Today (Saturday 21 December) Salisbury Cathedral hung its magnificent new Nativity featuring members of staff and volunteers in a Renaissance style photographic tableau. It will be in place until 2 February. The Nativity, which has been printed onto three enormous voile panels around 10ft (3m) wide by over 35ft (10.5m) long, hangs nearly 50ft (14m) above the ground, in the Spire Crossing at the heart of the cathedral.
Creative director and curator Jacquiline Creswell and photographer Ash Mills worked behind-the-scenes in the Cathedral earlier this year to create the Nativity, using the Morning Chapel as their stage. The entire picture has remained a closely guarded secret, built out of a series of full length individual or group portraits shot by Ash Mills, and ‘painted’ into the glorious images that can be seen today.
The story of the Nativity is one which, for centuries, has been brought to life with the traditional staging of the stable scene, now familiar to so many. As creative director Jacquiline Creswell points out, for children it may be their earliest recollection of the church and for adults it almost certainly reconnects them with those early memories of the warmth and hope that the birth of Christ brings.
Creative director and curator Jacquiline Creswell said: “Faced with the challenge of capturing the history of the occasion and the spirit of the season, we did extensive research into the historical tradition of the Nativity and ways in which it has been portrayed through the ages. We wanted to present the scene in a fresh light, whilst incorporating all the elements of awe and mystery that so capture our imagination and stir our spirits.
“The concept we have developed is a traditional image of the Nativity, using an unconventional medium that will bring the story portrayed to the widest possible audience. The scenes on the voile banners will soar above the Spire Crossing to provide an uplifting image as we raise our eyes to meet it.”
Working alongside Jacquiline, Ash Mills, the photographer, had the monumental task of composing, lighting and building this painterly re-imaging of the Nativity story. Having shot over 650 images on his Olympus EM1Mk2 camera including architectural images to provide a suggested background, Ash eventually selected 64 stills to use in the final piece. These were ‘photoshopped’ layer by layer - 143 layers in all – to create the composite image.
Photographer Ash Mills said: “I shot each element of the scene against a black background, using studio flash techniques; with large softboxes and panel reflectors to emulate the modelling famously achieved by artists like George de la Tour and Caravaggio. It was technically challenging keeping track of where the light sources should be, where people’s eye lines should be and ensuring the perspectives were correct when the elements were arranged around the canvas later."
“In the end I couldn’t resist doing a ‘Hitchcock’ and including a self-portrait as shepherd, which I hid in the shadows while I was finalising my settings.”
Both Jacquiline and Ash appear as half hidden figures in the tableau. (Ash can be found in the shadows on the right below the shepherds, and Jacquiline on the left behind the Wise Men). The pair have worked together for over ten years, with Ash photographing and recording every Contemporary Art exhibition curated by Jacquiline at the Cathedral in that time. This is their first commissioned project and has been a labour of love. Their knowledge of the Cathedral, its history, staff and volunteers has meant that they were able to build an image that goes well beyond being a beautiful encapsulation of the Christmas story, providing a symbolic record of those who work and worship in this ancient space every day.
The cast of characters includes Freddie (Baby Jesus), a Close resident and grandson of the Senior Lay Vicar (adult singer) in the Cathedral Choir and son of former England Rugby player, Simon Halliday, and eight-year-old Arthur (Shepherd Boy), who supplied two lambs from his very own flock for the shoot. Half Pint (an orphaned Poll Dorset) is on Arthur’s knee, and Bertie (a South Down) is next to him at the foot of a shepherd, who is Arthur’s grandfather. Both lambs are from Arthur’s twelve-strong Sixpenny flock, which he runs with his grandma Nicky.
Salisbury Cathedral’s Nativity will hang in the Cathedral from Saturday 21 December until Candlemas on Sunday 2 February, which marks the end of Christmas for the Church.