Opening a door: The Sacred made real
John Bateson, an artist based in Brixton, London, reflects on how faith and art entwine for him, and how Ignatian spirituality has helped his journey in faith.
When I was a boy my grandmother would take me into her studio at the bottom of her rather over-grown garden. It was a ramshackle sort of place, with tubes of paint, canvases, sketch books, paint brushes and a big easel in the centre. She would sit me down at a table with some paper and paints and let me get on with it. When the piece was finished she would pick it up and then in complete silence study it. But whatever I produced there would always be words of encouragement which made me feel I was a painter in the making.
My grandmother was my first and probably my best art teacher but it was long after my grandmother died that I picked up those brushes again and returned with paints and canvas to the easel. In between times, I had gone off and done a degree in Drama at Manchester University, got married and returned to the place I had grown up, Brixton in south east London. I had also become a Catholic.
Catholicism was like coming across a strange, exotic bird coming as I did from an evangelical background. But then something quite unexpected happened that changed my perspective in ways I would never even have dreamed. I ran into the Jesuits. This religious order that I had never even heard of happened to be running The Church of Corpus Christi in Brixton which myself and my family were attending.
They struck me as being a distinctly sane group of people, kind, conscientious, easy to talk to and with an enthusiasm for communicating their faith which attracted people from all walks of life to the church. They also had a way of praying that was quite new to me. Saint Ignatius, a former soldier and the founder of the Jesuits might, at first sight, not be a candidate for encouraging people to use and explore their the imagination when it comes to prayer but this is exactly what he did when he wrote his little book of spiritual exercises over 400 years ago.
Doing some of these exercises with a Jesuit was like opening a door that I had always considered permanently bolted. It turned the focus of my painting on its head. I had begun by painting local scenes here in Brixton, the buzz of market with its melting pot of peoples had always attracted me. But gradually I began to weave more biblical themes into these local settings. I painted Abraham and his wife Sara for example emerging from Brixton Tube station suit case in hand as if they were arriving in the promised land. I painted Angels over Brixton with the angel of Brixton spinning over the fishmongers and the local fruit and veg stalls. I re-interpreted one of the most iconic of all Catholic images, the Sacred Heart. Known and cherished by Catholics the world over, this image has always held a peculiar fascination for me with its strange mixture of tenderness and suffering . Interestingly the image I produced, a print, has attracted attention from people wouldn’t describe themselves as being remotely religious.
We live at a time where image is all important. We communicate more and more through images. Social media is a prime example of this. The Catholic church too has a long history of using images - stained glass windows, sculptures, tapestries , statues, paintings - to communicate faith. Many of these objects now lie in museums behind glass for people like us to view. It is good though to remember that the original purpose served a practical purpose, to raise the hearts and minds of people to God.
Art can still do this and that is why it is still a vitally important part of contemporary culture. Images sometimes speak more powerfully than words. The Church can no longer afford to commission art on a scale it once did so artists who want to make a statement of faith on canvas or in stone have to be creative in their approach. Art can be provocative, it can disturb but it can also make us think and see things in a new way which is exactly what Jesus himself did.
One of the reasons that myself and fellow artist Mike Quirke have organised an art exhibition is to demonstrate that art that speaks of faith still has a place in contemporary culture . Mike who is also a Catholic originally trained at Chelsea Art School and has a long history of exhibiting works in galleries across London. He is now a member of a group of artists who work in the old school of St Patricks in the heart of Wapping in London. This project originally set up by the then parish priest Fr Digby Samuels set out to “ Evangelise culture though art”.
For more about John’s art, see www.johnbatesonpaintings.co.uk
For more about Mike Quirke’s art see mikequirke.com
This article was originally published in the newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Southwark, The Pilgrim.