A series of huge paintings by Royal Academician Professor Stephen Farthing is to be seen for the first time this August in an exhibition curated by Jacquiline Creswell and hosted by the Cathedral.
The series, The Miracle Paintings 2011-2018, has taken Stephen eight years to complete, some pieces taking up to 18 months to paint. The artist resolved that the paintings would not be shown until the series was finished, so it is only now that they can be revealed.
The eight canvases, which measure around six feet by five feet eight inches, and 4 small ones on paper, will hand along the walls of North Aisle, Morning Chapel, Trinity Chapel and South Quire Aisle. They are being shown as part of RA 250, a series of events and exhibitions celebrating the founding of the Royal Academy in 1768.
Stephen Farthing was elected Royal Academician in 1998, joining the ranks of historic figures such as Gainsborough, Joshua Reynolds, Constable and Turner – not to mention Grayson Perry, Paula Rego, Anish Kapoor and many more. He began the first of his Miracle Paintings in 2011 during the Arab Spring, after an encounter with a Coptic Bishop in Cairo.
Professor Stephen Farthing said:
“The Bishop, who was once a civil engineer, told me that almost one thousand years after the death of Christ, the Caliph Al-Muise was engaged in debate with the 62nd Coptic Pope, Pope Abraam. Turning to the verse in Matthew’s Gospel - ‘If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to the mountain, move from here to there, and it will move, nothing will be impossible for you’ - the Caliph asked the Pope if his faith was strong enough to move the Mokattam mountain.
“At the end of three days of preparatory prayer Pope Abraam had a vision that instructed him to seek out a one-eyed man carrying water through the market place. The Pope found Simon the shoemaker, who fitted the description perfectly, and together they led a large gathering to the foot of Mokattam mountain. Here they knelt three times, each time the Pope making the sign of the cross with a gesture that reached out to the edges of the mountain, each time the mountain shook violently then began to levitate, each time the sun became visible beneath the mountain.
“As the Bishop told me the story he looked me straight in the eyes and I could only believe that he believed every word he was saying, which I found remarkable. To hear a man tell a story that I can only think of as fiction, and know he believed every word, was spell-binding. And that’s what started me on my series of pictures.”
Discovering a way to realise the ‘miraculous moment’ proved a challenge as he explained:
“The task I set myself in each painting, was not to paint a miracle but to freeze what I saw as a miraculous moment in the painted world I work with. As a result of making these paintings I have come to the conclusion that what makes an event or indeed a painting ‘miraculous’ is our inability to explain it in any other terms than by saying ‘this is what I saw’.”
It was the Christopher Nolan movie, The Prestige, that finally provided the key to unlock the series. Quoting Michael Caine’s character, John Cutter ‘the engineer of illusions’, Stephen Farthing explains:
“Caine’s character sets the scene by describing the three elements of a successful illusion: ‘The Pledge’ when the audience is told what is about to happen; ‘The Turn’ when the disappearance or transportation of the person or object happens; and ‘The Prestige’ which marks the return of the disappeared. Without the prestige, Caine’s character explains, the illusion is not magic...anyone can make something disappear...the magic he tells us is making it come back again.
“With the concepts of illusions, magic and the miraculous in mind, each painting has taken either a miraculous event or a relatively mundane object as its starting point. The reason for the two opposing approaches was that my goal was not to illustrate actual stories but to try to not so much understand, as to give a visual presence to a miraculous moment.”
Salisbury Cathedral Visual Arts Advisor Jacquiline Creswell, who has been instrumental in bringing the work to Salisbury, explains that the location is all important.
“Stephen wants the paintings to be shown together in a context where faith may be celebrated. Every day we take for granted all that is miraculous around us, from music to sight, from breathing to birth. He takes those seemingly everyday phenomena and captures their miraculous quality, the mystical energy that lies behind them.”
The Miracle Paintings 2011-2018 by Professor Stephen Farthing RA can be seen at Salisbury Cathedral from 23 August - 23 October courtesy of Candida Stevens Gallery www.candidastevens.com
For any other enquiries or further information contact: Marie Thomas at Salisbury Cathedral firstname.lastname@example.org 01722 555148