Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Bishops Cleeve, Gloucestershire

The Madonna of the Butterflies with Saints Michael and Jerome

Something a little different for my Christmas picture this year. Fortunate is the church that has a piece of modern art that works as well as this altarpiece, painted in 2018 for the church of St Michael and All Angels, Bishops Cleeve by the local artist P J Crook. P J Crook’s works range widely and are exhibited in galleries all over the world. For this altarpiece, she worked within the traditional framework of the triptych, filling the work with symbols that are familiar to anyone who had looked at a lot of Christian art. Yet the imagery is also unmistakeably of its time and of its painter: the directness of the way the faces are painted and their deceptively simple range of skin tones, the teeming detail, and the way in which the imagery spills out on to the frame are all typical of the artist.

The triptych shows the Virgin and Child with Mary’s head surrounded by butterflies and angels; saints Michael and Jerome are portrayed in the side panels; the base bears an image of the Last Supper. The butterflies, with their metamorphic life cycle (there’s a caterpillar, by the way, at the bottom of the picture), stand for resurrection, renewal, and the release of the soul from the body. They are just one of an array of symbols: rosemary represents remembrance, the lily of the valley is also called Our Lady’s Tears, the poppy indicates that the altarpiece was painted at the time of the anniversary of the end of World War I. The dove to which the infant Jesus points is a symbol of peace, but also represents the Holy Spirit.

There are also local allusions. There are minute figures of the Magi on horseback (their mounts a reminder that Bishops Cleeve is a stone’s throw from Cheltenham Racecourse). St Michael (battler with the devil, weigher of souls in heaven) is there in part because of the church’s dedication – and that dedication gives the presence of angels in the altarpiece further relevance; there’s a small image of the church above the saint’s left shoulder. The female figure entering through the door beneath the dove is Margaret Whitehead, a local school nurse who was killed in a car accident. She is also seen in the background in her nurse’s uniform, with a group of children. A painting of the infant Christ can also look forward to his crucifixion and resurrection, and this triptych deals with mortality in several ways. The images of Margaret Whitehead represent one way; St Jerome’s contemplation of mortality (symbolised by the skull) is another; the presence of a fox, symbolising King Herod, who ordered the massacre of the innocents, is another; candles stand not only for the light of God but also for remembrance of the dead.

The complexity of this altarpiece, then, reaches the depths, but the directness of the imagery is powerful too and the way in which its art enhances life is, in my eyes, a triumph. I hope that all my readers have an enjoyable and life-enhancing time over the coming days of celebration. Happy Christmas – and season’s greetings, whatever your beliefs.

1 comment:

bazza said...

Thank you for that very enlightening explanation Philip and for another year of really engaging posts. I don't comment much as there isn't much point but I read them all!
All the best for the festive season to you and yours.
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s ultimately unthinkable Blog ‘To Discover Ice’