England: Aylesford Priory
by Jonathan Evens
When Adam Kossowski was ‘deep in calamity’ as a prisoner of war during the Second World War – ‘nearly dead’ in a Russian labour camp – he made a promise to himself that if he came out of that ‘subhuman land’ he would tender his thanks to God.
On arrival in Britain, post-War, he was ‘very strangely reminded’ of this promise, which he had come to think of as an obligation. After winning a prize for a painting of The Annunciation in an international art competition, the sculptor Philip Lindsay-Smith invited Kossowski to join the Guild of Catholic Artists. Lindsay-Clark also introduced him to Fr. Malachy Lynch, the first Prior of the restored Carmelite Priory at Aylesford in Kent, who quickly set Kossowski to work.
Kossowski was within his comfort zone when his first commission was to paint the scenes from the history of the Aylesford Carmelites which continue to adorn the walls of the Chapter House. He was well outside that zone, however, when Fr. Malachy asked him to create a series of ceramic scenes for a Rosary Way. He questioned whether he was the right person for that task but Fr. Malachy replied, in terms that recalled Kossowski's own promise from the labour camp, 'Adam, I am sure Our Lady has sent you here for that purpose.'
This work was to shape not only Kossowski's future commissions at Aylesford (where, from 1950 to 1972, he decorated most of the shrine's chapels) but also the commissions he received to decorate other Roman Catholic Churches. In both instances these commissions were primarily, but not exclusively, for ceramic bas-reliefs. Working in clay enabled Kossowski to create with a greater sense of three dimensionality as well as the expressiveness he was able to achieve by marking or cutting into the clay. As each panel was also painted, these effects were combined with all the variation, shade and harmonies achievable through paint.
Kossowski's obligation to God, the ongoing support of a committed patron in Fr. Malachy and the post-war church rebuilding program combined to create the opportunity for Kossowski to become one of the greatest and most prolific religious artists in twentieth-century Britain, a surprising result for the boy from Nowy Sacz in Poland. Benedict Read notes in Adam Kossowski: Murals and Paintings that in Britain after the war the Church was ‘a vital artistic culture,’ and that ‘the thirty years after 1945 witnessed for the Catholic Church in particular in this country an almost unprecedented campaign of church building and decoration, with the new cathedrals in Liverpool, Cardiff and Bristol just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.’
Read quotes Hans Feibusch who, like Kossowski, Ervin Bossanyi and Marian Bohusz Szyzcho was a refugee for whom Church-related commissions became a major field of endeavour: ‘You must realise, first of all, how very different the general atmosphere of those days was; that the relief from the dark cloud of war, the exuberance of freedom, the hope of great artistic possibilities, were still strong, and the experience of working together for a common goal had not yet faded away.’
Aylesford became Kossowski's great artistic possibility as Fr. Malachy had confidence in the rightness of Kossowski's ideas and work. With this backing he was able to create with vision, breadth and scale. His work at Aylesford extends from the intimacy of tiny painted Stations of the Cross in the Chapel of St Jude to the imposing crowds of angels surrounding the Virgin at the exterior Shrine altar. All in a figurative style which, while sophisticated in design and expressive in execution, draws heavily on the naivety of folk art and the forgotten tradition of Romanesque art. This style seems equally suited to the drama of the worshipping angels thronging the exterior altar and Elijah's chariot of fire in St Joseph's Chapel as it is to the delicacy of the Rosary Way bas-reliefs or the Rouault-like Stations in the Cloister Chapel.
For much of the history of Western art, art and the Church were almost synonymous. This was the age of sermons in stone and stories in stained glass when art was the one book that the illiterate majority could read. As modern art actively sought separation from the constraints of Church patronage and the literary focus it had demanded, so a different approach to Church commissions was required. Kossowski's conceptions at Aylesford, both large and small, whether Stations of the Cross, the Rosary Way or sanctuary decorations, were all designed to function as prompts or aids to prayer. As prayer is the main focus of the shrine, the visual aesthetic of Aylesford, its unique atmosphere (memorably described by Fr. Malachy as ‘prayer in stone’), is primarily Kossowski's creation.
The Friars, to use its traditional name, is now a popular centre for pilgrimage either for large groups attending for one day or for smaller groups or individuals staying in the guesthouses. The setting, with its blend of the medieval and modern, is idyllic whether one comes as a tourist, a pilgrim, a retreatant or a regular worshipper.
As with each denomination, the Roman Church does not always recognise the value of the artworks it possesses or subordinates that value to the use made of its art in worship. Here, however, in its publicity and online information, Kossowski's work, and that of Michael Clark and Philip Lindsey Clark, is clearly viewed as an attraction for visitors with ways suggested for reflecting on and praying through their work.
The experience of living for a week with Kossowski's work in worship, prayer and contemplation, while using The Friars as a base for theKent and Sussex phase of my sabbatical art pilgrimage, was one of recognizing the love that Kossowski had for the many saints and martyrs of the Church who had supported him in his time of need. For me it was a time of sharing his empathy with the sufferings of Christ and of sensing the uniqueness of his vision, which shows itself in moments of deviation from tradition such as the image of a Carmelite sister without a halo created in order to pay tribute to all the faithful who are not formally beatified but who are truly saints nevertheless. Which is, of course, where Kossowski himself would be found!
Jonathan Evens is an Anglican priest who is secretary to commission4mission, which aims to encourage the commissioning and placing of contemporary art in churches as a means of fundraising for charities and as a mission opportunity for the churches involved. For more information see http://www.commission4mission.org/. Jonathan's journalism and creative writing has appeared in a range of periodicals. His co-authored book The Secret Chord is an impassioned study of the role of music in cultural life, written through the prism of Christian belief. Jonathan Evens will shortly be on a sabbatical during which he plans to visit significant sites connected to the renewal of religious art in Europe during the twentieth century. His intention is to reflect on the visits he makes in terms of the significance of these sites both for art history and good practice for commissioning, as well as capturing his personal and spiritual responses to the artworks at the sites. He plans to photograph each site and its artworks, write journal entries (for posting to his blog -http://joninbetween.blogspot.co.uk/) and articles for the ArtWay website about his visits. He will also write a final report summarising his responses and general conclusions in terms of art history, commissioning good practice and implications for prayer/spirituality.