Nicholas Pyke talks to art teacher Stephen Bird about his painting, 'The Last Judgement', unveiled at Ampleforth College last term
The windswept mass of the North York Moors and the rural villages they shelter are many miles from the crowded streets of Brixton, in south London, and further still from the chapels and duomi of medieval Florence.
It is an unlikely mix of influences, yet Lambeth and Renaissance Italy have come together at Ampleforth College on the southern edge of the hills.
Differences in time and space, after all, mean nothing at "The Last Judgement", the title and the subject of an impressive new painting unveiled at the school.
The result of a close collaboration between the school's departments of Christian theology and art, the work is striking for its attempt to place the urban street life familiar to all today's pupils in the context of a theology that few now remember without prompting.
There is no doubting that an endeavour of this sort is more easily pursued in a faith-based institution such as Ampleforth, a Benedictine public school, where the last judgement features in religious education and, through the work of Giotto, Fra Angelico and Michaelangelo, its art history lessons. It is also the case, sad to say, that a painting of this scale and quality is more likely to be found in an upmarket, private institution than in a neighbourhood comprehensive.
Yet the funding for "The Last Judgement" came from a source open to all schools -the Farmington Institute, an Oxford-based organisation devoted to promoting the study of religious education throughout the education system.
Farmington offers annual fellowships to teachers in schools and universities. The results are then made available for other schools.
Previous fellowships have covered a wide variety of approaches to the subject, from the development of new technology for RE to the questions raised by Hindu iconography. In this case, Farmington's help meant paying the bill for staff cover during much of the last autumn term so that the artist, Ampleforth's head of art and art history Stephen Bird, was free to complete the piece at home.
The painting now hangs in Ampleforth's department for Christian theology.
But it is also on view to the public through Ampleforth's website (see end) along with notes helping explain its creation and wider implications.
The last judgement has been a staple for artists and illustrators since the first days of Christianity, and the medieval masters were part of the inspiration. Certainly the style of Stephen Bird's version is traditional: a 3.6 x 2.4 metre rectangle composed of 14 illuminated wooden panels, the figure of Christ in Glory at the centre. The Saviour's right hand is raised upwards to Heaven, palm forward, in the familiar gesture; his left points down. Both are wounded. While the acrylics are modern, the colours shine out from the sort of gesso ground that was standard for Renaissance and pre-Renaissance panel painters; the result is soft and gleaming. The medieval impression is increased by the comparatively linear, or two-dimensional depictions, suggesting pattern rather than perspective.
If much of the style is traditional, the interpretation is resolutely modern, combining the sense of time-worn iconography with scenes from modern life, drawn from the memory of the artist, who used to live in south London. The top half of the frieze, above the image of Christ, depicts the apocryphal voyage of Mary Magdalene and Joseph of Arimathea who navigate their boat on the journey to salvation. Here the Virgin Mary appears to the world in a red telephone box. Below, there is the alternative route, the road to damnation. People pour out of the World's End pub on the King's Road, Chelsea, to catch The Last Bus to Hell. Hell itself, the final panel on the bottom right, is a sinister underground car park of white, skeletal struts and darkness.
"The mosaic 'Last Judgement of the Baptistry' in Florence is a major inspiration," says Stephen. "I wanted to make something that on a personal level was inspired by that - a work I have visited every year for the past 10 years. I was inspired too by the doom paintings on the chancel arches of medieval churches that were mainly whitewashed over in the Restoration.
"What's wonderful about the painting in these medieval churches is that it's often a rather pure form of art, with a great sense of directness. I wanted to make something that wasn't trying to be a great work, but which had that same directness."
Although he had long intended to produce a painting of the last judgement, Stephen says that Farmington's involvement gave him the opportunity to complete it.
"The work is there to provide traditional iconography; but also a series of questions, too," he says. "The last judgement is quite a strange concept that we don't always deal with very well. I wanted not to provide answers, but to create a painting that stimulates debate and discussion."
This it does on many levels. In part, it is deliberately intended as an "essay" in the language of image-making, embracing contrasting styles and methods. The closer to hell we move, for example, the more abstract the depictions. It also raises questions about the nature of damnation.
Stephen's underground hell, in line with much modern Catholic thinking, is real (literally concrete in this case), yet entirely empty - a withering absence of God rather than a den of fiery demons. The overall impact of the piece is far from gloomy, however. The painting is shot through with humour and offers the prospect of salvation. Even the dead shall be "raised incorruptible," says Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians. "And we shall all be changed".
At Ampleforth a band of jazz-musician angels play this theme, with their own version of the last blast, shifting coffin lids with the force of their music. Part of its purpose, says Stephen, is also to remind us that visual imagery matters. Education for young children is packed with colourful iconography, most of it - like the primary nativity play - places them firmly in a world that's in touch with the past. Yet, as he points out, this sense of image-making has mostly drained away by the close of secondary education: "It seems appropriate to have a last judgement to complete the cycle."
* www.ampleforthcollege.york.sch.ukacademic_lifeartjudgementlast_judgement .htm
* More information about the Farmington Institute is available at www.farmington.ac.ukfellowships_and_awardsfellowships.html