Quality is the first norm for art, but its final norm is love and truth, the enriching of human life, the deepening of our vision.


Whelan, Brian - VM - Meryl Doney

Brian Whelan: St Martin-in-the-Fields Church 


  The Proximity of the Sacred and Profane 

by Meryl Doney 

Houses, parks, roads and pavements jostle one another for space. In the middle, St Martin-in-the-Fields stands boldly, as it does in the realTrafalgar SquareLondonSt Martin himself rides across the sky among the stars, his famed cloak snaking down to frame the church’s spire. 

The adverts on the sides of the red buses travelling at crazy angles through the picture – London Pride, London Porter, Guinness – give a clue to Brian Whelan’s identity. Born in London of Irish parents and trained at the Royal Academy of Arts, he has lived and worked in East Anglia by the North Sea for over 25 years. 

Here and there in this picture gold sparkles, as it does in many of his pieces. But these are not fragments of gold leaf, they are foil chocolate wrappers, knowingly applied as if on an icon. This is one of Whelan’s signature techniques, a conscious reference to his vision of the presence of God in the most mundane locations. His are visionary paintings, effortlessly combining the temporal and the spiritual – heaven and earth in one reality.  

Whelan’s enthusiasm for Ireland’s Celtic faith, for East Anglia with its church ceilings thronged with angels, and for the religious icon tradition – especially the robust, exuberant paintings of the Ethiopian Orthodox church – all give his work an ancient, almost medieval sensibility. He has a strong sense of the proximity of the sacred and the profane, the serious and the hilarious, the gutter and the stars. In his work these elements crowd together to form one riotous image. You just know that the people who built the medieval churches would have loved them.


Whelan’s specifically religious works exemplify these enthusiasms. In his vision of the ascension of Christ, he nods to the medieval depiction of Jesus’ feet ascending into heaven and his sandals – or footprints – left on the earth. Jesus is welcomed into heaven by the Holy Spirit, aided by angels. The disciples stand gazing after their master, soon to be hidden from their eyes by the cloud. Following the icon tradition, the space in front of the scene is open for the viewer, who is welcomed into the circle of the disciples, included in their mixture of sadness and wonder. 


A recurring theme is Whelan’s work is the idea of life as a pilgrimage or journey. In many of his paintings the Irish saint Brendan is pictured setting out on mountainous seas with his small and often terrified band of followers or navigating his ship among the stars in the sky. More recently Whelan has been working on a series of paintings inspired by the 1,000 year old pilgrimage to the shrine of St James in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Perhaps Whelan the artist is also on a journey, along with the thousands of pilgrims who have set out to deepen their faith by walking away from the known and the familiar. He is inviting all who believe that the mundane world is shot through with heaven to journey with him. 


Brian Whelan: St Martin-in-the-Fields Church, 2011, 112 x 82 cm, mixed media on board.

Brian Whelan: Ascension, 2012, 90 x 50 cm, mixed media on board.

Brian Whelan: The Way, 2011, 40 x 72 cm, mixed media on board. 

Brian Whelan was born in London of Irish parents. Since training at the Royal Academy of Arts in the capital, he has lived and worked inEast Anglia on the North Sea coast of Britain. He and his American wife, Wendy Roseberry, now split their time between the Bluemont Studio in Virginia, the UK and Ireland. 

Meryl Doney is a freelance fine art curator, specialising in presenting exhibitions in cathedrals, churches, festivals and other challenging spaces. She has curated over 40 exhibitions and performance pieces, including Moon Mirror by Rebecca Horne in St Paul’s Cathedral andPresence: Images of Christ for the Third Millennium, a series of thirteen different exhibitions involving 50 contemporary artists. Between 2006 and 2011 she was Director of Wallspace, a 'spiritual home for visual art' in All Hallows on the Wall church in the City of London.  

ArtWay Visual Meditation November 17, 2013