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St Matthews Church Oxhey Hertfordshire

Fr David's Sermon


21st March 2010

Fr David Shepherd

Jeff Gibbons - Annunciation Birth of Language

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A first reaction from a 10 year old art critic – “Dad, are you sure teenagers haven’t been let loose in the church, it looks like graffiti?’

Graffiti, street art, Banksy, all are fashionable in the Art world. Graffiti is actually not so far removed from Jeff Gibbon’s description of his work as being cartoon-like & of his references to the large crude wall paintings that were once such a feature in English Churches.

I suspect many of you will share the view of our young art critic, you may not like the work on show but then I suspect we are not meant to like it. Rather we are meant to be engaged by it. I thought I’d share some of my thoughts on & reactions to the work that surrounds us.

Jeff Gibbons has referred to his work as walk in art. In other words the church becomes the work of art & as we enter the church we become part of the work of art. The inspiration for the work is the artistic depiction of the Gospel story of the Annunciation, where St. Luke describes the visit of the Archangel Gabriel to the Blessed Virgin and the annunciation that she was to be the mother of Our Lord.

Thus the story is essentially about the invasion of the private space occupied by a young Jewish peasant girl & of the personal space of her womb. In Fra Angelico’s Annunciation, itself painted as a fresco on the wall of the prayer-space cell of a monk, it is space that is significant, particularly the space between angel & woman. We become part of that space & are invited to reflect on the word of God given through the angel. So it is I suggest with Gibbon’s work.

The large piece over the screen, directly references the tradition of Annunciation painting. The stool is the seat the Virgin sits on, the mirror represents the angel & the process of reflection.

I find the work strangely compelling. It has a kind of draw & power over the viewer. I’m intrigued by the artistic process, of the interpretation of ideas through paint. In his artist’s statement, Jeff Gibbon’s mentions the theological, philosophical, artistic & cinematic influences on his work. He is concerned with the question of language, with the difficulty of giving precise definitions to ideas, of pinning them down. Alphabet & words feature in a work that reflects the Christian moment when the Word (God) becomes flesh (Jesus), when language is born.

Jeff Gibbons is not too keen on explanations. Rather he prefers to let his work speak to us directly & personally. Thus it (& we) contains its own meaning. It is the difference between the old ‘with this ring I thee wed’ of the Prayer Book as opposed to the explanatory, ‘I give you this ring as a sign of our marriage’ in the new service1. One contains meaning, the other explains it. To ask ‘what does it mean?’ is to ask the wrong question.

Spending time with the painting, we notice many references to suffering, abjection, crises of identity & rejection of the (angelic) message. This makes us feel uncomfortable, profoundly disturbed. In faith terms, Mary said yes to the disturbance, we often say no. It is good to let ourselves be disturbed, especially during Lent.

Part of this disturbance concerns the effect on our very familiar sacred space. We take our church for granted; now it looks very different. The word that comes to mind is veiling, our church is veiled. As it happens we veil the crosses & statues during Passiontide. Now the veiling is more complete, as Victorian glass gives way to stark modernity. All looks appropriately Lenten, a preparation for Easter splendour.

So whether or not you like it, I hope you will spend some time with Jeff Gibbon’s work, notice your reactions & think what the Lord may be saying to you in your disturbance & thinking to about the great mystery of the Incarnation which we celebrate on Lady Day.

I hope you will agree that is an honour for St. Matthew’s to be hosting this challenging piece of art, part of an ancient tradition of Church patronage of the arts. Hopefully we can extend a warm welcome to people who come to view from near & far, just as Mary welcomed the Christ child in her womb.

Amen.

1 See Michael Schmidt’s Preface in Elizabeth Jennings New Collected Poems 2002 p xxi

© Fr. David Shepherd 2010

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