A wealth of Anglican art

May 1, 2007

Religion always has been the impetus for art, good and bad. Where there was belief there was expression. James B. Simpson and George H. Eatman sought to display a tiny corner of honorable artistic expression that the world’s Anglican Communion had preserved when they produced A Treasury of Anglican Art (Rizzoli, New York).

Treasury, though no longer available from the publisher, brought together in colorful and thoughtful fashion 224 pages of history and liturgy of a church community that blossomed from its Roman roots.

The impetus for the book was born out of a lunch at the Cosmos Club, a meeting place for intellectuals, in Washington, D.C. “Jim [Reverend James Simpson, then retired] told me of his idea of a volume on Anglican art. I am a cradle Episcopalian with a long family history in Colonial churches and later in the Episcopal Church,” explained co-author George Eatman, who was then practicing law and teaching a course in church history at Sewanee.

“In England I had spent many interesting and sometimes grueling days driving my Mini around the English countryside taking preliminary photos of items either Jim or my many other helpful and knowledgeable friends in the Church of England recommended.”

But it’s not just England that produced sturdy and compelling Anglican art. Both Eatman and Simpson, who died shortly before the book was published, sought to spread their task globally.

Westminster Abbey, an Anglican bastion in London, graces the book’s cover, but other cities throughout the world -- Miami, Scottsdale, Port-au-Prince, Nairobi, Toronto, Tokyo and Rome -- shine with talented artists who have manifested their beliefs in stone, wood, glass or paint. And that is how the book was to be divided -- not chronologically, “Which would have made the book too top-heavy with certain aspects of Anglican art,” Eatman said; or by territory, which would place more weight on our hemisphere -- but by medium: fabric, glass, icons, manuscripts, metal, mosaics, paintings, stone and wood.

They sought nominations
“We sent out a letter to Anglican bishops world-wide asking for nominations to be included in this project. During the process many bishops, priests, art historians and many instant experts voiced opinions about their preferences. But we were aware that the book could not include everyone’s favorite painting, carving or window,” Eatman added regrettably. Yet, it would be hard for anyone, even casually leafing through the book, not to single out stunning art, and dub it a newly found favorite.

Though most Anglicans have heard the painful history of Coventry Cathedral, few have seen the amazing 45’ x 70’ glass screen designed by John Hutton in 1962. Layers of biblical figures, British saints and trumpeting angels intricately etched in glass panels pile up over the front doors of the church.

And about 30 years later a deaf airline pilot named John Gregory painted Still Doubting, found at St. Philip’s in Cheshire, England and Why? hanging in Bangor Cathedral in Wales. “Seeing familiar topics in a different way enhances our appreciation. Specifically, in that regard, I recommended Gregory’s two paintings,” Eatman said. Both paintings, startling in their juxtaposition of modern witnesses to two centuries-old events, jump out at the viewer as oddly anachronistic.

The 24-year-old Gregory, surely one of the best painters of realism alive, included his chums in scenes, which heretofore had been reserved only for dead saints, holy angels and faithful apostles.

“As conceived, the volume needed to include ancient and modern works,” Eatman emphasized. So, the book spans centuries, which is a shaky proposition considering the age of Anglicanism. Yet such beautiful examples as Grace Church, San Francisco’s Risen Christ with Saint Peter, a tapestry dating from the early sixteenth century, is Biblical, rather than denominational and easily takes on the flavor of its surroundings, in this case, Anglican.

The same argument can be made of Rembrandt’s moving Storm on the Sea of Galilee. Though Rembrandt was no Anglican, the owner of the painting was: Isabella Stewart Gardner. She collected (among other things, including balconies from Venetian palazzi) religious art. She supported her Cambridge, Massachusetts neighbors, the Brothers of St. John the Evangelist, an order of Anglican monks, by paying for the reredos in their Cram chapel.

Though not particularly large or startling, Rembrandt’s fabulous painting, because of its humanity (the apostles heaving over the side of the boat) and divinity (a calm Christ at the stern) was granted a full page in Eatman’s book. Tragically, the painting was stolen in one of the largest art thefts in U.S. history, and reproductions are all we have.

“I have in my possession enough high-quality transparencies for two or three additional volumes,” claimed Eatman. But he’s passing on producing another book. “I urge reviewers who have been vocal about their own preferences that were not included to produce a volume to supplement A Treasury of Anglican Art. They have my good wishes.”

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