MY ATTENTION WANDERED from the closely printed pages of my first Bible, inscribed for darling Thomas from Gran April 1943, to its all too few illustrations. This was wartime England, with rationing. The picture pages showed brightly lit scenes of temple worship furnished, as it were, from Harrods. Jesus was turned out in clothes better pressed and neater than I thought appropriate. I judged him against the heroes of the annual Christmas pantomime, in those days before radio and TV one of childhood’s few live spectacles apart from Sunday church. The map section set out the dull desert expanses, and the eastern Mediterranean was scored with Saint Paul’s missionary journeys.
This bleak scene was illuminated, however, by weekly attendance at Bath Abbey, the 1502 church known as the Lantern of England for its high, clear windows. Fan vaulting hangs lightly above its spacious interior. Liturgically unadventurous morning prayer was nevertheless thrilling because of the music (fine organ, good choir, congregational singing), and even the preaching, though addressed to adults, reached home, if only because the preachers were not strangers. When I grew up, I was pleased to discover the German concept of gesamtkunstwerk (synthesis of the arts, literally “total art work”). The word perfectly described the coordinated hearing, seeing, and reflecting I had been fortunate enough to experience.
Too often these days artwork aspiring to religious vision is detached from any recognizable context, and art made for worship is frequently tired and stale. The label “liturgical art” has itself become a turn-off, connoting a narrow, lifeless thing—art that is at best a mere sign or pointer to a doctrine or belief.
Any exception to this dreary rule is especially welcome. For example, I recall warming instantly to John Dillenberger’s description of the happy satisfaction he felt at Saint Peter’s Lutheran Church in New York City, where good music, good preaching, and good architecture came together with a Willem de Kooning reredos. This is the gesamtkunstwerk that liturgical art ought to offer. Unfortunately, it did not surprise me to learn that the parishioners of Saint Peter’s later demanded the removal of the de Kooning piece from the sanctuary.
The sculpture of Stephen Cox, however, is a sign of hope in these problematic times. Born in Bristol in 1946, Cox has drawn critical attention for over thirty years. Though he is primarily a non-liturgical artist, his plentiful and well integrated use of religious themes has been widely noted and is worthy of a more sustained gaze.
Cox is an artist for a pluralistic age who almost incidentally has rescued liturgical art from its cul-de-sac, restoring its central, vivifying role in worship. His is not work to be found in a church furnisher’s catalogue, nor does he simply update existing wares by bringing today’s voguishness to bear on yesterday’s conventions. Preferring instead to visit sculpture’s ancient and historical sites and sources both by study and in person, Cox has studios in Italy and India and Egypt as well as in England.
In the early seventies, when a twenty-something Cox began teaching at Coventry College of Art, American artists were leading the way. Sol LeWitt, Mel Bochner, Dan Flavin, and Carl Andre would visit the campus. Cox’s early formalism yielded to a more intellectually based sculpture, and London’s prestigious Lisson Gallery, which specializes in minimalist art, gave him an exhibition.
A few years later, a new and powerful influence began to work on the thirty-year-old Cox, one that would decisively shape his awareness of forms, change his work, and even cause him to relocate his growing family to Italy: he discovered the writings of British painter Adrian Stokes (1902-1972). Stokes addressed a variety of subjects in his lifetime, but it was one of his earliest books, The Quattro Cento (1932), that opened up for Cox the forms and materials of such early Italian Renaissance carvers as Agostino di Duccio and Donatello. Attracted by Stokes’s feel for the Mediterranean region’s geology as well as its art and history, Cox discovered through his writing a sensual treasure trove of textures, colors, and varieties of stone. Stokes admitted Cox to a new, transalpine awareness of classical and Christian story—here was northern Protestantism turning south.
Like a new landowner inheriting an expansive estate, Cox found that religion was never far away in Italy, never hard to search out: hardly a hilltop but an abbey to crown it, many a shrine at the wayside—most Christian, some building on pagan precursors. Sometimes it was in the very ground underfoot: a road, a stairway, a well-worn pilgrim path, a high place. Bristol and Coventry had their art, architecture, and sculpture, secular and religious; here, by contrast, Cox reveled in the warm air, the radiant light, and not least in the profusion of sculpture, much of it outside the buildings as well as within.
He soon became acquainted with the quarries the Renaissance masters had worked, visiting sites the average Michelangelo tourist would miss, noting locations where he would later extract materials. From Stokes, he had caught a deep respect and love for the Mediterranean basin’s very crust, the soft limestone on which his first Italian carvings were made. Quickly he diversified into the region’s other marbles, the commoner travertine and others such as peperino, giallo di Siena, and the red Verona, omnipresent in the columns and paving of Bologna. Vasari’s famous Lives of the Artists was always to hand as Cox explored the Renaissance masters, paying special attention to Vasari’s observations on technique. Cox was taking his place in a culture where stone ruled and flourished, even among painters, as when Vasari noted Mantegna’s “stony manner.”
In his mature work, Cox tends to treat his themes and subject matter allusively. His fragmented Tondo: Ascension of 1983 (like his Gethsemane of 1982) picks up neither on the ascending figure nor the psychological reactions of the bystanders, but on the ancient olive trees, common to many an ordinary Mediterranean country place [see Plate 8]. The trees echo the earlier hillside setting of Holy Week’s drama: Jesus’s prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane at the foot of the Mount of Olives. By associating the olive trees with the ascension, this piece’s title sets a train of thought in motion, activating meditation.
Cox’s allusive technique—having the olive trees set off in the viewer a train of thoughts relating to the ascension—is similar in effect to the hymn “There is a green hill far away,” which alludes to the place of the crucifixion. In the liturgy, the antiphon plays a similar role: a brief verse is used at the beginning and end of a psalm, helping the worshipper to enter into the meaning of the psalm text itself. Likewise, banners and icons may be borne into the gathered people’s line of vision and on into their prayer. These processes are not entirely the work of the artist; they are also matters of reception and assimilation on the part of the viewer.
During Cox’s Italian years in the early 1980s, that hallmark modernist feature, fragmentation, began to appear. (“These fragments I have shored against my ruin,” wrote Eliot in The Waste Land.) Just as we viewers work at linking image to meaning, so we also fill in the gaps between the fragments. This technique bears a specific theological meaning within Christianity, where brokenness has a long history. The fractured sculptures echo such prayers as the Anima Christi, in which body, soul, and wounds are severally addressed, as are pierced hands, feet, and side, parched lips, closing eyes, and broken heart, then gathered up into one act of prayer and adoration.
The other inescapable feature of Cox’s sculpture from Italy to the present is its sexuality. Cox fully enters into Renaissance art’s exultant celebration of the male and female bodies and shows knowledge of it in his carving. It is the introduction of Egyptian and Indian elements that makes his sensuousness distinctive. The European Christian repertoire of forms is given nuance through a new store of sexual idioms. In Cox’s work, sexuality coexists with holiness. They breathe the same air.
I find holiness to be a less slippery word than spirituality, more rooted and earthy, and therefore more applicable to an artist who works in stone, whose hands are usually covered with bruises. If there is such a thing as holiness, its activity will be creative and creaturely, a wrestling with and releasing of the form imprisoned in the rock, a shape known only in hope and ambition. Cox has never used the word holy to describe himself or his work, but he has—in the face of tough interviewing—confessed to being “very, very religious, but not in the conventional way.” He neither parades his religion nor blushes at it—though he was ribbed about it by his three older brothers at his recent anniversary retrospective at Bristol’s City Museum and Art Gallery.
After his time in Italy, Cox made expeditions to Egypt and India, where the themes of sexuality, holiness, and love of materials would modulate into new keys. He represented Great Britain at the 1985 Sixth Indian Triennale, where he received a gold medal. He went on to establish a studio in the southern Indian town of Mahabalipuram, close to the Tamil Nadu Government College of Sculpture and Architecture. The town is famous for the seventh-century temples hewn from its rock—and for a flourishing contemporary tradition of stone carving with libation, in which oil is poured over sculptures, repristinating the religious impulse of their creation.
Who judges a work of art? Clearly an artist tests his or her own work during the process of creation, and sometimes rejects it (the draft is discarded, the image is painted over, the maquette is abandoned). When a piece is finished, the artist’s contemporaries judge its artistic merit, as does posterity. But what about a work’s holiness? Who evaluates that? Often a work is offered to God by its maker but rejected by contemporaries. Holy themes can appear for a short period of an artist’s creative life only to disappear altogether (as in the work of Edward Burra, 1905-1976), or can nag each decade (as with Francis Bacon, 1909-1992). Yet another model is provided by Mendelssohn’s rediscovery of the Bach Matthew Passion after centuries of eclipse. In today’s market religious art is, as has often been remarked, sidelined.
How to discuss the holiness in Cox’s work? What—or who—is its source? The quality is unmistakable, though Cox himself has nowhere laid claim to it. Some of his commissioned work has been consecrated by clergy or other religious communities, but never by the sculptor himself. It is indicative of Cox’s reticence that, when he was commissioned to make a Christian altar, he felt no need to research the traditional ritual for its consecration. He is content simply to make the work and leave its sanctification to others. This unselfconscious approach argues strongly for its genuine “sculptorly” nature. In theory, the dedication of his Christian altar mattered no more but no less to him than the libation practices of Mahabalipuram. But the first time he saw one of his altars anointed as part of the liturgy, Cox was deeply moved; his Christian upbringing sparked across his lifetime’s habit of chisel and hammer, skill of hand and eye uniting with religious impulse.
As well as Italy and India, Cox has drawn inspiration from the landscape and culture of Egypt. In 1988 he received a British government commission through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to provide sculptures for the Cairo opera house, then newly completed [see back cover]. He also gained official permission to open up ancient porphyry quarries in the mountains of eastern Egypt. In the course of a hazardous expedition, Mons Porphyrites yielded up seams of the white-flecked, deep purple stone, the hardest of its kind. From his study of Stokes, Cox had long known of this stone, once reserved for the use of Roman emperors (the birthing room of the imperial family was surfaced with porphyry, hence the expression “born in the purple”). Now Cox was to work it and know its spell. It had been used in Constantinople, where the sixth-century Paulus Silentiarius described the marble sheathing in the Hagia Sophia as “spring green from Karystos and many-colored Phrygian where red and silver shine like flowers. Porphyry is powdered with stars.”
Cox has used porphyry in a variety of works large and small. His Chrysalis (1989-91) is a gigantic grub about to burst forth from a highly polished porphyry case [see Plate 9]. This huge stone still bears traces of its abandoned working fifteen hundred years ago. Cox worked over his distant predecessor’s markings, creating fresh identity and meaning. In contrast to the majestic but static stonework of ancient Egypt, Cox uses the same materials to create a sense of energy and expectation.
From this same period comes a figurative piece in green hammamat breccia, Flask (1989-91), one of a group of works (also including Patra and Call) replete with meanings as numerous as the seemingly random elements which this marble exhibits in its compressed composition. In Echo (1993) [see Plate 10] and Annunciation (1986-87), in black Indian granite with oil, two figures face one another, male and female, one figure in two halves (made for each other? made from each other?), referencing the Hindu splitting of the self into two.
The religious references in these titles suggest an exploration of the holy. Although generally titles should not be milked for meanings, it’s revealing to note that the Sanskrit patra is the common root of the modern Hindi words for vessel, receptacle, recipient, person abounding in, master of, minister, condition of being a receptacle for. I’m not suggesting that Cox works with a dictionary in one hand and a drill in the other, but it’s worth noting his mixed marriage of the Protestant, European West with the pantheist, Asian East, as he addresses such themes at work in more than one religion. Inconveniently for theologians and others accustomed to working chiefly with concepts, the intercourse seen here is plastic, sculptural. Head, shoulders, and torso are vehicles for Cox, as they have been throughout sculpture’s centuries, across its continents, and in its numerous uses. Cox exults in this tradition, and the quality of his works has made him its freeman.
Osirisisis (1991) shows us the two ancient deities, Osiris and Isis, in Egyptian white diorite [see Plate 11]. By running their names together, the title associates them as closely as possible. They are massive presences, over sixteen feet high. The figures renew the old legend of conflict, each exhibiting to the other the drilling lines which sundered them. In Egyptian mythology, Osiris is king of the underworld and judge of the dead. At one time he lived on earth in human form, but was murdered and dismembered by the god of evil, then reassembled for his afterlife of kingship by his wife Isis. This work is situated by a water feature in the well designed Stockley Park industrial estate in Heathrow, near London, which brings the Nile to the mind’s eye.
Religious art is uniquely meaningful when it exists in the context of liturgy, where word, action, and visual expression are integrated. That is, it touches us most profoundly as part of gesamtkunstwerk, when our aesthetic, intellectual, emotional, and religious impulses exult together. Many of Cox’s public works impart a holiness to their sites, be they large or small, located in urban spaces, wild landscape, or cultivated parkland. Places that are already hallowed for worship, however, start with an advantage: here the sculptures receive a special welcome, and begin their communicating at a higher point in our register of awareness.
The vase-like figures in Vessels: Adam and Eve (1997), chosen by competition to be placed in the large, complex reredos of Saint Luke’s Church in Chelsea, London, powerfully introduce the creation story amid an ensemble otherwise centered on the New Testament story of resurrection and redemption. Stylistically, Vessels harmonizes with its neighbors, providing a vigorous yet calm starting point for meditation. The same can be said of Eucharist (1996-97) in Saint Nicholas Cathedral at Newcastle-upon-Tyne. In a style familiar and accessible yet somehow chaste, the bread and wine are set forth: the sculptor’s trademark fractures gain special force in the host (a tondo shape Cox often favors), and wine-dark porphyry is used to render the wine in an ellipse—the shape seen by the communicant when the chalice is inclined to the lips.
Of all church art, altars are the point on which the sharpest religious focus is trained: much converges here, and from here much proceeds. Cox is alert to both these movements. The serene perfection of his Saint Anselm altar (2006) in Canterbury Cathedral invites traffic through its frontal aperture [see Plate 12]. It says both “Come unto me, all ye that are heavy laden” and “Send us out in the power of the Holy Spirit.” This commission exemplifies the instinctive ease with which Cox is able to take a complicated brief from a church community and realize it in a graceful work. This twenty-first-century altar sits perfectly at home in the cathedral’s fourteenth-century architecture. Anselm lived and worked in Italy and France before he became Archbishop of Canterbury, and the altar and its dedication liturgy expertly embody these factors. The marble was quarried in the Italian Alps at the Val d’Aosta where Anselm was born.
Another altar, at Saint Paul’s Church in Harringay, London (1993) sits in a thoroughly modern context. When the old parish church was destroyed by fire and a new one was to be built, architect Peter Jenkins worked with Cox from the beginning—a circumstance that should be admired by architects and probably envied by artists. Together, they created an interior of coherence, simplicity, and subtlety. The single nave contains a token arch through which the approach to the porphyry altar and its fractured crucifixion reredos becomes focused [see Plate 13]. Natural lighting comes down from a hidden roof source. The altar and reredos accompany, guide, and enlighten the worshipper along numerous avenues of meditation. The patron saint’s missionary journeys, routes of the new faith’s development, are incorporated on a carved schematic map of Cox’s beloved Mediterranean. The crucified stands on the world’s horizon; immediately beneath can be seen the land masses and the open sea of the apostle’s highway. Below that, the skulls.
Reproduced in children’s Bibles, these routes serve young believers, too: it seems to me that the story of Paul, the sophisticate hero launching his journey, putting out to sea with minimal maritime technology and no shortage of faith, has a particular resonance for those who are just beginning to test the waters of their subteens—or at least it was so for me. And Cox is a supreme example of the artist in liturgy, willing and able to take his place in common prayer, with a fully pondered awareness of its rich meanings, without self-consciousness or self-indulgence. The art he makes is able to speak to a congregation on a profound level, more deeply perhaps than ministerial education.
The same reredos sets forth skulls at the foot of the cross, recalling both a continent’s and a century’s sacrificial deaths, as well as the legend that Adam died at the site of the cross. Three crosses are implied in the space between the tablets, another instance of Cox’s use of fragmentation. Speaking of the negative space of the crosses, he has described the experience of reaching his arm into the posthole at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem (to touch the stone where the cross is said to have rested)—a doubting Thomas moment in which faith reached out toward tangible evidence. The crucifixion scene is envisaged from the back, as a television camera might creep up on the scene in order to show it over the protagonist’s shoulder; this viewpoint in turn affords an observation point into the post-crucifixion future.
The altar itself, in green hammamat breccia and purple porphyry, can be read as the careful construction it is [see Plate 14]. Its materials adumbrate the lower reaches of a landscape (in green) with the purple, heavenly part. Taken together, they suggest the “green hill far away, without a city wall” of the old hymn, the place of sacrifice. Here the altar almost becomes a kind of landscape, recalling the stone cave at Greccio where Francis built the first crèche, and the garden and tomb of Easter morning. In short, the altar becomes Christ present to his people gathered around him.
While his work is clearly situated within the Christian tradition, Stephen Cox is not averse to introducing rhythms from much further east, though not in any forced or doctrinaire way. His method is fundamentally sculptural: the holiness claimed for him arises from that spirit in which the religious subject is approached first and last as gift—to be recognized, welcomed, acknowledged, and fostered. His work is at home in places of worship, but its holiness is of a kind to be encountered outside as well.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.