For tourists of a certain age, old churches are often worth poking about in for half an hour or so. Some are more interesting than others. The Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome, for instance, has two Caravaggio paintings: ‘The Crucifixion of St Peter’ (1601) and ‘The Conversion of St Paul’ (1600/1601). These striking paintings are about faith and martyrdom, but you don’t need to be a believer to appreciate them. They suffice as metaphors.
In Britain our established Christian faith is in trouble, and church attendance continues to fall. But the organisations that manage religious buildings are keen to see them promoted as visitor attractions. They are part of our history, after all. Contemporary art has a role to play here, as it does in other types of historical site, providing a new point of connection for visitors. Mat Collishaw’s new work at Ushaw College in Durham is a case in point.
Ushaw opened as a Catholic seminary in 1808, but its origins date back to the reign of Elizabeth I. English Catholics were tortured and burnt at the stake, just as Protestants had been under her sister, Mary Tudor. As a response to this persecution, the English College was established at Douai in France in 1561 to train Catholic priests in exile, but after the French Revolution the college was relocated to Ushaw. It closed in 2011 due to a shortage of vocations; a lack of students wanting to be priests, in other words.
Collishaw was invited to show some of his existing work here, but instead decided to make a new work in response to the former seminary’s origins in religious intolerance. In the College archive he found a small book, William Allen’s A True, Sincere and Modest Defence of English Catholics (1584). The book is shown here, open at the title page, with annotations by Richard Topcliffe, ‘Compiled by that monsterous trator (sic) Dr Allen,’ Topcliffe has written in a decorative hand, and ‘Woe betide to him, who calleth good, evil, and evil, (good).’ Allen was the founder of the English College, and Topcliffe his nemesis; Elizabeth’s chief priest hunter and torturer.
Collishaw’s installation The Nerve Rack is in the Ante Chapel of St Cuthbert’s Chapel at Ushaw. Before being able to admire the Gothic interior of the chapel itself, the visitor is confronted by a metal enclosure in which a lectern, a sculpted brass eagle by Augustus Pugin, stands facing a skeletal bird, its negative self, stripped to the bone.
The eagle is the symbol of John the Baptist, and this one is suitably proud and noble. But, like the Carrara marble statue of Madonna and Child, the statue of Christ, or the effigy of St Cuthbert high on the wall, also in the Ante Chapel, it is inert and impassive.
But Collishaw’s malevolent bird is alive. When one of its sensors detects movement, the animatronic skeleton whirrs and comes to life. Spreading its wings, it turns its head, scanning the space and meeting each viewer’s gaze with empty eye sockets. It is the opposite of Pugin’s eagle in every way.
Representations of living things, which are not alive but appear to be alive by moving, evoke anxiety. A skeleton which appears to be alive is even more troubling. The fighting skeletons created by Ray Harryhausen for the film Jason and the Argonauts (1963) are terrifying. When the dead live something is not right in the world. Think of George Romero’s zombie movies; all those metaphors rising from the grave.
Collishaw’s skeletal eagle plays with a mouse trapped beneath one of its claws, perhaps a reference to those martyred at the hands of Topcliffe, whose cruelty was sanctioned by both church and state. But there were, and are, many other perpetrators and many other victims of intolerance in the history of the world. Despite the tenets of Christianity and other religions extolling brotherly love, sectarian hatred is justified by belief.
In our contemporary world there are still religious and political movements that demand ever more purity from their believers. One only has to look at the venom expressed on social media, or the physical attacks on ‘non-believers’ in the streets, to see the creation and persecution of ‘the other.’ The Nerve Rack is an unsettling metaphor for the evil presence that lurks at the heart of any faith, be it religious or political or ethno-nationalist. There is no comfort here; intolerance isn’t just lurking in the past.
The Nerve Rack, Ushaw College, County Durham, 5 July to 3 November 2019.
Ushaw College is open Mondays to Saturdays: 11am – 4pm (Last entry 3pm). Day tickets are £3 for adults and £1 for children (age 5 -15). For more information visit the Ushaw College website.
Dr Mike Golding is a writer and artist. He writes novels under the nom de plume A. M. Stirling and lives in Newcastle upon Tyne.