This year’s Lent art installation at Southwark Cathedral has a Pilgrimage theme for Thomas Becket’s 850th anniversary year.
With the help of author Leigh Hatts and his guidebook ‘The Pilgrim’s Way’, I traced the London to Canterbury route and created a strip map. I then scaled this up to a single pencil line onto 10m long sheets of tracing paper and hung them vertically each side of the high altar. They look a little like theatre flats and have the effect of funnelling your vision towards the centre.
A Veil of String
In the centre you’ll notice the veil – the traditional muting down of the Great Screen every Lent. To make this veil, I measured 850 people from top to toe with string – a medieval practice called ‘Measuring to the Saint’ which I have used in much of my work over the past few years. The Saint in question of course is St Thomas of Canterbury – Thomas Becket – who gave his last sermon here in Southwark in 1190 before setting off for what would be the last time back to Canterbury Cathedral. Once I’d measured 850 souls, one for each year since Becket’s last sermon, I tied the lengths together and suspended them vertically to gradually obscure the normal view.
In case you are curious about the strings, the tallest person I measured was a member of the congregation who is about 6’5″ and the shortest is a bunny (a friend has house rabbits) – in medieval times animals were considered to have a soul too. The oldest person (is Leigh’s mother) celebrated her 103rd birthday just before Christmas and the youngest was born just a few weeks ago.
The lengths also include St Thomas Becket’s successor, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, who I was fortunate enough to be introduced to on a visit to Canterbury Cathedral on 29th December – the day the Cathedral celebrates Thomas every year.
In the 12th century, to my knowledge, they didn’t veil altars with string. Instead they used the string as the wick for a candle the same height as you. The monks would light it and pray for your eternal soul – a transaction I still think is both beautiful and profound.
So, in Pilgrimage: Finding each other in the Paradise of free souls, I’ve included 12 candles, measured exactly for people who sadly are no longer with us, including Thomas Becket himself, who was 6′ tall. The candles took over a month to make – they were handmade by Rich, an expert candlemaker at Charles Farris, who supply many cathedrals.
The candles are placed in two groups of 6, echoing the figures of the 12 disciples depicted on the Great Screen behind it, which of course are currently obscured by the veil of string.
The other candles include Marion Marples (172cm tall), who for many years was secretary of the Confraternity of St James, helping many prepare pilgrims their walk of a lifetime to Santiago de Compostela. In her last four years she was instrumental in the rediscovery and reawakening of the Pilgrims’ Way route ready for 2020. It was Marion who introduced my work to the cathedral and who, sadly, I never got to meet in person. I’ll detail the others in a separate post, as there is lots to say about them.
The candles will be lit daily to burn for two hours towards the end of the afternoon.
On Friday evening 6 March 2020 the cathedral will be open until 9pm and lit only by candlelight. Admission is free daily.