THROUGHOUT August, Salisbury Cathedral is to host the first exhibition of a remarkable series of artworks, The Miracle Paintings 2011-2018, by the Royal Academician Professor Stephen Farthing.
The series of huge paintings has taken Stephen eight years to complete, some pieces taking up to 18 months to complete. The artist resolved when he started the project that it would not be shown until all the paintings were finished, so it is only now that they can be revealed.
The canvases, which measure around six feet by five feet eight inches, will stand in the nave aisles, transepts and Trinity Chapel. A selection of the accompanying 11 works on paper will also be shown.
Stephen Farthing was elected Royal Academician in 1998, joining the ranks of historic figures such as Gainsborough, Joshua Reynolds, Constable and Turner – not to mention today’s members including Grayson Perry, Paula Rego, Anish Kapoor and many more.
He began the first of his Miracle Paintings in 2011 during the Arab Spring, after an encounter with a Coptic Bishop in Cairo. He says: “The Bishop, who was once a civil engineer, told me that almost 1,000 years after the death of Christ, the Caliph Al-Muise was engaged in debate with the 62nd Coptic Pope, Pope Abraam. Turning to the verse in Matthew’s Gospel, ‘If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to the mountain, move from here to there, and it will move, nothing will be impossible for you.’ The Caliph asked the Pope if his faith was strong enough to move the Mokattam mountain.
“At the end of three days of preparatory prayer Pope Abraam had a vision that instructed him to seek out a one-eyed man carrying water through the market place. The Pope found Simon the shoemaker, who fitted the description perfectly, and together they led a large gathering to the foot of Mokattam mountain. Where they knelt three times, each time the Pope making the sign of the cross with a gesture that reached out to the edges of the mountain, each time the mountain shook violently then began to levitate, each time the sun became visible beneath the mountain.
“As the Bishop told me the story he looked me straight in the eyes and I could only believe that he believed every word he was saying, which I found remarkable. To hear a man tell a story that I can only think of as fiction, and know he believed every word, was spell-binding. And that’s what started me on my series of pictures.
“The task I set myself in each painting, was not to paint a miracle but to freeze what I saw as a miraculous moment in the painted world I work with. As a result of making these paintings I have come to the conclusion that what makes an event or indeed a painting ‘miraculous’ is our inability to explain it in any other terms than by saying ‘this is what I saw’.”
In an extraordinary linking of the ancient world of faith and the modern world of cinematic illusion, it was the Christopher Nolan movie, The Prestige, that finally provided the key to unlock the series.
Quoting Michael Caine’s character, John Cutter ‘the engineer of illusions’, Stephen Farthing explains: “Caine’s character sets the scene by describing the three elements of a successful illusion: ‘The Pledge’ when the audience is told what is about to happen; ‘The Turn’ when the disappearance or transportation of the person or object happens; and ‘The Prestige’ which marks the return of the disappeared. Without the prestige, Caine’s character explains, the illusion is not magic … anyone can make something disappear … the magic is making it come back again.
“My goal was not to illustrate actual stories but to try to not so much understand, as to give a visual presence to a miraculous moment.”
The exhibition is curated by Salisbury Cathedral visual srts advisor Jacquiline Creswell, who says: “Stephen wants the paintings to be shown together in a context where faith may be celebrated. He takes seemingly everyday phenomena and captures their miraculous quality, the mystical energy that lies behind them.”
Pictured: The Second Miracle painting, The Miracle of Geometry and The Miracle of Song. Photographs by Dan Stevens