Trinity Altar Frontal, Bath Abbey

This summer we spent a few days in Bath, Somerset. The city has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, and is the Bath of the Roman Baths, the fashionable spa town of Beau Nash and Jane Austin. For me, summer isn’t complete without visiting at least one of the historical churches or cathedrals of the places we visit (something that featured strongly in my childhood holidays), and whilst there we visited Bath Abbey.

The site of Bath Abbey has been a place of Christian worship for over 1000 years, though there has been rebuilding on the site during that time. The current Abbey building dates from the 16th century, but has undergone several restorations. At the east end is an enormous stained glass window, with its own history of destruction and restoration. However, what most interested me was the contemporary textile art on display.

Diptych: The Wedding in Cana

The Bath Abbey Diptychs are the work of artist Sue Symons; a set of 35 pairs of a calligraphic illuminated manuscript style sheet of scripture and music, and a representative piece of needlework created using patchwork, appliqué and embroidery techniques, all depicting the life of Christ from Annunciation to Ascension. In “The Wedding in Cana” shown, the illumininated scripture (left) is taken from John 2:1-11. The description given by the artist of the texile piece (right) is as follows:

“The background: Unbleached calico is painted with acrylic paint. a drawing of pots is traced, moved and retraced four times, creating new shapes and lines,yet retaining a relationship to the original subject.The green pot is cut from painted fabric. It pours red wine which sparkles with fine gold stitching. Christ is the white circle. The border is a decorative, linear design of pot shapes.”

(One Man’s Journey to Heaven, Sue Symons)

Images of all 35 pairs can be seen here.

St Alphege Triptych, Bath Abbey

In the side chapel of St Alphege is a large textile triptych, designed by Jane Lemon, and the altar frontal also by Jane Lemon is a beautiful depiction of the fount of living water. I was blown away.

Firstly I supposed that perhaps I hadn’t been paying too much attention growing up, but the only art I’d been aware of in old churches and cathedrals before now had looked old. I’d had no idea there were people producing these extraordinary pieces. Turns out Jane Lemon is well known in the world of embroidery, and her group have received commissions from the US, as well as creating pieces that decorate places of worship in Britain. Sue Symons went on to create a series of works celebrating the creation.

Secondly, I wondered yet again why our own places of worship don’t welcome such displays of artistic expression of faith and belief, are so sterile in comparison. We have artists, and an international art competition. But it says something that the competitions appear to be run by the Church History Museum (I was pleased to see that entry to the competition does not appear to require ceding rights to the piece being entered). We might be lucky enough to see small reproductions of the some of the pieces in church magazines. A lucky few pieces might go on to be used in print form as visual aids in lesson materials, or be selected to be used as an approved reproduction to hang in our corridors.

Thirdly, my thought was that this might be something I would enjoy doing. I don’t enjoy painting or drawing, but one of the more enjoyable things I did whilst my children were young was making the costumes for the numerous dressing up days at school. I enjoy working with fabric, ribbons, embroidery threads &c.

  • Is there a visual form of art you particularly enjoy?
  • What would like to see in our places of worship?
  • Is there a place for more varied visual expressions of faith and belief in our places of worship?
  • Which visual art form would you choose to work in, and why?

Discuss.