Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Yahweh and the Seraphim

The latest artwork to be installed in Sunderland Minster, and the most ambitious project to date, is Yahweh and the Seraphim, by Nicholas Pope (ceramics, 1995). Pope is an internationally acclaimed sculptor, and this is the first time that this work has been shown in the UK. The work comprises of a central figure, Yahweh – the name of God in the Bible – surrounded by six figures representing seraphim – angelic beings of the heavenly court. Together – especially in their current setting – they invite us to reflect on our own image of God, of the nature of God and angels and, indeed, of faith, our own faith, whatever that might be in.

‘Yahweh’ is rock-like. The rock of the Judean wilderness is a significant image for God, in particular in the experience of the psalmist king David. Carved into the monolith, as water erosion carves into the cliff faces of the wilderness, are the encircling letters ‘I AM YHWH’ – I AM being the name by which Yahweh made himself known to Moses. From the back of the nave – the main space of the Minster – it is striking how closely the ribs of the carvings mirror the ribs of the stone columns supporting the vault of the roof overhead. Although not visible, the piece is hollow, and that connects this rock to Masada and the great defensive structures of the Judean wilderness, with their cavernous water cisterns, as large as cathedrals, carved out by hand to enable life to exist through the hardest drought or siege. And these attributes invite us to contemplate God as shelter, and the faith community as a place of work for the protection of life in an otherwise inhospitable context. What is the place of faith in our often dehumanising society today?

This ‘Yahweh’ may also be considered phallic. Indeed, the fiery tops of the seraphim might bring to mind eggs surrounded by sperm. Here, if one chooses, is an image of fertilisation, of the moment of life. And this might be offensive if taken literally, for God is not male, and God does not create by reproduction with angels but through his creative Word – which, in the fullness of time, as the Gospel According to John puts it, became flesh (including a circumcised penis) and dwelt among us. But here too is an opportunity to reflect on the nature of God; on the ways in which certain representations have been problematic for some viewers, including women and Muslims; indeed, on the ways in which any understanding of God is potentially false and enslaving, even if it might be true and liberating.

‘Yahweh’ is surrounded by ‘the Seraphim’, tall and beautiful figures whose form and colour, in this setting, reference the white anti/space of the walls between the exposed stonework. These are beings that are for the most part invisible to our eyes, though on occasion some, permitted to look upon God and live, have seen the glorious beings that attend his throne. But what are angels? From time to time on the Minster prayer board, where anyone can write a prayer or prayer request, someone writes of a child tragically lost to death in terms of God having needed them for an angel. And while I believe that God holds such children in safekeeping for us, I can’t believe in a monster God who tears children from their parents for such a ‘higher purpose’ than to be a human being and know and share in human love.

Within the span of their touching ‘wings’, as they call out to one another, ‘the Seraphim’ speak of both the beginning and the end of life, of the seen and unseen. Moreover, their irregular spokes speak of the (precarious? or simply joyful?) connecting ladder between the heavens and the earth, on which Jacob, asleep on a stone pillow in the wilderness, saw angels ascending and descending. When he awoke, Jacob recognised the place where he had slept as the very gate of heaven – and he had known it not. And so, in hope that he would know it again, he set his pillow stone upright, a finger pointing those who passed to God.

The installation will be in the Minster for several months, through what remains of Lent, through Eastertide, and Pentecost. A rock – or a stone marker – in the wilderness. A disfigured representation of I AM, before whom we must stand and wonder at the sight. A band of flame-headed witnesses standing round. Pope’s artwork forms a fitting backdrop to each of these seasons of the Church year. And I am looking forward to welcoming regulars and visitors alike, and having conversations about the things that matter deeply to our hearts.

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