Category Archives: Cistercian statutes

Effigies and Figurative Depiction

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There is a piece of work onsite which invites visitors to leave their mark on three cast wax tablets with an attached scribing tool. I return to it once a week to see what marks and insignias have been added since the last time I saw it and I’ve been periodically replacing the tablets with blank canvases which always seem to stay blank until the first brave person breaks the barrier of hesitation, then they seem to quickly fill up. Of the various initials, names and symbols the tablets attract I have been particularly intrigued by the repeated smiley faces visitors leave and wonder what it is meant to communicate to future visitors.

Pair this with the numerous figurative depictions around the site, and the way in which humanity expresses itself through effigies across culture and history, and I wonder why it is so important for us to create these symbols of ourselves? If ornamentation is an expression of skill, taste and belief which outlives the individual maker or commissioner,  then what of the face, or in fact, any part of the human body? Are we creating a symbolic depiction of our civilisation as we know it? If decorative expression and ornamentation represent a particular point in history which we know to be fleeting then perhaps our effigies of humanity express a fear that our civilisation itself is also fleeting.

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Last week I held an evening tour of Valle Crucis as part of the Llangollen Fringe which attempted to reveal some of the interesting tales of humanity attached to the site, combining the historic with incidental stories from the present day. To culminate the evening I asked visitors to take a wax head and hide it somewhere around the Abbey so that their action and the legacy of the evening would outlive the residency. I have only been able to spot one so far so I’m pretty sure this interaction with the site will last well beyond it (and who knows how long beyond that).

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Wooden carving at Plas Newyd, Llangollen

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Blinging

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Bit of a hectic week with work on the larger pieces very much under way, plus a school visit and a local community evening too. My research into Valle Crucis and the lessons learnt here so far have settled and I am creating work responding to specific alcoves and spaces around the Abbey. Spaces that vary in scale, intimacy and security.

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I am drawing inspiration from the Cistercian relationship with ornamentation, and in fact, our relationship with the decorative and the gilt today. Using brass, coloured glass, ornamental carving and figurative forms I want to create compositions in the empty spaces which mimic and play with the Cistercian’s guilty relationship with the ornate. This need for elaborate objects and materials speak both of the authorship and taste which is recorded across the Abbey’s building, destruction and repair.

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Pupil work at Bryn Collen as part of the Llangollen Fringe art workshops

I’ve also been involved with the Llangollen Fringe art program, led by local artist Jan Murray, and have visited local schools this week and last to talk about my work. Jan’s workshops explore sense of place and both Gwernant and Bryn Collen primary schools took part in a found media workshop in local woodland which had obvious links to my previous work. Their perception of my work, the objects and how to bring them together using binding wire was pretty inspirational; their work, alongside the other school groups will be on exhibition in Llangollen as part of Llangollen Fringe Festival from 18-28th July. More about that here.

White Out

Photo courtesy of Cadw

I’ve been snowed out of Llangollen so far this week and Valle Crucis has been closed to the  public, you can follow Cadw on twitter for updates. The Abbey looks particularly resplendent in it’s white coat, which is quite pertinent as far as my residency research is concerned. I’ve been thinking about the “White Monks” of Valle Crucis. White can be ghostly and ethereal or it can be symbolic of purity, it’s an absence of colour and I suppose a blank canvas begging for inscription.
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During my first weeks onsite I’ve been thinking about the figurative carvings across the site, ornamentation which would have been bending the original rules of the Cistercian order and now mark the human interaction with the site in the most direct way. To mark the building with faces and figures, symbols of humanity, says “we were here”. I’ve been whittling figures in wood and returning to some of the tiny Frozen Charlotte dolls I’ve collected and recast in porcelain, not sure where they’re going yet but will start playing with one or two installation ideas at the Abbey next week (weather willing).

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Ancient Honesty

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I’ve been slowly working my way through a fairly comprehensive book all about Valle Crucis which Roger the custodian lent me. The Cistercian’s relationship with ornamentation really intrigues me and having dipped into the architecture chapter I’ve now really begun to notice the strange extent of simplicity and decorative stonework around the site.

A few nice quotes from the book, Valle Crucis Abbey, by G. Vernon Price, providing food for thought this week:

“The 1134 statutes also relate to sculpture and painting in the following terms, “That there may not be any sculpture nor picture in our churches nor in any parts of a monastery, we hereby issue interdict: for so long as attention is given to such things, the good utility of meditation, or the religious discipline of gravity, is often neglected; we have however some painted crosses which are of wood.”

“Notable superfluities and curiosities in sculptures, pictures, edifices, pavements and other such objects, which deformed the ancient honesty of the Order, and are incongruous with our poverty, we hereby order shall not exist in abbey, granges or store rooms, nor shall any picture save an Image of the Saviour (which are attached on a board to the alters, and are only painted in one colour).”

Of course, then there is “ample evidence to show that they [architects and builders] attempted to produce imposing and magnificent edifices, venturing to disregard the original spirit of the Order as far as they possibly could.”

“It has been recognised that this disregard of rules has resulted in a peculiar sense of architectural insincerity, combining a style of ostentatious display and strained Puritanism.”

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