Art in a sacred setting: Baldwin and Guggisberg at Canterbury Cathedral

A thought-provoking installation by artists Baldwin & Guggisberg on equality and diversity finds an inspirational and uplifting setting in Canterbury Cathedral. Veronica Simpson celebrates the possibilities this exhibition presents for revisiting the use of art in sacred and ancient settings

Words by Veronica Simpson
Images by Christoph Lehmann

There is a powerful legacy of glass in churches. As I well remember from a childhood of regular Sunday churchgoing, there are few sights more uplifting (especially to a bored child) than the pure chromatic intensity of stained glass, especially if struck by a shaft of sunlight, when it projects its magical, shifting, rainbow hued shadows across the stony surrounds.

In explaining my ongoing affection for particularly ancient and decorative churches to my religion-free children, I try and tell them how, back in the day, when most people’s homes were dark, cramped, ornament free and dirt-floored, churches would have offered the most spectacular display of artistry and colour the humble, civilian worshippers encountered in their daily lives – long before modern museums and public galleries offered regular feasts of the ne arts to ordinary people, for free. Furthermore, without the church as patron, most of our nest artists and craftsmen would have starved and their skills evaporated.

But what role does the church play today within the arts – atheist and agnostic as most of the UK is, and drenched as we all are in sensory stimulation, 24/7, albeit normally of a virtual kind?

Unity, Diversity, Equality (2018), painted steel

Precisely because of that daily dallying with the online world’s torrent of information – with the most meaningless, offensive and irrelevant elements always floating, like the worst kind of effluent, to the top – I found myself really looking forward to visiting Canterbury Cathedral this summer to see what artists Philip Baldwin and Monica Guggisberg had conjured for their exhibition of 10 new, site-specific works installed within its peaceful, vaulted confines.

New York-born Baldwin and Swiss-born Guggisberg have lived and worked all over the world, designing and producing pieces of exquisite blown glass for everyone from luxury brands like Venini and Rosenthal to commissions for Edinburgh’s St Mary’s Cathedral. Born in the late Forties and mid-Fifties respectively, they grew up in the shadow of the Second World War, and while their exhibition here, called Under an Equal Sky, has a commemorative quality – specifically, the main piece in the Nave that commemorates the 100 years since the First World War ended. It is the repercussions of that and subsequent wars, and the attempts to find a more equal, collaborative and inclusive way of living with other nations, and the way in which those efforts are currently unravelling, that preoccupies them here.

‘The show is much more about the present and implications for the future,’ says Baldwin in his laconic New York drawl as we sit down in a secluded garden to the rear of the Cathedral’s administrative offices to discuss the work. The commemorative work, called Boat of Remembrance, features 100 translucent, blown-glass vessels that form an elegant boat shape, hanging in the cathedral's nave. Through their very emptiness, these amphorae ask questions about what we will fill the next 100 years with, while prodding us to remember the immediate past. Says Baldwin: ‘What’s the point of commemorating the First World War if you don’t embrace the succeeding 100 years?’

The ideas for this show took shape over 20 or more visits to the cathedral and conversations with its dean, the Very Reverend Dr Robert Willis. Says Baldwin: ‘We wanted to try and do something that was thematic and embraced these different factors: history, architecture, war, community, culture. Many of these things the cathedral already represents. It is a place of sanctuary. Kent is the gateway for refugees and migrants. These things are naturally interwoven.’

Boat of Remembrance (2018), of mold-blown glass and steel, blown in Hergiswil, SwitzerlandBoat of Remembrance (2018), of mold-blown glass and steel, blown in Hergiswil, Switzerland

After the spectacular work at the entrance, the other nine pieces draw visitors into, around and through the vast cathedral complex. Looking for the Four Assassins, I make my way to the Martyrdom, a small chapel dedicated to Thomas Becket, former Archbishop of Canterbury, stabbed on this site by followers of King Henry II, with whom Becket had disagreed. Four intensely coloured opaque glass sentinels (made in Murano, by Venini), hide in the alcoves of Becket’s tomb, ranging in hue from treacherous green to bloody red. Becket’s murder helped to established Canterbury as a site for millions of pilgrims, who travelled across the world to the site of his martyrdom.

Baldwin & Guggisberg have been keen to expand the media in which they work, and this setting, with so much existing glass art, provides the perfect opportunity. Two of the most affecting works are in metal and stone: Unité, Diversité, Egalité is a sculpture comprising swirling strands of twisted white metal, hanging from the Corona gallery. It is coloured white, partly to contrast with the stained glass windows behind it, and also, as Guggisberg says: ‘It was more powerful to have it in white because all the colours turn white when you spin a colour spectrum. It makes them all equal.’ Another standout piece is the Stone Boat, in St Anselm’s chapel. Set in a quiet corner, away from one of the most sumptuously rich, red and gold stained-glass windows I’ve ever seen, this simple, elliptical and empty boat speaks volumes. Designed by the artists, it was carved by stonemasons, 27 of whom are still employed full-time in the cathedral, and out of the same Caen stone, from Brittany, from which most of the cathedral was rebuilt under the Norman kings.


The Stone Boat (2018) crafted from Caen stone by the Cathedral's stonemasons

The pair is hopeful that the works will travel after the exhibition ends in November. But for now, they are enjoying the way they resonate in this particular setting. Says Baldwin: ‘This is part of why Dean Robert was keen to do this exhibition. As he himself said very eloquently: you introduce an artwork into a space, you alter that space for the time that that artwork is in there. You add an element to it that provokes fresh thought, especially for someone who comes regularly. It’s a conversation. And that’s marvellous.’

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