Sussex Heritage: Pilgrimage spaces ... journeying in our modern age

The St Mary Magdalene Chapel, Chichester Cathedral, with Graham Sutherland's 'Noli Me Tangere'.
The St Mary Magdalene Chapel, Chichester Cathedral, with Graham Sutherland's 'Noli Me Tangere'.

St Mary Magdalene’s life was celebrated last week on the 22nd July. She was described by the early church as Apostle to the Apostles. It was Mary who first saw the risen Lord and it was Jesus who sent her to take the news of his resurrection to the other disciples.

As I have reflected on how she accompanied Jesus during his ministry, my thoughts have been drawn to the nature of pilgrimage, of journeying, in our modern age.

Pilgrimage spaces, whether sacred or not, can decipher or inform our perceptions of the world; they can gift us with an experience of the numinous. Whether a space is deemed holy or hollow will in part be determined by the degree of common narrative with which we approach it. Our perception of a particular built environment can be informed by historical context, ritual or role, explicit symbolism and our psychological interaction with the space.

People are bound together by their shared narrative. That we can tell something of the same story allows us to identify with one another and share a common identity.

For example, many would argue that at the heart of what it is to be English is our monarchy, our landscape and our church, all of which are closely bound up with our island history.

An English Tourist Board paper noted that in 2004 we made 68.7 million visits to historic properties in England, of which 32.4 million were to churches. Central to our attraction to these sacred buildings, beyond the common narrative, is the human activity of dwelling. Where we live, where we worship and our material possessions all enable us to articulate who we are and ground us not only in the procession of our own lives but also in the broader procession of human history.

Take, for example, the St Mary Magdalene Chapel in Chichester Cathedral. Central to this chapel is Graham Sutherland’s vibrant oil on canvas ‘Noli Me Tangere’ of 1961. Walter Hussey, famous as both a patron of the arts and as Dean of Chichester, called upon the first seven hundred years of the cathedral’s history and tradition, claiming that new work should be contemporary and not imitate the old. In his book ‘Patron of Art’ he notes that he had always hoped that Graham Sutherland would ‘do something at Chichester’.

The sculptor Henry Moore had thought ‘that Graham Sutherland would be most suitable’ to paint a Crucifixion for St Matthew’s, Northampton, which Hussey commissioned. Sutherland’s now famous Crucifixion at St Matthew’s was installed in 1946. Sutherland, a Roman Catholic, was fulsome in his praise of Hussey’s vision and ability to carry people with him.

Looking towards the St Mary Magdalene Chapel down the south and choir aisles, we are struck by the transcendent quality and extraordinary length of this vista. Indeed, the architect Sir Basil Spence, who designed and oversaw the building of Coventry Cathedral after the Second World War, described this view as one of the most beautiful in Europe.

Sutherland’s study initially strikes the viewer with the quality of a distant enamel jewel. As we journey towards this work, we are drawn into the intimate narrative described in chapter 20 of St John’s Gospel.

Arriving at the chapel, we become aware that the painting depicts the moment on that first Easter morning when Mary becomes aware that she is in the presence of her risen Lord, who has just spoken her name.

As she reaches out to touch him, his gesture stops her. The painting holds in tension Mary’s joy and the pending separation of a different kind. The angular composition of the figures, plants and staircase allude to the Passion narratives, which lead up to and include Jesus’ crucifixion.

At the centre of the painting is Jesus Christ, dressed in white symbolising his holiness and purity. Christ’s finger points towards God the Father, symbolising His presence. Mary may not touch Jesus. This is the liminal moment where the artist invites us into the narrative so that we, like Mary, might acknowledge Jesus, our creator, teacher and friend, as advocate and redeemer of the whole world.

Sutherland displays sensitivity and humility in the intimate scale of the painting, which at once connects the viewer with the narrative in a very personal way and allows them rest in this sacred space.

The painting is complemented by the altar, designed by the then Cathedral Architect and Surveyor Robert Potter, and sculptor Geoffrey Clarke’s candlesticks, whose angular quality reflect the figures in Sutherland’s work.

Art galleries also provide pilgrimage spaces. Walter Hussey’s personal collection of art is displayed at Pallant House Gallery and a Crucifixion by Graham Sutherland is currently on display in the main galleries.

Chichester Cathedral is open daily with one of the finest collections of modern British art in the country, inspired by Walter Hussey as he strove to articulate a new hope, a new Jerusalem after the experience of two world wars.

Next time you are in Chichester, treat yourself and for a moment dwell amongst the art in this sacred space; accept the gift of a generous punctuation mark, space in the busyness of our modern lives.

There are often concerts and exhibitions at the Cathedral to delight children and adults alike; for more information go to www.chichestercathedral.org.uk

Rupert Toovey is a senior director of Toovey’s, the leading fine art auction house in West Sussex, based on the A24 at Washington - www.tooveys.com - and a priest in the Church of England Diocese of Chichester.