Is that a mouse in the Stations of the Cross?
Sculptor Ken Thompson’s work for a Longford cathedral includes some surprises
Ken Thompson at his workshop, where he is working on Stations of the Cross that are destined for St Mel’s Cathedral
Dutiful Christians might be surprised to find a mouse carved into one of the scenes depicting the Way of the Cross in Longford’s St Mel’s Cathedral, and even Australian visitors could hardly expect to see a kangaroo in London’s Westminster Abbey.
Sculptor Ken Thompson, however, can explain it all: these details are not whimsy, but connections, and they occur in the context of two of his recent commissions.
Of these, the largest and most demanding are the Stations of the Cross that are to be installed at the restored St Mel’s Cathedral in Longford. The other is a tablet commemorating the 200th anniversary of the death of Admiral Arthur Phillip, Australia’s first governor, which is to be unveiled by the duke of Edinburgh at Westminster Abbey tomorrow.
A small casement window brings the seaward light of Ballycotton on to the panels, which line Thompson’s workshop at Ballytrasna in Co Cork. “Relief carving depends for its success on the fall of light and shadow,” he says, as he switches on a spotlight to illuminate the first of the stations.
Unusually for Stations of the Cross, the text at the base of these panels is not descriptive, but allusive. “I like to let people work things out for themselves, and I thought, why not use this space not to say the obvious – that is contained in the imagery – but to put in inscriptions?”
Thompson chose two lines of scripture for each panel, cut them in his favoured classical Roman lettering and highlighted them in terracotta, one of the two colours used in the otherwise plain Bath stone.
The other colour is blue, which Thompson uses to give a background dimension that works almost like a shadow in itself, impelling the foreground figures into greater relief and enhancing the 24-carat gold leaf halos. These establish not only the central image of Christ but also those of his mother or a half-hidden disciple. The sequence makes an impressive narrative: a pillar conveys the passage of the doomed Christ through the city; an owl hovers above the head of St Veronica in an omen of death; and when Jesus is laid in the tomb, the panel is luminous, the lidded grave finished like a tablecloth.
Every panel sketch is first prepared as a graph but this does not conceal the wrenching physicality of the crucifixion. Its impact is only mellowed subsequently by the gesture of the mother of Jesus as he is released from the cross, her cheek resting against his limp arm. This may be scripture, but even in its orthodoxy it is a human story, timeless and poignant.