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Andrew Vessey: Canticle for Assisi

 ArtWay Visual Meditation January 22, 2023

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Andrew Vessey: Canticle for Assisi

In Him All Things Hold Together

by Jonathan Evens

This painting was the fruit of a visit to Assisi by the artist Andrew Vessey (b. 1945) and his wife. They were hosted by an artist who was then working on a ‘tavola’ of St Francis, to hang in the Franciscan Church in Assisi and match one made earlier on the life of St Clare, one of St Francis’ first followers and founder of a Franciscan order for women, The Poor Clares. Through excursions and little pilgrimages made during the stay Francis was brought to life for Vessey and his wife, enabling a vision of Christ to emerge – as had inspired St Francis at nearby San Damiano – when he began a painting intended to gather up his impressions of Assisi.

Vessey has described what happened as he painted: ‘As the painting developed something wonderful began to happen. Having painted the city steps and turrets, combining elements from above, below and around the city, its olive groves and poplar trees out on the plain, it was as if the arms and body of the crucified Christ became the perfect cohesion needed to hold everything together. The stretched out body of the crucified Christ … started to emerge through the countryside, wrapping even the hills in its embrace.’

In this image Christ underlies the landscape of Assisi, emerges through it and encompasses it, expressing it in both its materiality and symbolism. The Franciscan philosopher theologian John Duns Scotus (c. 1266 –1308) developed the doctrine of the univocity of being: God is being itself and we all participate in that same being. Franciscan priest Richard Rohr writes that: ‘Only God can hold both the joy and the pain of creation in us, because our little self is just not strong enough to hold that much together and make sense out of it. The lone individual is far too fragile to bear either “the weight of glory” or the “burden of sin.” … But God in us, uniting us in One corporate Body, does it for us!’ Teilhard de Chardin (1881 –1955) expressed this same truth in Christological terms by arguing, as theologian Sr. Ilia Delio has noted, that Christ is “present in the entire cosmos, from the least particle of matter to the convergent human community.”

Such thinking derives from Colossians 1, where we read: ‘He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together … For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.’

By depicting the Cosmic Christ in his unitive form, Vessey joins with other unitive artists, including Norman Adams, Marc Chagall, David Jones and John Reilly, in reconciling earth and heaven, time and eternity, human and divine. Vessey repeats the feat in Christ the Apple Tree, where Christ is revealed in a misshapen and spent espalier apple which, having been pruned, blossoms and buds once again.

In his poem accompanying Canticle for Assisi Vessey writes:           

The scratched landscape waits,

            pierced by feeble rivulet,

            torn by wall and terrace-side,

            shadowed by crazy poplars.

            It is a white earth waiting for colour,

            A barnacled mountain, carolled

under a pearling sun whose

pale fingers and warm breath

stir the olive groves that slip

in waves across these laughable hills.

There is a crackling stillness:

a splintering momentum, of a

Saviour’s resurrection shadow

by the stream which yearns for rain,

across grass yearning for green,

woodland yearning for damp

and a fervent prayer to a Creator

to awaken us from our siesta.

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Andrew Vessey: Canticle for Assisi, 1995, 84 x 71 cm, oil on board.

Andrew Vessey: Christ the Apple Tree, 2015, 105 x 79 cm, oil on canvas.

Andrew Vessey (b. 1945) trained as an Art Teacher in the late 1960’s. His professional career started in Bury St Edmunds where he taught at Tollgate School and exhibited his art in the town. He later returned to Suffolk and was ordained at St Edmundsbury Cathedral in 1986 before becoming a Curate in Framlingham and Saxtead. Andrew later moved on to other clerical posts around the UK but since retirement returned once again to Suffolk, where he lives in Fressingfield. There have been many opportunities to show his work, open his studio and play a part in local church life. His work begins with familiar river valleys and coastal estuaries, captured mainly in ink, watercolour and pastel directly on location, then converting some ideas into larger more reflective paintings in gouache and oil in his studio, some of which resonate with themes that appear in scripture and biblical story. Web page: https://suffolkartists.co.uk/index.cgi?choice=painter&pid=3760

Jonathan Evens is Team Rector for Wickford and Runwell in Essex. Previously Associate Vicar for HeartEdge at St Martin-in-the-Fields in London, he was involved in developing HeartEdge as an international and ecumenical network of churches engaging congregations with culture, compassion and commerce. In that time, he also developed a range of arts initiatives at St Martin’s and St Stephen Walbrook, a church in the City of London where he was Priest-in-charge for three years. Jonathan is co-author of The Secret Chord, an impassioned study of the role of music in cultural life written through the prism of Christian belief, and writes regularly on the visual arts for national arts and church media including Artlyst, ArtWay and Church Times. He also blogs regularly at https://joninbetween.blogspot.com/.

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