Reflections on Art at Chichester Cathedral: Two takes on the Baptism of Christ

Chichester Cathedral houses two 20th paintings of the Baptism of Christ[1]: one by Hans Feibusch (1951/77) in the Baptistery, the other by Patrick Procktor (1984) in the chapel of John the Baptist.

Hans Feibusch (1898-1998) was a German Jewish artist who fled to Britain in the 1930s, and painted numerous murals for Anglican churches. His Baptism for Chichester was painted in 1951 to sit in a blocked-off. Unusually, this painting bears a second date, ’77, because the piece had to be moved when the Cathedral brought the doorway back into use to create a step-free entrance. Since Feibusch considered the painting to be particular to its location, he made some adjustments to the painting for its new location.

Patrick Procktor, RA (1936-2003) was an Irish-born, British-raised artist, active in the second half of the twentieth century. His painted reredos for the chapel of John the Baptist was commissioned and given to the Cathedral by one of the Cathedral Canons, John Kelly, in 1984.

The two paintings of the same subject offer very different takes on theme of Jesus’ Baptism. In February this year, I hosted a discussion group that offered very rich reflections on this matter, and I will let the participants’ words do most of the talking in this post.

Hans Feibusch, The Baptism of Christ, 1951/1977. Used by kind permission of the Werthwhile Foundation.

Tessa Murdoch highlighted that Feibusch’s figures have a very sculptural quality, and suggested that this may be related to the original situation of the painting, between monuments by John Flaxman and Richard Westmacott. We talked about Feibusch’s very strong belief in the importance of a mural responding sympathetically to its setting[2] – hence his insistence that the Baptism could not simply be moved unaltered when the door was brought back into use. He was also himself a sculptor and printmaker, which no doubt contributed to a sculptural quality in his painting.

Trevor Beckett noted that there is a striking contrast between the foregrounding of the Baptist and Jesus in the Feibusch painting and Procktor’s location of the Baptism itself in the mid-ground of his composition. We went to discuss how the different compositions reflect the artist’s respective visual sources: Feibusch’s painting is informed by Piero della Francesca’s Baptism of Christ (1450s) in the National Gallery, London, and Procktor looked to Poussin’s take on the scene (1641/1642) in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

I mooted that one way of reading Procktor’s decision to locate the Baptism in the mid-ground of the picture is to encourage the viewer to study the whole composition: in the foreground, a figure in red is gesturing towards the Baptism taking place further into the picture. We decided that this figure is the Baptist, showing us the way to Christ, so that he appears twice within the frame of the picture. When I consulted the Cathedral’s Chapter records relating to the commission of this piece, there was mention of it being a triptych, and although the final piece is presented as a single scene, it can be read in three parts, as a sequence of events. As Tessa Murdoch highlighted, Procktor’s emphasis on the Baptist’s different roles – the prophet who shows the way, and the Baptiser – is appropriate to the painting’s location in the chapel dedicated to him.

We also talked about the different ways in which the two artists point forward from the baptism to the crucifixion: Feibusch shows Jesus displaying his hands in a way that anticipates the resurrected Christ displaying the stigmata, and some viewers observe a shadow of a cross in Jesus’ pectoral muscles. Procktor is more explicit, including a depiction of Christ crucified on a tree beyond the baptism in the centre of his picture. Therefore, the Baptist figure in the foreground is pointing both to the baptism scene and to the crucifixion, in depiction of his words ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world’ (John 1:29). This resonance is appropriate to the liturgical function of the painting as an altarpiece, in front of which the Eucharist is celebrated, for the Baptist’s words are spoken by the celebrant in Eucharistic liturgy.

We went on to discuss Procktor’s use of trees in his composition as a whole. Tessa Murdoch highlighted that there is a contrast between the bare trees that frame the scene on the left, and the tree of the crucifixion, and those to the right, which are in leaf. She suggested that this could be read as representing the seasons: both in the sense of summer and winter, and of the cycle of life and death. Tessa also noted the contrast in the colours of the tree-trunks, reading from left to right. The silver trunks on the right seemed to her to be ‘suffused with light’, and those on the left are dark, which could be read as symbolic of the process of Baptism as ‘going from darkness to light’ and therefore ‘in a sense, there’s that eschatological meaning to the painting.’ Another participant agreed, noting that this reading becomes more obvious if the piece is seen as a triptych, because there is ‘new life on the right – everything’s light in that bit – and everything’s dark over here [on the right] and the middle bit is the message.’

Another intriguing aspect of Procktor’s painting is the dramatic cloud-like formation in the sky. I suggested that this was the artist’s way of conveying the voice of God from the heavens, mentioned in the Gospel accounts of the Baptism, when the Holy Spirit descends as a dove.

This episode is traditionally interpreted as a manifestation of the Trinity: the voice of God the Father, the dove of the Holy Spirit, and the Baptism of the Son. The Cathedral is dedicated to the Holy Trinity, making this a relevant aspect of the story to emphasise, and Procktor may be reinforcing this point further with the peculiarly triangular piece of land on which Jesus stands. Perhaps Procktor had in mind the green triangle in the Piper Tapestry in the Cathedral, discussed in my previous post.

In Feibusch’s much simpler composition, both the Baptist and Jesus are standing in the waters of the Jordan, and the water is transparent, so that we see their feet. Tessa Murdoch felt that this was a beautiful detail, reminding her of the washing of the feet on Maundy Thursday, and emphasising the sacramental and restorative qualities of water. I suggested that in the painting’s original location, closer to ground-level, the transparent water would have given the impression that the water was flowing out of the picture, on to the floor of the Baptistery, so that the viewer stood in the waters of the Jordan. In its new location, the bottom of the picture is roughly level with the font (albeit a later font, made by John Skelton in 1983), and therefore the waters in the picture can be seen as flowing into the font where Baptisms take place today.

Two very different takes on the same subject – one dense with details to be unpacked, the other elegant in its simplicity – provide plenty of food for thought on this biblical narrative. As the Diocese of Chichester begins a ‘Year of the Bible’ this Advent to encourage people to explore the scriptures, it can find rich resources to reflect on central Christian narratives in the art in its churches.

Visitors to the Cathedral can currently see the Feibusch painting in a different light, cast by the temporary installation of Galia Amsel’s ‘Connection’ above the font. To 16 February. Details on the Cathedral’s
website.

 Thank you to the participants in the discussion session upon which this post is based: Tessa Murdoch, David Murdoch, Margaret Baugier, Margaret Johnson, Shan Harries, Trevor Beckett, Janet Beckett, Linda Brown, and those who asked to remain anonymous.

 Many more posts in this vein could continue to share the rich insights into the art at Chichester Cathedral that I have encountered during my work as Bishop Otter Scholar in the Diocese of Chichester. Sadly, my time in post is at an end and thus too this mini-series on this theme. Watch this space in Lent 2017 for news of a pilgrimage trail for Chichester, which will encourage similar reflection on the art in the Cathedral.

 


[1] Note: there are other depictions of this event to be found in stained glass in the Cathedral.
[2] Feibusch outlined his principles on this subject in Mural Painting (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1946).

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