Richard Davey sees Nicholas Mynheer’s new work
Church Times March 2nd 2007
GLASS ARTISTS and manufacturers have begun in recent years to explore new methods of production, and to incorporate new technologies such as lasers, neon, and holographs. It is surprising, therefore, that contemporary art’s love affair with new media and new techniques should not have embraced the potential of glass. Instead, it remains tainted with the label of craft and utility. But one artist who does take advantage of these possibilities is Nicholas Mynheer, who has recently undertaken a number of commissions in collaboration with Daedalian Glass.
A screen for the tower arch of St Martin’s, Tuddenham in Suffolk, and a small roundel window for his home church at Horton-cum-Studley, in Oxfordshire, have shown that there can be exciting results. Mynheer’s latest commission has just been installed at St Peter and St Paul, Great Missenden, in Buckinghamshire.
The brief for the project was to transform the church’s south transept into a discrete area to be used for work with young children, and as a space for private prayer, and a venue for meetings and conversations. But the PCC wanted this not to be an enclosed area, cut off from the body of the church, but to imply an integration with the rest of the body of Christ.
Daedalian Glass was therefore approached to create a low, free-standing glass screen, while Mynheer was commissioned to design the scheme. The result is bold, unique, and beautiful — a dynamic glass sculpture rather than a piece of architectural fencing.
From a distance, the screen is subtle and unassuming, a tantalising and ethereal presence that seems to hover like a mist between the arches of the nave arcade. Up close, while it appears more substantial, it never seems solid; for the variety of textures and patterns that have been incorporated into its construction disrupt the surface so that it melts before our eyes.
Unlike Mynheer’s Tuddenham screen, which fills the internal tower arch, this is a low barrier that demarcates two sides of the new Portland-stone platform laid by A.P.S. Masonry (Oxford) to replace the Carrington box pew that once filled the transept.
On the front of the screen is an asymmetrical triptych of thick glass panels, a free-standing window brought down to ground level. At the top of the tall central panel, a bubble of clear glass shaped into a curvaceous “holding” cross overshadows everything, forming a lens through which light is transmitted into the church, and through which we glimpse the world beyond. Ripples in the glass radiate out from the cross like a sunburst, forming a river of light that flows down to the floor. A few shards of coloured glass are fused into the lower half of the panel, their quicksilver brilliance leaving a rainbow on the retina like the half-glimpsed flight of a kingfisher.
The two panels on either side are dominated by the figures of the patron saints of the church. If the cross and central panel are not typical of Mynheer’s work, these large figures of the two saints caught in the moment of their calling are distinctively his, their stylised, simple forms a powerful portrayal of graphic emotion.
Peter stands holding a bowl of fish and fishing net, his mouth open to say yes to the cross’s call, while Paul stands as Saul, transfixed by a ray of light, the stones from the martyrdom of Stephen falling from his hand. Subtle splashes of colour — pale-blue fish and silver-grey stones — animate these panels as well, further adding to the playful, constantly shifting sense of depth created by the rippling, sculpted surface of the glass.
Ascend the gentle slope to the side of the platform, however, and enter the new space itself, and what has been hidden from the main body of the church by a layer of silvering is now dramatically revealed: a series of five exquisite scenes from the childhood of Christ which have been etched on to the glass. Seen from an adults’ perspective, they are elusive images that never quite resolve into a coherent form, but stoop down to the level of a small child, and they come into focus; for this screen is not just a functional object, but a physical embodiment of the theological position that informs its presence.
The screen was given in memory of a member of the congregation, and this is reflected in the scenes themselves, with small, incidental details incorporated into the designs which make the scheme personal to the donor, but also give it a sense of more universal individuality. At the feet of the Holy Family lies the faithful family dog; while the image of the Mother and Child rejects the traditional iconography in favour of a scene of domesticity, as Mary helps the infant Jesus to make a cake.
Humour also plays its part, with “two little dickie birds” seated on the wall behind the image of “Jesus and the little children”. But humour and incidental detail are also joined by images of a more profound theological depth. “Jesus in his father’s workshop” becomes an image of the Trinity, as Joseph and Jesus are joined by a bird flying in the sky. More poignantly, however, earthly and heavenly father collude with their son as he builds a cross before their eyes. But this is an upturned cross reminding us also of St Peter’s death; the result of the calling by Christ that we have already seen on the front of the screen.
Earlier in the cycle, as the Holy Family flees to Egypt, an angel points the way in a line that leads through the little boy’s cross to an image of the resurrection — a Noli me tangere that occupies the side panel of the screen above its dedication to Gillian Tompson.
Mynheer’s drawings, which have been beautifully realised by Davia Walmsley of Daedalian, perfectly suit the medium of etched glass, with their crisp linearity and simple forms, which are easily legible even in bright light. For the children — of all ages — who will use this space, I am sure that they will provide a constant source of inspiration and fascination.