The Triptych of St Peter's Church
The new triptych was installed at the East End of St Peter's on 29th November 2003.
Three years ago when I arrived at St Peter's I was quickly made aware of the worn-out appearance of the 'ferial' curtain that hung behind the High Altar. Every time it was removed (each Lent and Advent) it was obvious how fragile and tattered it had become. Additionally, there was a real clash of colours when the gold altar frontal was placed on the altar at Christmas and Easter. It was therefore agreed that consideration be given to replacing it. In the meantime the Lenten array (the plain Hessian curtains and bare altar) has been retained throughout the year.
For many centuries the church has been recognised to be one of the key patrons of the arts, and artwork (stained glass windows, statues, sculpture, vestments and hangings etc.) has always played an importance part in the appearance of both buildings and worship. St Peter's has reflected that tradition through the years and, as one of the prominent church buildings in the City of Nottingham, has seen its role as especially to support young, up-and-coming artists (including musicians).
The PCC therefore decided two years ago to commission Tiffany Groves to produce a triptych to replace the curtains behind the High Altar. Her original design was carefully considered, and she was asked to modify it. The PCC supported the new design unanimously and it was presented to the Annual parish meeting in April 2002. It was also supported by the Diocesan Art Adviser and a faculty was applied for early in 2003. The Diocesan Advisory Committee (the church's planning authority), English Heritage and the Council for the Care of Churches also enthusiastically supported the project. The Chancellor of the Diocese (a High Court Judge) therefore granted the faculty.
What I have tried to do with this piece is to portray the eternal images of Christianity. After going through a lot of religious symbols and subjects, I decided that the most obvious and appropriate choice of subject matter would be the Holy Trinity. The finished piece is a triptych which in itself draws the obvious parallels with the Trinity, with three pieces making a whole.
The colours used are also very prominent within Christianity, the predominant blue for example which saturates a lot of the surface represents the Water of Life, but can also be seen as the power of nature and God over all of us. In other words, The Father.
The Cross as well is quite an obvious symbol of Christianity, the colour red representing blood and humanity with the central area of light being the light of Jesus Christ. The red edges on the outside indicate the boundaries of humanity. The Cross in other words represents the Son.
Underneath the Cross is a shaft of white light coming down and soaring across the picture. White Light representing the Holy Spirit.
I was anxious. There was a lot at stake. A confusion of feelings, all of them influenced by others. This project had been steadily developing over 3 years. At home we have a painting on our wall, which is good. We see strong deep blue colour being interrupted by a sweep of white and we interpret it, we look for meaning. It was our painting.
I saw the wall develop. The east wing being unclothed over time revealing the past and other generations struggle with explaining the truth the meaning. For me it looked a mess with no focus; it was all a muddle and it helped my feelings of uncertainty. Risks I thought.
On the Saturday the central painting was being hung. It was different - it wasn't how I had imagined, the cross had changed, it was more definite a statement. I didn't go near. I stood at the back and didn't dare stay long. I was afraid.
This Art, this painting has transformed St Peter's for me. I gaze and gaze at the depth. Darkest blue, the colours merging yet standing alone; for me this painting speaks of creation. It tells me of the glory of God. It stands alongside my favourite piece of poetry, God's Grandeur "It will flame out, like shining from shook foil".
My gaze is focused on the east wing and I wonder. Art is such a risk; being in love is such a risk. Yet true love will risk all. I am no longer afraid.
What it covers
Most people at St Peter's had no idea of what was hidden for fifty years behind the hangings behind the High Altar, until they were removed some weeks ago in preparation for the installation of Tiffany's triptych. We were then faced with the sight of green mosaic panels with gold crosses, on each side of a remarkable and puzzling piece of sculpture. Many people have commented on this revelation and have asked whether it might continue to be displayed.
The sculpture represents the angel releasing St Peter from prison (see Acts Chapter 12), a dramatic subject with life-sized figures in high relief; but the Chilmark stone is suffering from many years' dust and dirt. The reredos has also been significantly altered since it was first installed in 1913 in memory of the architect Robert Evans senior, who was a churchwarden at St Peter's for 30 years. Originally it stood two feet higher than at present and had one central pinnacle and two each side, which obscured the bottom of the East Window. The mosaic panels were given by members of the Evans family, though they seem to have been partly covered by hangings when they appeared on this postcard. The date of the postcard is not known, the picture may have been taken at the time of the restoration appeal in the 1920s, or just after the Second World War.
The sculpture must have dominated the altar quite strongly, though for some time this was clearly felt to be "not a problem" - perhaps because the Eucharist was then less central to the Church's practice and because the celebrant then usually stood at the north (left) side of the altar rather than behind it. (Ironically, an earlier altar-piece, now forming the ceiling of the west porch, was also criticised for distracting worshippers.)
About 1950 Canon Angus Inglis, as part of his re-ordering of St Peter's, decided that the sculpture was no longer appropriate. As Andrew Deuchar has pointed out, it has no specific reference to Christ, and does not serve as an adequate focus point for worshippers. It was therefore "dismantled": lowered in height, covered by the familiar green hangings - and lost to sight! Signs of the damage done to the sculpture and mosaics are all too obvious on close inspection, and the display of the sculpture behind the altar is no longer a desirable option for both aesthetic and liturgical reasons. (The Diocesan Art Adviser agrees with this assessment.)
It is however a historic work of art in its own right. The sculptor Albert Toft A.R.A. (1862-1949) was well-known and is represented by several other sculptures in Nottingham - the statue of Queen Victoria on the Embankment (formerly in the Old Market Square), the monument to Captain Albert Ball V.C. in the Castle grounds, and the memorial to Catherine Wallis in St Peter's (the bronze figurine was stolen by vandals in 2002 and is being replaced). Toft was not a Nottingham man - he was born near Birmingham and worked at Wedgwood's before setting up his studio in London - but he obviously had some links with the city since in 1890 he exhibited at the Royal Academy a portrait bust of George Wallis, the first director of Nottingham Castle Museum and a churchwarden at St James's Standard Hill (where the memorial to his daughter Catherine was first placed). Toft's work can be seen in galleries and in public places all over the country - he was particularly called on for war memorials, as in London, Birmingham, Ipswich, Oldham and Stone, and in Cardiff, where he designed the Welsh National Memorial. He also published a book on Modelling and Sculpture: a guide to traditional methods (1915), which can still be found in bookshops.
St Peter's has the privilege of housing one of Toft's lesser-known works - but it is clearly not now suitable for use as an altar-piece, and perhaps another location should be found.