Friday, March 27, 2015

Saint John the Divine and Fantastic Art

The Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in Manhattan, which extends from west-to-east for over 600 feet and covers 121,000 interior square feet, is one of the world's great cathedrals. But what makes it so great is not its vast scale (reputedly the fourth largest Christian church in the world). Nor does its greatness derive from surviving intact for nine centuries or more, as have so many wonderful European Gothic Cathedrals; after all, its erection only began in 1892. 

Saint John the Divine owes its greatness to the many ways that it has grown far beyond a mere place of worship.  Yes, it holds more than thirty worship services each week; but it is much better known for its large and varied social service outreach and for its soup kitchen that serves on the order of 25,000 meals annually. It also boasts a distinguished Cathedral School, as well as pre-school, after-school and summer-school programs. It even runs a world famous Textile Conservation Lab on its grounds.

For some twenty years, beginning in 1979, the Cathedral (being unfinished to this day) employed and taught neighborhood residents the art of stonecarving. In this respect, it shared with Barcelona's Sagrada Familia a special energy that accompanies such on-going work and the social commitment to provide meaningful labor that drives it.

From its very beginning, Saint John the Divine has promoted and embraced progressive social causes. Its radiating, apsidal chapels (which is where building began) were designated Chapels of the Tongues; the intention was that each would represent one of the seven most prominent ethnic groups emigrating to New York through Ellis Island (which opened the same year the cathedral began its building). 

In the late 1930s, the Cathedral led the fight against slums, championing a drive for decent public housing. In the following decades, it emerged as a center from which to challenge McCarthyism and the Cold War, and from which to promote America's nascent Civil Rights movement. By the 1970s, Saint John was recognized as a major center for the advocacy of peace, social justice, and the environment.

Many New Yorkers, I among them, may never have attended a religious service at Saint John, but have likely been among the 5,000 or so who participate each year in its New Year's Eve Concert for Peace. Others regularly partake in group meditation, engage in regular conversations promoting civic issues, and participate in its various various health, literature and artistic programs. 

I find myself drawn back to the Cathedral mainly because of its art: not only its own art which enriches its physical fabric, but also those special art shows that often could be mounted nowhere else in this city of major art museums and galleries.

Below, I offer a few examples of the artistic diversity to be found in Saint John the Divine.  I begin with some examples of the Cathedral's own art--let's call it the Cathedral as art.  I end with two radically different examples of installation art that, arguably, could not have been mounted elsewhere in Manhattan and that force us to experience this great Cathedral in radically new ways.





Saint John the Divine, NYC, Manhattan, Morningside Heights, Nave Buttress looking south

Saint John is built on one of Manhattan's highest elevations, Morningside Heights. As such, it is challenging to photograph. In lieu of any overall view, I offer these two details of is physical fabric. 

Above, a view south to its garden Close and Amsterdam Avenue, taken from the vantage of an intermediate roof gallery. The wall on the right is part of the supporting buttress of a nave bay.

Below, two of the ribs that make up the four-part vaulting system of the southern side aisle.  This beautiful example of "high-Gothic" vault design comes from the hand of the young Boston architect, Ralph Adams Cram, who took over the design and building in 1907, at the death of George Heins, one of the two original architects.



Saint John the Divine, NYC, Manhattan, Morningside Heights, Nave, South Aisle Vaults, looking west





Saint John the Divine, NYC, Manhattan, Main (Central) Portal: Portal of the Prophets (also known as the Portal of Paradise)

Cram's design called for plenty of art in the form of stone carving, as would have been the case in any true, historical Gothic cathedral. And so, he designed this central door with a trumeau figure supporting its double-arched entry, a rose-shaped tympanum above, a splayed portal with stone blocks for six jamb statues on either side to be carved later along with their archivolts, which curve up to form that deep cowl. As can be seen, most of the archivolts are yet to be carved.

The tympanum, with its circular rose depicts the Majestas (Christ in Majesty). It was carved by the sculptor, Lee Lawrie (who also did the Atlas in Rockefeller Center).  The jamb statues below would not be carved until 1988, when the British stonecarver, Simon Verity, was engaged to launch a workshop of carvers at the Cathedral. The trumeau figure is Saint John the Divine, and it was carved by John Angel.  




Saint John the Divine, NYC, Manhattan, North Tower Portal Trumeau, Saint Peter

Sculptor John Angel also carved the north portal, including Saint Peter, seen here. Peter, as the first of the Apostles and the first Pope, clutches the keys to the "kingdom of heaven," as the Bible tells us: Matthew 16:19. Christ also warns that Peter will deny him three times "before the cock crows," and so John Angel carves a plump, cheeky rooster at Peter's feet.




Saint John the Divine, NYC, Manhattan, Synod House, Portal

The Synod House, at the corner of Amsterdam Avenue and 110th Street, was completed under Cram and Ferguson in 1913. Originally, it contained the Bishop's offices, but as it can seat up to 1,000 people, it now serves a variety of functions.  This past Autumn, I attended the US premiere of Benjamin Britten's Curlew River here, featuring tenor Ian Bostridge. The central space's medieval feel and heavy, carved roof beams provided the ideal setting for Britten's church parable.

The portal sculptures, which date from the early 20th century, are by John Evans & Company of Boston. The tympanum depicts the Mission of the Apostles, in which Christ sends them out to the nations of the world to baptize and teach. 

The jamb figures (including the trumeau) depict Seven Famous Christian Rulers: Constantine, Charlemagne, Alexis, George Washington (the trumeau, center), Gustavus Adolphus, Saint Louis, and Alfred the Great.

The archivolts above depict, in the outer range, ancient and modern Apostles of Christianity (spanning in time from St. Denis to David Livingstone); in the middle range, Arts and Sciences; in the innermost range, Crafts and Industries.

Below, I offer four details, including some unplanned alterations provided by nesting birds.



Saint John the Divine, NYC, Manhattan, Synod House, Portal Trumeau, George Washington




Saint John the Divine, NYC, Manhattan, Synod House, Portal, Jamb Statue, Alfred the Great (King of Wessex)







Saint John the Divine, NYC, Manhattan, Synod House, Portal, Left Archivolts, Bottom to Top: [L] Count Zinzendorf, Saint Boniface; [Ctr] Natural Science, Sculpture; [R] Bookbinding, Agriculture



Saint John the Divine, NYC, Manhattan, Synod House, Portal, Right Archivolts, Bottom to Top: [L] Charles George Gordon, Saint Columba; [Ctr] Architecture, Music; [R] Shoemaking, Mining






Saint John the Divine, NYC, Manhattan, Nave, South Aisle, Lancet Windows, Saints Matthew and Mark





Saint John the Divine, NYC, Manhattan, Nave, South Aisle, Lancet Windows, Saint Luke and Hippocrates




Saint John the Divine, NYC, Manhattan, Nave, South Aisle, Lancet Windows, Hippocrates (detail)

The hierarchy of social and historical personages and their activities, that we encountered in the Synod House portal, can also be found in the stained glass that encloses the lancet windows in the Cathedral's nave. The windows of each bay rise in three levels, from human activity to patron saints to Christ, and each bay is dedicated to an activity: medicine, education, sports, etc.

In the second and third of my photographs, for example, we see St. Luke and Hippocrates. Clearly, this is the Medicine Bay. In it, Luke, as the patron saint of artists, physicians and surgeons, shares a position of equal stature with the great Greek 5th century BC physician, Hippocrates.




Saint John the Divine, NYC, Manhattan, Nave, Communication Bay: Mortlake Tapestry (17th century), The Healing of the Lame Man [after Raphael] (detail)


The Mortlake Tapestries are one of two major sets of tapestries owned by the Cathedral, a few of which it always displays. These were woven by Flemish loom operators, using English wool and following cartoons commissioned by Pope Leo X in 1515 from Raphael. The cartoons, now in London's Victoria and Albert Museum, depict the Acts of Peter and Paul.

This scene shows Saint Peter's first miracle among the Jews. Peter holds the arm of a lame man and orders him to walk.  John the Evangelist, in the center mid-ground, is witness to the miracle.




Saint John the Divine, NYC, Manhattan, South Crossing, Meredith G. Bergmann, September 11: A Memorial for the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, 2012

Given that hundreds of New Yorkers "spontaneously congregate[d] at the cathedral within hours of the terrorist attacks on September 11," it is fitting that the Cathedral commissioned this work a decade later from New York sculptor, Meredith Bergmann. The figure's torso rests on a glass case containing fragments from the WTC debris.  

This nude torso of a woman, calmly holding out her hands to absorb the impact of two airplanes, would appear to be an allegory of protection. As such, it can be seen as a modern cousin of those Madonnas of Mercy, so popular in the late Medieval and early Renaissance, whose open cloak offers sanctuary for the people. This example, the Sheltering Cloak Madonna from Ravensburg, dates from 1480.

Bergmann (the sculptor) saw her female figure in a similar light to those early Madonnas, as--in her words--"the most life-giving, nurturing and inspirational forces we can imagine." But she also invests her allegorical nude torso with a much more specific response to the tragedy of 9/11 and its perpetrators. She states that she had "been thinking about the Houris, the virgins who were supposed to be waiting to greet and serve the terrorists in Paradise, and what a travesty that idea made of all that is truly feminine. I imagined them being greeted by this woman instead."





Saint John the Divine, NYC, Manhattan, Saint Colomba Chapel, Altarpiece, The Life of Christ, Keith Haring, 1990

Finally, American graffiti artist and social activist, Keith Haring, made this altarpiece for the Saint Columba Chapel two weeks before he died from AIDS






A Surreal Invasion:
Jane Alexander: Surveys (from the Cape of Good Hope)
April-July, 2013
(curated by Pep Subirós)



Saint John the Divine, NYC, Manhattan, Ambulatory (behind Main Altar), Jane Alexander, Surveys (from the Cape of Good Hope)Bird, 2004

Imagine walking out of the Saint Colomba Chapel, where we just saw the Haring Altarpiece, circling behind the main altar, and suddenly sensing an alien presence.  Something is amiss.  You look up. There, atop the wall separating altar from the ambulatory, is a wingless bird, about two feet tall.

Its gait is human, which, with the absence of wings, makes it all the more disconcerting. You have just encountered one of those surreal, Hieronymous Bosch-like, hybrid creatures of South African artist, Jane Alexander.

She and curator Pep Subirós have inhabited the Cathedral with her transformed beings, as if some uncanny creatures have freed themselves from the pages of a medieval Bestiary in the Cathedral Library.  In each case, whether as a single figure or arranged as a group of figures, a component of surprise and of inevitability characterizes their placement. To my mind, these creatures are quite comfortable in the spaces they inhabited. They belong here as much, if not more, than I.

A review of the show by Allison Meier, however, felt that allowing  Alexander's "humanoid figures [to] creep in chapels and places of prayer is much more unsettling than any installation in a traditional museum could be." I would agree; although I would substitute the word "fascinating" for "unsettling."

To me, these figures pose no threat. They accept their transmutations. Maybe this is the Alexander's intention. After all, her sculpture began as a response to her country's apartheid past and its dehumanizing nature.  As the artist, herself, states: "my themes are drawn from the relationship of individuals to hierarchies and the presence of aggression, violence, victimisation, power and subservience."  Over years (and generations) such an oppressive environment can understandably result in submissive acceptance by its victims.

 Still, to return to Allison Meier's review, she marvels that any church "would invite such subversive work into its worship space."
Being subversive, of course, enjoys a long tradition with churches everywhere. Let's not forget how St. Bernard of Clairvaux (a Cistercian) railed against the gargoyles and inventively carved capitals of the Benedictine Abbey of Cluny in 1124:

"...under the eyes of the Brethern who read there, what profit is there in those ridiculous monsters, in the marvellous and deformed comeliness, that comely deformity? To what purpose are those unclean apes, those fierce lions, those monstrous centaurs, those half-men....if men are not ashamed of these follies, why at least do they not shrink from the expense?"





Saint John the Divine, NYC, Manhattan, North Transept, Jane Alexander, Surveys (from the Cape of Good Hope)Custodian, 2005



Saint John the Divine, NYC, Manhattan, North Transept, Jane Alexander, Surveys (from the Cape of Good Hope)Custodian, 2005

Alexander's Custodian watches over the roofless north transept, which was destroyed by fire in December, 2001.




Saint John the Divine, NYC, Manhattan, Baptistry, Jane Alexander, Surveys (from the Cape of Good Hope)Custodian, 2005

The Custodian reappears, as if guarding the entrance to the Baptistry. 




Saint John the Divine, NYC, Manhattan, North Transept, Jane Alexander, Surveys (from the Cape of Good Hope)Security and Bird, 2006



Saint John the Divine, NYC, Manhattan, North Transept, Jane Alexander, Surveys (from the Cape of Good Hope)Security and Bird, 2006




Saint John the Divine, NYC, Manhattan, North Transept, Jane Alexander, Surveys (from the Cape of Good Hope)Security, 2006

Also installed in the north transept is this double-fenced enclosure, Security, and another wingless Bird, with hooked beak and talons. It paces about, gingerly, on a bed of spring wheat. 

The two fences of Security define a walkway that is strewn with red rubber industrial gloves, rusting machetes and sickles--the tools of farming and sustenance, but also of mob violence and genocidal acts. What does it all mean?





Saint John the Divine, NYC, Manhattan, North Transept, Jane Alexander, Surveys (from the Cape of Good Hope)Convoy (trade), 2006

Red industrial gloves recur in many of Alexander's installation tableaus.  Do they connote contamination (or possibly the fear of contamination)?  Does their red color allude to a particular toxicity of blood and bodily fluid?  As these gloves form the stage occupied by Alexander's figures, could they imply the trope of a "blood-soaked land?"




Saint John the Divine, NYC, Manhattan, Saint Ansgar Chapel, Jane Alexander, Surveys (from the Cape of Good Hope): Hobbled Ruminant [L, 2003-4]; Ghost [Ctr, 2007]; Harbinger with Protective Boots [R, 2004]


These figures are like dream images, and South African scholar Lize Van Robbroeck brings a psychoanalytic reading to the bulk of Alexander's work.  She sees Africa as a "meeting ground between the 'rational West' and the 'irrational primitive'...the porous divide between the conscious and the unconscious." 

This analysis brings Van Robbroeck to this persuasive interpretation of Alexander's art:  "It is precisely in this disconcerting evocation of the primacy of the unconscious that Jane Alexander’s power as an artist is rooted."





Saint John the Divine, NYC, Manhattan, Saint Boniface Chapel, Jane Alexander, Surveys (from the Cape of Good Hope): Beast, 2003 and Infantry, 2008-10



Saint John the Divine, NYC, Manhattan, Saint Boniface Chapel, Jane Alexander, Surveys (from the Cape of Good Hope): Infantry, 2008-10 (detail)

Under the watchful eye of the Archangel Michael march a cloned army of jackal-headed humanoids--three-by-three, lock-step, eyes right. A cur confronts them, legs tensed, ready to pounce (or possibly flee at the last moment).  You interpret.





Saint John the Divine, NYC, Manhattan, Saint Columba Chapel, Jane Alexander, Surveys (from the Cape of Good Hope): African Adventure, 1999-2002



Saint John the Divine, NYC, Manhattan, Saint Columba Chapel, Jane Alexander, Surveys (from the Cape of Good Hope): African Adventure, 1999-2002 (detail)

African Adventure is a complicated tableau mounted on a bed of red sand. Its title alludes to safari holidays, and there even is a company called "The Africa Adventure Company." 

Among the thirteen figures, all individualized and almost all different species, one meets many of Alexander's creations: Pangaman at the far left, dragging a train of scythes, machetes, farming tools and toys.  A seated child bride at the near right with an antelope head, a small crown between her horns, and arms without hands. She is officially identified as Girl with Gold and Diamonds.  Nearby (seen in the detail photo directly above) stand two versions of her Bom Boys, here all dressed up in suit and coats. 

I'll leave you to learn more about them on your own (try Holland Cotter's Times article for starters),  but I'm sure that, by now, you realize that this is no ordinary safari! 





Saint John the Divine, NYC, Manhattan, Saint Saviour Chapel, Jane Alexander, Surveys (from the Cape of Good Hope): Lamb with Stolen Boots, 2002-04




Saint John the Divine, NYC, Manhattan, Saint Saviour Chapel, Jane Alexander, Surveys (from the Cape of Good Hope): Attendant, 2008-10

Finally, these two figures face each other across the chapel. In the top photo, a type of Jesus figure (Lamb with Stolen Boots), arms outstretched as if crucified, a small crown of thorns on his head. He stands on top of a munitions box

Across the way, in the bottom photo, is one of the most beautiful and evocative bits of installation, a bridal figure (Attendant), veiled, whose ivory-colored shroud cascades some twenty feet and gathers on the chapel floor.

Is she the Bride of Christ, the Christ who wears industrial gloves on broomstick arms?  He is armless.  She seems bodiless, as if only her wedding gown remained, while she has long been "assumed" elsewhere.

The images of this show will remain with me a long time, and I hope that these photos convey some of the surrealistic encounter of this installation.








A Mythical Visitation:
Phoenix: Xu Bing at the Cathedral
January 2014-March 2015
(curated by Judith Goldman)





Saint John the Divine, NYC, Manhattan, Nave, Xu Bing, Phoenix, 2008-10 (looking south-east)


It is most appropriate for Xu Bing's Phoenix to find its way to Saint John the Divine, given the Cathedral's historical support of progressive social issues. Xu Bing determined his subject as well as the materials from which it is made only after witnessing the abysmal living and working conditions of the migrant workers who were building Beijing's new World Financial Center

Xu Bing had been commissioned to make a sculpture that would hang in a public atrium that connected the two parts of the Financial Center. In the end, given his choice of materials (which you soon will see) and his refusal to mask them in crystals, the commission was withdrawn. However, it would later be rescued and its completion funded through the generosity of Barry Law, a private collector from Taiwan.

The laborers' working conditions "made my skin quiver," Xu Bing recalled: “When I first visited the building site, I had a sense of shock.... It was impossible to imagine that with all the modern technology today, the building was constructed with such low-tech methods.”

As a way of honoring the workmen (while also being ecologically sound through recycling), Xu Bing constructed his two Phoenixes out of the industrial construction debris of the building site. One may also argue that, by reusing material touched and handled by the migrant workers, and by forming that material into these two, mythical, vessel-like birds, Xu Bing sanctifies those workmen. In other words, the Phoenixes act like reliquaries. They don't contain a bone or body-part of a saint, but they contain material that has absorbed the sweat and blood of the worker.

In Xu Bing's words, This work carries with it a flavor of China – it is of the full concern of the lowest levels of Chinese society, and it’s my way of acknowledging the practice of very poor people using the lowest materials to dress themselves with great respect.”

My source for the above quotation is a site calling itself letsgetsketchy.weebly.com, which I recommend as the best source on Xu Bing's Phoenix, but it provides no clue of authors. Still, allow me to conclude with this summation by the anonymous LetsGetSketchy writer: "Conceptually, this work stretches far beyond the issue of unfair labour work. It is also symbolic of China’s industrialization and international globalization from Western culture." 





Saint John the Divine, NYC, Manhattan, Nave, Xu Bing, Phoenix, 2008-10 (looking west)

The Chinese Phoenix is both male and female, but Xu Bing has separated it into two. The male, Feng, is in the distance, closer to the western entrance. It is 90 feet long. The female, Huang, is the closer one in the above photo and is 100 feet long. The two combine to weigh 12 tons, and 30 hoists were required in their erection.

By the way, even though many sources talk about the Phoenixes being suspended from the "ceiling" or the "vaults," that is inaccurate. They are suspended from an aluminum frame which you can see below the vaults. That frame is supported by cables attached to the roof structure above the vaults. The position of each cable was carefully determined so that it dropped on a direct plumb-line right through the moisture "weep holes" that were built into the vaults when they were first erected. No new holes were made in the vaulting.



Saint John the Divine, NYC, Manhattan, Nave, Xu Bing, Phoenix, 2008-10 (looking north-west)




Saint John the Divine, NYC, Manhattan, Nave, Xu Bing, Phoenix, 2008-10 (looking east)

If you look carefully at some of these photographs, you may be able to distinguish some of the materials. A worn-out cement mixer helps form the chest of Feng. An array of shovels forms some of its feathers. Heads are made from jackhammers. Crowns are formed from hard hats. Welding masks, wheel rims, plastic tubing, fans, gas cylinders, steel springs, pliers, saws, screwdrivers....you name it, its most likely up there, somewhere.

The German Dada and Constructivist artist, Kurt Schwitters, who first made art out of the detritus that he picked up off the street--he called his first works, Merz Bilder--would be ecstatic over the Phoenixes. We all should be. They are gorgeous creations.

Please enjoy the rest of the photographs and see how many distinct items you can pick out, particularly from the last six-or-so details.



Saint John the Divine, NYC, Manhattan, Nave, Xu Bing, Phoenix, 2008-10 (detail of Tail, looking east)




Saint John the Divine, NYC, Manhattan, Nave, Xu Bing, Phoenix, 2008-10 (detail of Tail, looking east)




Saint John the Divine, NYC, Manhattan, Nave, Xu Bing, Phoenix, 2008-10 (detail of Neck & Talons, looking north)




Saint John the Divine, NYC, Manhattan, Nave, Xu Bing, Phoenix, 2008-10 (detail of Tail, looking north-east)





Saint John the Divine, NYC, Manhattan, Nave, Xu Bing, Phoenix, 2008-10 (detail of Body & Wings, looking east)




Saint John the Divine, NYC, Manhattan, Nave, Xu Bing, Phoenix, 2008-10 (detail of Wings & Tail, looking south)





Saint John the Divine, NYC, Manhattan, Nave, Xu Bing, Phoenix, 2008-10 (detail of Tail, from below)




Saint John the Divine, NYC, Manhattan, Nave, Xu Bing, Phoenix, 2008-10 (detail of Tail, from below)

One final thought: the Chinese phoenix does not share the idea of resurrection or re-birth with our western, Greek phoenix, but that should not stop anyone from developing compelling interpretations of Xu Bing's work in the context of Saint John the Divine. 

As the curator, Judith Goldman remarked after first seeing the Phoenixes in Beijing, “Xu Bing’s junkyard creatures resonate with many meanings, and I thought no place would be more fitting than the cathedral’s nave.”  Amen to that.