A message from Father Nick 84
Tympanum at Conques
A few years ago, Sebastian Brooke the sculptor moved with his family from Monmouth to Portland in Dorset. His family were parishioners of St Mary’s Catholic church, and Sebastian is a man of great sensitivity. He recalls a time when he was learning his craft and working in the depths of rural France. Among its mediaeval churches and cathedrals, he found a landscape of faith sculpted in stone.
Autun, Conques, Vezelay, Moissac, display the most dramatic tableaux of last judgment. Above each entrance door, scenes of heavenly glory interact with warning images of punishment – a subject to test any sculptor’s imagination. Kenneth Clark in his Civilization series describes the mullion of the church at Souillac as one of the most terrifying works of art ever produced in Western Europe before the twentieth century with its gigantic birds and cowering mortals. “It is,” he says, “an epitome of forest fears, a kind of totem pole of western man at the end of his wanderings.”
Sebastian describes his own experience of those forest fears. Young and far from wealthy, he campe out as he worked, listening at night to sounds in the surrounding vastness. They were indeed terrifying sounds, and it struck him that this was the very world of unknown forces which had awed mediaeval men and women. Their fears, irrational but real, had become a great deal easier for him to understand.
Sin, of course is completely real, but rationality and illumination grew inside the buildings which depict such lurid scenes. There was beauty in their sculptures too and an exquisite rendering of salvation history (like the Wise Men cycle at Autun – which we can perhaps consider on a future occasion).
Western civilization moved beyond its insecurities, as cultivation of the world increased. But with that movement came another kind of change. No longer did our major threat reside in ancient fears, but rather in our own complacency and heedlessness. Only now, with human-driven climate change, can we see the full implications of that heedlessness. Pope Francis constantly reminds us of our original, God-given responsibility – that we must live as stewards of God’s world.
Sebastian the sculptor is working on his own act of witness. Pained by the extinction of so many natural species, he has added his gifts to a project on the Jurassic coast, helping to create an enormous sculpture of remembering: MEMO, the Mass Extinction Monitoring Observatory.This is a continuous spiral of stone, growing to commemorate new forms of loss. It will be carved with images of each of the 860 species classed as extinct since the disappearance of the dodo. Also, a “bell of diversity, placed in the centre of the monument will be rung annually on the International Day of Biodiversity and to mark further species becoming extinct.”
Human progress is a curious journey, both in what we gain and what we leave behind us – and it is more than just a force of secularization. We see the world with special love because, in the words of Pope Francis speaking of the earthly Jesus, “The very flowers of the field and the birds which his human eyes contemplated and admired are now imbued with his radiant presence.”