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The Sacraments

By Quentin Bell

The Sacraments portraying the ‘cycle of life’ (rear of Chancel screen) are Baptism, Confirmation, Last Rites and Holy Matrimony. They are Victorian in feel, which is typical of Quentin’s work. The sequence reads from left to right beginning with birth and the sacrament of baptism and running through to death and the administration of Last Rites. All except two of these are depicted in the open air and all have a landscape backdrop. The images emphasise the context of these rites within the life of the community and the spiritual importance of the nature as God’s true church.

Baptism

Berwick church stands in the background nestled amongst trees. The priest, dressed in black cassock and beretta, stands next to the mother. Whereas most of the figures stand either with their backs to or at an angle to the viewer she stands out dressed in white, holding the baby facing the viewer. The women wear head scarves, the men wear hats and most are in conversation with their neighbours. The parasols add to the colour and festivity of the occasion. Quentin captures the moment of celebration as, spilling out of the quiet solemnity of the church, people engage in conversation. His focus is not so much on the significance of the rite for the baby as it is on its importance in bringing together the local community in celebration and in the shaping of their identity.

Confirmation

It is through the rite of confirmation that a Christian comes of age and, if baptised as an infant, makes their own personal confession of belief. This depiction of the rite is unusual because it takes place in the open air. Here the bishop stands dressed in his mitre and cope and wearing his pectoral cross. Next to him, dressed in cassock, cotter and beretta, and holding the bishop’s crook is the local parish priest. There are two elements to this rite: the laying on of hands with prayer and anointing with holy oil. When the bishop lays his hands on those who are being confirmed and utters the following prayer; ‘Defend, O Lord, this thy servant with thy heavenly grace, that he/she may continue thine for ever; and daily increase in thy Holy Spirit more and more, until he/she come unto thy everlasting kingdom. Amen’ (Book of Common Prayer). The woman presenting the four girls kneels behind them, with her head covered, and joins in the prayer. The men stand apart behind the women, their hats off as if they were in church and bow their heads slightly in prayer. A tree bends like a vault of a church over the gathering as nature’s church and echoes the posture of prayer. In the background a track stretches away along the foot of the escarpment of the Downs. The road or path in the landscape is a motif which appears in three of the other paintings in this series and is Quentin’s use of a Victorian allegory for the ‘journey of life’.

Confession

The sacraments of confession (now called ‘sacrament of reconciliation’) and communion are painted on the two doors. They form part of the spiritual rhythm of the life of a believer, whereas the other sacraments each only take place once in a lifetime. Biblical texts teach that communion should not be received if a person is not at peace with his fellow believers. Thus confession is taught to be a necessary preliminary to the receiving of communion and hence these two sacraments are depicted alongside each other with confession coming before communion.

In the absence of a priest to give absolution the painting is, in contrast to the others, an incomplete depiction of the sacrament of confession. It shows instead an act of personal devotion and contrition. A woman kneels before a crucifix with her hands clasped in prayerful supplication; there is an urgent feel to her action. The woman is dressed in an implausibly long dark red cloak that stretches out neatly on the ground behind in a dramatic, staged manner. The crucifix stands in an avenue of tall closely planted young trees, probably poplars, which cast their shadows in dark stripes across the painting. It is hard not to believe that Quentin meant something by the avenue; perhaps an expression of disciplined ordering of life imposed by an authoritarian church. The allegorical path stretches away through the avenue.

Communion

In a stately architectural setting a priest stands at the top of chancel steps dressed in his alb and chasuble. He has turned from the altar, which must be out of sight in the more strongly lit area to the left of the painting. He now raises a vessel, called a ciborium, which contains the consecrated bread. This action would be accompanied by words of invitation to the congregation to receive communion: ‘draw near with faith, receive the body of our Lord Jesus Christ which was given for you... ...feed on him in your hearts by faith with thanksgiving.’ A woman, perhaps the same one that has made her confession, but now dressed in white, indicating that she has received forgiveness, kneels at the bottom of the steps. The other figures have heads bowed and eyes closed in reverential prayer as they prepare to receive communion.

The interior of Quentin’s church feels claustrophobic with its grand and heavy architectural pillars, perhaps deliberately so. But just as visitors to Berwick church are often struck by the clear glass windows so, in this painting, the eye finds an escape from the oppressive feeling within the church, through the open window and out to the view beyond. Here a path stretches away again across flat open parkland drawing the eye into the far distance, to hills and trees.

Marriage

To the left of the painting the bride and groom gaze longingly into each other’s eyes. The bride holds a large bouquet. Her long and voluminous bridal train flows across the painting and is held by the two bridesmaids. The slightly frightening looking elderly woman behind the bride may be her mother and the tall gentleman behind, the father. The men are dressed in top hats and coat tails, the women in a variety of hats and some carrying parasols to add colour and gaiety. Two policemen flank the party presumably to keep unwanted onlookers or troublemakers at bay. Perhaps they further imply the class division which Quentin saw in church life. Victorian piety and hypocrisy were the things that Vanessa and Duncan despised. In the background is the entrance to a church that looks architecturally similar to that in the previous painting. A tree once again bends and spreads its canopy over the scene and in the background are the hills.

Last Rites

A priest holds the hand of a dying man as he prays for him. The woman kneels in prayer beside the bed. On the bedside table is a Bible and next to it an open vessel that may hold the holy oil with which the sick man would have been anointed. A window is open to allow in fresh air, but may also represent the opening between this world and the next through which the spirit passes in this final rite of passage. An extensive landscape is seen outside while in the foreground a field has been harvested and the stalks gathered into stooks that cast long shadows in the declining sun. Harvest represents the sentiment that death is a natural part of life and that all is not lost but rather gathered up by God. Biblically harvest was also a symbol of judgment; in the Last Rites the dying person was encouraged to make their confession and to receive forgiveness which would prepare them for eternal life. Quentin shows a road that leads off, in a perfectly straight line, until it disappears beyond our vision: so Quentin completes his Victorian allegory of life as a journey by painting a road which does not have an end. St Augustine of Hippo (354-430) expressed the hopeful death of a Christian which Quentin has painted in these words: ‘We shall rest and we shall see, we shall see and we shall love, we shall love and we shall praise. Behold, what shall be in the end and shall not end.’

The Sacraments by Quentin Bell