3. Spiritual signposts
The tapestry certainly made a spiritual traveller out of Michael Sadgrove. He put it this way, "It is a journey only I can make. As a human being, as a Christian, the voyage is mine alone. No-one else can make it for me, and I cannot make it for anyone else."
In this sense we are all potential travellers in the realm of the mind. To Sadgrove conversion 'is a long process, a lifelong one. At various points on the road, we pass milestones and know that there is movement'. He says in his meditation that he owes much to Graham Sutherland's tapestry, which he thought 'opened. or began to open, what Blake calls the doors of perception'. In this sense the tapestry was more than a picture to Michael Sadgrove; it proved to be an icon in the way it activates the imagination. It became 'a presence, a gateway to another world, a sacrament of divine love. He says:-
'Attend to it with loving imagination, and it draws me into its life, changing my perspectives, clarifying my goals. It speaks to me of God'
Time and again it drove him to make lateral excursions into other works of art to explore reinforcements of the "great human themes of death, judgement, hell and heaven; of life and suffering and love." Through these journeys he picked up 'travelling companions', such as Dante, Dickens and Benjamin Britten, who helped him reinforce his Christian mind- set on Sutherland's imagery.
To others, nature imagined in a picture, poem, a quiet place or viewing wide landscape can become an icon with quite different messages about life and eternity. Nature and art support the atheisim of Ludovic Kennedy, which he explains in this way:-
"Before he died, the Victorian poet Walter Savage Landor wrote this:
'I strove with none, for none was worth my strife,
Nature I loved and next to Nature art,
|I warmed both hands before the fire of life,
It sinks, and I am ready to depart.'
Ignoring the first line which is a little patronising, the thing that strikes me most about the poem is that there is no mention of religion among the things that Landor loved, only nature and art. It does not surprise me. The Church has always assumed that they alone are the guardians of the spiritual, and that a sense of the spiritual plays no part in the make-up of non-believers. They are wrong. Like Landor I have gained more spiritual refreshment from nature and from art than any other single source".
He then goes on with examples of the "benison that nature has to offer"from moments which have become spiritual icons in his own life, and quotes from the work of poets and writers who do not place their experiences in a religious context.
Similar pantheistic notions about nature run through the writings of Mary Webb. She tells of the spiritual fusion of the elements people and nature which blend human passion with the fields and skies in experiences that are greater than religion. Mary Web's rustic character Prue Sarn, narrator of 'Precious Bane' describes the 'powerful sweetness' that came to her when, surrounded by the sights and sounds of the countryside, she knitted quietly in the apple store under the cottage eaves.
Nevertheless, Sutherland's tapestry was created as an icon of the Christian religion which is centred on the worship of God and the surrender of our God-given free will, through Christ, to a divine purpose. The tapestry's aim is to focus the Christian message for Christians which begins with the fact of human sin and the need for individual repentance. However, these days, many visitors to Coventry Cathedral are unlikely to be fervent Christians and may well be followers of another faith, which makes it difficult for most people to contemplate what is essentially a work of art dominated, at least on the surface, by Christian symbolism. On the other hand, most people viewing the great tapestry are likely to be searching for answers to the 'whys' and 'hows' of our origins, social relationships, and destiny as groups and individuals. From this aspect, religions still provide the only answers to important questions about being human which people face today:
· Why was the world made?
· Why do innocent people suffer?
· What is right and what is wrong, and how can I develop the social skills to make moral judgements?
· Is history just a meaningless sequence of events, or is it leading somewhere?
· Will a Creator listen responsively to my anger, my doubts, my questions as well as my worship?
· What should be my attitude towards a consumer society which is ravaging the Earth's natural resources?
For example, Christians today have a great capacity for identifying the political and moral passions of the moment as essential practical responses to religious teaching. This is also a capacity of nominal Christians who assess the faith simply as part of received Western culture. Although stripped of the demands and sacrifices which authentic religious belief imposes, about the exclusivity of God and the immanence of judgement, Christianity is a powerful socialising force none the less.
The tapestry also offers its viewer access to a vast panorama of early peoples. In terms of its historical scope, the tapestry stimulated Michael Sadgrove to muse on 'creation' the 'big bang', and the mystery of evolution in a natural world 'constantly in the making'. The tapestry offered him windows into the cosmos, where astrophysics, although moving rapidly away from speculative mathematics, is still unable to get beyond a specialised kind of semi-mathematical mysticism at the interface with Creation.
As a work of art, the tapestry throws light on the history of human creativity and its mental imagery. The symbols of the Christian evangelists which support 'Christ in Glory' stem from tenth century European sculpture and ornamentation. As notional icons they are very much older. They are embedded in the Hebrew prophetic culture of the Old Testament, and the polytheistic nature worship of the contemporary agrarian super-power civilisations in the 'fertile crescent'.
Sutherland's art which produced the tapestry is rooted in what he termed the 'reservoirs of the mind'. From this notional mental charge emerged all kinds of emotions and impressions whereby natural forms were amplified and transubstantiated as paraphrases of the unity of earth and people. In particular, through swirls of thread and colour in the tapestry we may be transported from Coventry to the deeply cut rocky estuaries and bays of Pembrokeshire where he painted, turning landscapes into ambiguous mysteries of nature.
Sutherland's great tapestry is therefore a notional inventory of ideas about our being a special chemical entity in a Universe where we are part of nature in everything we do, from painting a house, to offering a prayer. There is therefore a window into the tapestry for everyone.
What follows is an attempt to put down some markers as invitations to personal voyages into notions which unify us as social beings with planet Earth and its cosmology. Sutherland helps us because he has clearly separated the main symbols of the tapestry from the green background. These provide conceptual boxes, frames and openings which in an educational or exploratory context are all windows into deeper meanings.
The great tapestry is then a home for the spiritual traveller- a home whose doors and windows swing freely both in and out- a base from which to journey forth and return, only to hit the road again in study and imaginings.