The Bell Altar and Madonna and Child in Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford

I love that so many centuries-old churches in England are still commissioning art—inviting contemporary visual styles into their worship space to stand alongside medieval pillars, frescoes, and window glass as expressions of the times that change and the Truth that does not. Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford is one such example, as two twenty-first-century wood pieces are on permanent display at the head of its twelfth-century north aisle.

“Christ Church” is the name of one of Oxford University’s thirty-eight colleges. The church on its campus serves not only as the college’s chapel but also as the cathedral church of the diocese of Oxford—meaning that a bishop is seated there.

As I walked down the nave, I was drawn to my left, where I saw the following two pairs of modern works, arranged in conversation with each other.

(The paintings seen hanging in the background in some of the photos below are from The Sarum Cycle by Nicholas Mynheer. They were on temporary display during my visit and have since been lent to another church. I will discuss Mynheer’s work and my meeting with him in a later post.)

Madonna and Child companion sculptures by Rita Phillips

Mother and Child

Mother and Child figures by Rita Phillips, c. 2003. Sculpted from Australian Jarrah wood. Photo: Eric James Jones


Photo: Victoria Emily Jones

These two sculptures—one of Mary, and one of the baby Jesus—form a nativity scene that’s stripped of all other spectators. It’s just a mother alone with her child, sharing an intimate, blessed bond. Mary’s eyes look lovingly downward at the sleeping child, her hands folded in thanks to God for such a gift. 

For Jesus’s crib, Phillips used a quern, an instrument used for producing flour. Jesus lies in the cavity where the grain would be placed for grinding, alluding to the crucifixion, in which Jesus was crushed to death but after which he became the Bread of Life that we enjoy today.

The two figures are carved out of Jarrah wood, which comes from a type of eucalyptus tree native to Australia. They definitely have a primitive look to them, the style and form seeming to bear an African influence.

Madonna sculpture by Rita Phillips

Photo: Victoria Emily Jones

Rita Phillips studied at the Slade School of Fine Art in London. She then went on to study at The Frink School of Figurative Sculpture from 1999 to 2001, and to teach there from 2001 to 2005. My attempt to contact her has been unsuccessful. The only other work of hers that I could find online is her Pietà in the Harold Martin Botanic Garden at the University of Leicester, in which Mary’s pose from this Madonna and Child is deliberately copied.

Pieta by Rita Phillips

Rita Phillips, Tsamaya Sentle (Setswana for “Go Gently with Life”), 2002. Jarrah wood, 208 cm tall. Harold Martin Botanic Garden, University of Leicester, England.

The artist says,

The “Pietà” or “Madonna and Child” are holy images which stir elemental emotions. It is a Christian icon which draws part of its strength from its pagan ancestors, and which has inspired some of the world’s greatest artists. The “Madonna and Child” are sometimes grave, even sad. The shadow of death is already on them. The desolating strength of the Pietà, the mother holding the sagging body of her adult son, comes from understanding that a circle, which began with the arm curved around the baby, has been completed—the circle, in any culture, of life itself.

The gaze of the Mary figure in Christ Church Cathedral is one of joy mixed with sorrow. Here she looks down at a manger, where her son lies with eyes closed in sleep, knowing that all too soon, she would be looking down at a funeral bier, where her son would lie dead.

Phillips’s work is lovely, and if you know any more about it, I’d be interested to hear.

The Bell Altar and Cross by Jim Partridge

Bell Altar, Christ Church Cathedral

The Bell Altar and Cross, Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford. Carved from seventeenth-century oak in 2000 by Jim Partridge. The lettering on the stone tile at its base was carved by John Neilson. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones

This altar and cross commemorate George Bell (1883-1958), an Englishman who served in several positions during his lifetime, among them Dean of Canterbury, Bishop of Chichester, member of the House of Lords, President of the World Council of Churches, and tutor at Christ Church. But this artwork pays particular homage to the role he played during and after World War II: as a supporter of the anti-Nazi Confessing Church, a critic of England’s wartime policies, and an advocate for post-war reconciliation.

Bell was close friends with the German pastor and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the founding member of the Confessing Church, an international group of Christians who condemned pro-Nazi German Christianity as false and heretical. As such, he helped make known to the European and American public what was really going on in Germany and was active in the campaign to provide aid and asylum to German refugees and conscientious objectors.

As much as he hated Hitler and all that he stood for, Bell insisted that a firm distinction be made between the Nazi regime and the German people—only the former is the enemy, he said, not the latter. Because he didn’t want to punish an entire country for the crimes of its few, he very passionately condemned Britain’s (and the other Allies’) practice of area bombing—the indiscriminate bombing of civilian populations, which Bell called shameful, barbarian, and illegal. He wrote letters of protest to The (London) Times and tried to persuade the House of Lords to resist the War Cabinet’s decision for such a strategy, in direct opposition to Prime Minister Winston Churchill. He urged churches throughout Europe to likewise remain critical of their countries’ ways of waging war. In November 1939 Bell published an article in the Fortnightly Review stating that the church in wartime should not hesitate

to condemn the infliction of reprisals, or the bombing of civilian populations, by the military forces of its own nation. It should set itself against the propaganda of lies and hatred. It should be ready to encourage the resumption of friendly relations with the enemy nation. It should set its face against any war of extermination or enslavement, and any measures directly aimed to destroy the morale of a population.

After the war ended, Bell took a lead in rebuilding the relationships between German churches and those in other countries, and in calling all people to forgiveness and reconciliation. In a post-war broadcast to Germany in 1945, he stated, “No nation, no church, no individual is guiltless. Without repentance and without forgiveness, there can be no regeneration.” These words form the inscription on the stone tile at the altar’s base, carved by John Neilson.

Bell Altar inscription

Jim Partridge is the one who created the ACE award-winning altar and cross, from a four-hundred-year-old oak tree from Windsor Great Park. He actually carved the cross out of the base of the altar—to evoke the idea of origin and return, according to the cathedral’s website. (To see a photo of the work in progress, click here.) Given the inscription and the legacy of the altar’s dedicatee, I imagine the pair of carvings to represent the void that was left by the war, a void that begs to be fitted with something. That something is Christ, symbolized here by the cross; it is he who will restore the block of humanity, make us solid again.

If Christ forgave his enemies even as they were attacking him, then surely we should forgive our enemies too. And because Christ has gifted us with his very Spirit, such forgiveness is made possible.

The color of the wood is black because Partridge scorched it—a reminder of the black days of war and the damage wrought by bombs. Yet despite the feelings of sorrow it evokes, its message is ultimately one of hope. World War II may have cast a dark shadow over the church, as have other wars since, but Christ is alive and active, rebuilding what man has destroyed.

It may seem an odd subject for a piece commissioned to mark the new millennium. Why hark back to an event that has had little impact on today’s generation? I would argue, though, that the subject is perfectly appropriate for the twenty-first century. On this side of eternity, there will always be an enemy. There will always be war and violence and prejudice. There will always be sadness and anger and bitterness and distrust. Some of the dividing lines have shifted since the 1940s, but the universal need for repentance, forgiveness, and regeneration—to use Bell’s words—has not.

George Bell

The Rt. Revd. George Bell (1883-1958)

I appreciate Christ Church Cathedral for honoring the life and work of George Bell. He spoke with conviction against an unjust English government practice, making him very politically unpopular. He was shouted off the House floor when he tried to launch resolutions and was constantly accused of undermining the war effort. For love of his nation, he spoke out against her, just as the Jewish prophets did in Old Testament times. May God give us the courage to follow Bell’s example whenever our governments err.

Though Bell didn’t have many supporters in his time, the Church of England (and the Episcopal Church in the USA) now honors him with a feast day on October 3. In addition to being known for his outspokenness and relief efforts during war, he is also famous for his pioneering role in the ecumenical movement. He worked tirelessly in to unify all Christian denominations around a common set of values—and more than that, to incorporate those from other faiths into this unity.

If you look at other photos of the Bell Altar and Cross—for example, on the website of its artist, Jim Partridge, or from Art and Christianity Inquiry—you will notice that the cross appears in different positions inside the church. In my photos the cross is lying on its side, its base beside the altar, the bulk of it slanting upward toward the crib of Phillips’s piece. The organization that voted it Best Commissioned Artwork in an Ecclesiastical Space in 2003, however, shows the cross flipped around, pointing toward the altar instead. In an even more drastic change of placement, the cross appears on the artist’s website standing upright under a niche behind the altar. I can only assume this means that Christ Church Cathedral rearranges the cross periodically to provide worshippers with new ways to engage with the piece. (Update, 7/18/13: A staff member at the church responded to my query this morning, saying that the cross was moved beside the altar very early on and was laid on its side simply to make it more stable.)

It communicates meaningfully with Rita Phillips’s Madonna and Child, which the Visitor’s Officer tells me was installed sometime around 2003. The cross foreshadows Jesus’s death, but also gives his birth meaning. The incarnation and the passion are key phases of the same mission, and here they are shown reinforcing each other. Also, by sharing space, an association is forged—at least in my mind—between Mary and all mothers who have lost children to acts of violence. I already quoted Phillips on the iconographical similarities between the subjects of the Madonna and Child (the baby Jesus in his mother’s arms) and the Pietà (the dead Jesus in his mother’s arms); here we see a cross, like a missile, pointing right toward the new mother, and we know she knows what’s coming. As Simeon prophesied to Mary at Jesus’s dedication in the temple, “A sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:35). A similar piercing was felt by countless German mothers whose sons and daughters were killed in civilian attacks during the war.


So that you get an idea of the space these pieces inhabit, here are a few photos that my husband took from the central aisle. If you’re looking at the first photo, the two pieces I discussed are located in a side chapel just through the farmost arch to the left.

Christ Church Cathedral interior, east end

View of the east end of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, showing the chancel, high altar, and rose window. Chancel vault by William Orchard, c. 1500. Rose window installed in 1853 by Gothic revival architect Sir George Gilbert Scott. Photo: Eric James Jones

Christ Church Cathedral interior, west end

View of the west end of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, showing the choir stalls and organ, under which is the main entrance. Organ built by the Austrian firm Rieger in 1978-79. Photo: Eric James Jones

Christ Church Cathedral high altar

This retable of the high altar is by George Frederick Bodley, 1881, with figures carved by William Brindley. Photo: Eric James Jones

To see some of the other art I encountered during my recent trip to England, check out “Christian art at the Ashmolean Museum,” “Two ivory panels from the V&A,” and “A Hidden Gem in Oxford: Holywell Cemetery.”

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2 Responses to The Bell Altar and Madonna and Child in Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford

  1. Nicholas Altenberg says:

    Medieval art and art from the Oxford Movement speak to the heart, mind and soul. The modern works shown in this article speaks mainly to the mind. We look at it, scratch our heads, and try to make sense of it in context of the sacred space that it is in. It seems vaguely familiar, yet out of place, or for some, downright ugly, as are many of the vestments that some Anglican priests now wear. The earlier art was often created anonymously, to the glory of God. Modern religious art is often about the artist. If you don’t “get it”, the problem is with you. The earlier art, whether Medieval or from the 19th century, adhered to some degree to a pattern, an accepted form that had a divine aspect to it. Orthodox Christians paint their icons with this understanding, hence, a 21st century icon of the Virgin will be instantly recognizable, as is a 12th century icon.

    Modern or contemporary art in gothic churches can be jarring. Look at Nortre Dame in Paris – a beautiful gothic interior with a huge 18th century Rococo sculpture plunked behind the altar in a past attempt to make the space “relevant”. Yuck. (As an aside, the Episcopal Cathedral in Boston, Mass., underwent renovations a while ago, and it was decided that something should go over the main doors. Instead of a cross (no to that, it might make people “uncomfortable”), a large, new age sculpture of a nautilus shell was installed, because the spiral shape is “eternal” or whatever.) Sorry, but gothic interiors and church interiors in general deserve better. Religious art should bring us to God, not be objects for discussion as we stand around them with glasses of sherry. Then again, why am I surprised? The C.o.E. even allows golf courses to be installed in old churches, “to bring the people in”.

  2. Pingback: JANUARY 22 2021 – THE CHRIST CHURCH SCANDAL UNFOLDS | The Bell Society

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