walsingham in Norfolk, Glastonbury in Somerset, and Winefride’s Well in Wales (to name just a few sites) all now have ‘official’ annual Anglican, Catholic, and Orthodox pilgrimages. In spite of occasional counter-protests against what is still seen as ‘idolatry’ and ‘Mariolatry’, pilgrim traffic is booming.
In addition to the cults of relics that drew devotees since the Middle Ages, the architectural structure of the cathedral itself has been referred to as ‘a pilgrimage in stone.’ The temporal past and future promise of the Heavenly city are manifested in the spatial, symbolic of the promise of the world to come. Despite the dedication of the cathedral, it has not historically been the site of Marian devotions. It has been agreed that an ecumenical chapel dedicated to the Virgin will be installed in the far south-east end of the church which, it is hoped, will again draw pilgrims.
The artist Aidan Hart, an ordained reader in the Orthodox Church, has been commissioned to sculpt the Chapel’s central figure. Hart, as a painter of religious icons, understands the role of sacred art as mediator between this earthly world of forms and the realm of the divine. According to architectural historian and Lincoln committee member Anne Riches, Hart was selected ‘because of his sincere commitment to the commission, his imagination, and above all, his deep spirituality which imbued all his explanations.’
The design of the sculpture was inspired by the Romanesque carvings of the Cathedral and intended to harmonize with its surroundings. The function is intended to be akin to that of an icon, where (as John of Damascus tells us in On the Holy Icons), God and the saints take up their abode. The goal of the icon is to lead the viewer through itself to its heavenly prototype. To this end, Hart describes the work as, ‘embod[ying] the words “God is with Us”’:
On the one hand, the sculpture affirms Christ’s divinity. He is shown surrounded by the vesica, which symbolizes heaven…on the other hand, the sculpture also affirms that this same God has become human, has become like us. The heavenly vesica is also the Virgin’s womb.
In an interview with the author this past June, Hart discussed the preparation of the pilgrim journeying down the south side of the Cathedral before entering the space of Mary and, therefore, presence of God. Hart writes about the sculpture:
The rhythmic curves show that God’s incarnation in the flesh also transfigures the whole material world, restores it to harmony, fills it with His glory.
Therefore, the goal of the pilgrimage is actually a new spiritual journey in itself, where the logos is made visible and a liminal point of contact is achieved between the earthly, visible world of forms and that of the unseen. This inner essence of things can be perceived with an open mind and open heart.
The commission, then, will be truly ecumenical in its projected ability to appeal to those desiring to light a votive candle for the Virgin as well as those seeking a meditative reminder of pilgrimage as a metaphor for Christian life as reflected in the sacred structures of Lincoln Cathedral.
Kathryn R. Barush is a postdoctoral research associate at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Her doctoral thesis (University of Oxford, 2012), which she is now preparing for publication, examines the intersections of the concept of pilgrimage and the visual imagination in Britain from the years 1790 to 1850. This essay seeks to briefly introduce some of the issues that will be addressed in a longer piece on revived pilgrimages and liturgical art commissions in the U.K.
1. Medieval pilgrims once flocked to the Lincoln shrine containing the relics of the Carthusian monk Saint Hugh (Bishop Hugh of Avalon, c. 1140-1200), who was known for his charitable acts, ecumenism, and personal piety. Lincoln remained the wealthiest pilgrimage site in north-central England until the relics were disseminated under the rule of Henry VIII. See Davidson, L.K., Pilgrimage from the Ganges to Graceland, (2 vols., Santa Barbara, Calif., 2002), p. 345.
3. W. Pullan, ‘Intermingled Until the End of Time: Ambiguity as a Central Condition of Early Christian Pilgrimages’ in J. Elsner and I. Rutherford (eds.), Pilgrimage in Graeco-Roman & Early Christian Antiquity: Seeing the Gods (Oxford, 2005), pp. 408-9.
5. See, for example, Aidan Hart, ‘The Sacred in Art and Architecture: Timeless Principles and Contemporary Challenges’, a talk given at the conference ‘Beauty will Save the World: Art, Music, and Athonite Monasticism’, held at Madingley Hall, Cambridge, 4-6 March 2005, organized by the Friends of Mount Athos.