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Christianity, equality and creativity at Canterbury Cathedral

Pamela Buxton

Glass installations at Canterbury Cathedral bring philosophical illumination

Even in its current state with scaffolding inside and out, Canterbury Cathedral and its precinct is a hugely impressive collection of buildings steeped in 1400 years of history and worship.

It’s had more than its fair share of trauma – most notably the martyrdom of its archbishop Thomas Becket in 1170, the dissolution of its monastery by Henry VIII, abuse by Puritans in the Civil War who smashed the Medieval stained glass and used the splendid nave to stable their horses, and bomb damage from the second world war, which destroyed the Cathedral library. Like most cathedrals, its architecture evolved organically with successions of rebuilding and adaptations over the centuries, although most of what’s there today was completed by the end of the 15th century.

As the cathedral undergoes a lengthy restoration, it is also the venue for Under an Equal Sky, an extraordinary series of site-specific installations by artists Philip Baldwin & Monica Guggisberg. Created variously in glass, steel and stone, these artworks not only respond to the architecture of their settings but also resonate with both historic events and contemporary conditions such as conflict, inequalities in society, the plight of migrants, the folly of Brexit and the sustainability of the planet. On another level, the 10 installations serve also as an enticing trail, adding an engaging artistic overlay to the visitors’ experience of the cathedral.

Baldwin & Guggisberg, who work mainly in glass, have been collaborating for nearly 40 years. For the Canterbury project they made the long trek to the Cathedral from their home in rural Wales more than 25 times, on each occasion discovering something new about its context.

‘Each time you can peel back another layer of the architecture, of the culture around the church and the complexities of its history,’ says Baldwin.

While the starting point for the Canterbury commission was the centenary of the end of the First World War, many of the installations develop a familiar motif in their recent work – that of the boat – which chimes with the cathedral’s current focus on migration and the refugee crisis. This is most spectacularly seen in Boat of Remembrance, a 20m-long installation over the nave. Created from 100 amphoras in clear, mould-blown glass collectively forming the shape of a boat, it is suspended from the restoration scaffolding high up below the ceiling.

‘We’re all migrants. We’re all nomads,’ says Baldwin, adding that the amphoras with their ancient use as both a way of transporting goods and as funeral urns, are symbolic of the human journey. Fittingly, the word nave is derived from navis, the Latin for ship, and the method of travel of many migrants including non-combatants displayed by conflict. It has an evocative, almost ghostly presence.

  • Baldwin & Guggisberg, Pilgrims Boat, 2018, free-blown and cold-worked glass, steel and sand
    Baldwin & Guggisberg, Pilgrims Boat, 2018, free-blown and cold-worked glass, steel and sand Credit: Christoph Lehmann
  • Baldwin & Guggisberg, The Four Assassins, 2018, mould-blown glass, blown at Venini, Murano, Italy
    Baldwin & Guggisberg, The Four Assassins, 2018, mould-blown glass, blown at Venini, Murano, Italy Credit: Christoph Lehmann
  • Baldwin & Guggisberg, The Four Assassins, 2018, mould-blown glass, blown at Venini, Murano, Italy
    Baldwin & Guggisberg, The Four Assassins, 2018, mould-blown glass, blown at Venini, Murano, Italy Credit: Christoph Lehmann

The artists have created several other boats around the cathedral. One of the most pertinent to our times is Pilgrim’s Boat, on the site of Becket’s tomb, which became an important place of pilgrimage. Here, the boat is packed full of a pleasing assemblage of blown and cold-worked glass vessels in all shapes and colours, all individualistic but travelling together in the same boat, in the same direction. While I read this as a celebration of the rich mix of cultures travelling together in migration, Baldwin – who was born in New York – explains that this was made in relation to Brexit, and the decision to leave the communal EU boat.

‘I wanted to say to Britain: What are you doing? Is this really where you want to go?’ he said.

Another vessel, Ordnance Boat, is filled with spent ammunition and accompanied by statistics on which countries have taken in the most refugees. With a few exceptions, the poorest countries have been the most welcoming. Stone Boat, carved for the artists by the cathedral’s own masons, sits in St Anselm’s Chapel and has the molecular structure of DNA, symbolising life, carved in its base.

At the site of Becket’s murder, Baldwin & Guggisberg took a different approach in the installation The Four Assassins. Here four mould-blown glass vessels represent the four knights who answered Henry II’s supposed plea of ‘Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?’. They lurk as sentinels in empty niches, their bright opacity contrasting sharply with the ancient walls. The artists see this work as about the voice of conscience. Did following orders out of duty absolve them of responsibilities for their actions?

In two further pieces, the artists fill clear cabinets with their own glass pieces. At Peoples’ Wall in the Chapter House, hundreds of brightly coloured free-blown pieces are packed together to symbolize the coming together of displaced people.

‘It’s us in all our splendour. Why can’t we live like that?’ asks Baldwin.

In Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow in the Eastern Crypt, more of these colourful vessels fill a case that represents today. Yesterday is evoked by glass fragments and sand while tomorrow is a case packed with white extruded polystyrene pieces, suggesting what Baldwin describes as ‘a cultural and environmental wasteland’.

  • Baldwin &Guggisberg, Unity, Diversity, Equality, 2018, painted steel
    Baldwin &Guggisberg, Unity, Diversity, Equality, 2018, painted steel Credit: Christoph Lehmann

There are also several mobiles. One, the Architect’s Mobile, incorporates the circle, square, spiral, triangle and cross ­– shapes common to all cultures – to symbolise fundamental aspects of human life.

Guggisberg describes this mobile as bringing together in physical form ‘culture, the structure of the cathedral building, its history and community together with our own journey as artists’.

While the artists have enjoyed the commission’s ‘fabulous’ opportunity to collaborate with the architecture of the building, Baldwin says that Under an Equal Sky will be their last cathedral work despite invitations to work in others. It’s probably a wise move – this splendid and thought-provoking Canterbury installation would be a very hard act to follow indeed.                                                                                                                                                   

Baldwin & Guggisberg: Under an Equal Sky A series of installations for Canterbury Cathedral, until 11 November 2018, Canterbury Cathedral, Kent