Pieta in Canterbury

2013 - Kathedrale von Canterbury, Canterbury

St Thomas, now a village north of Trier in Germany. Originally a stopping place with pilgrim hostel and chapel for those on pilgrimage along the St James Way to Santiago de Compostella or to Trier.

Following the death of Thomas Becket here in 1170, in Canterbury, in this cathedral, his burial place between the pillars in front of us, the Duke of that area sent servants to fetch relics.

As here miracles reported there.

In 1180 a women’s Cistercian community was founded there and continued until 1802.

Now St Thomas’ is the Diocesan Retreat Centre, built around the church consecrated there in 1222.

Historically we have links with St Thomas’.

The contact was renewed a couple of years ago when Fr Ralph brought a group of pilgrims here to Canterbury. They in turn invited people from Canterbury to go to St Thomas and this time last year a group of 24 of us were there, during the pilgrimage to the undivided robe in Trier, but that’s another story.

We stayed in the retreat house and there in the church we saw this Pieta. Several members of the group were very moved by it and were sure that we should try and get it here to Canterbury.

That’s one story.

The second story is of the Pieta itself.

In 1904 the artist Balthasar Schmitt from Lower Frankonia (1858 -1942) created a larger-than-life –size Pieta for St Paul’s Church in Munich.

In imitation of the early Renaissance style of Florence it was decorated in colour and represents the virgin Mary sitting upright with her dead son across her lap. Jesus’s head is supported by a weeping angel.

Schmitt commented on the sculpture thus:’

Mary, seated, is holding Jesus’s corpse on her lap. Imbued with the idea of the mission of his redemptive work, she has overcome the grief of a mother’s heart and has achieved sublime stillness. Weeping pity is symbolized by the figure of the angel which is supporting Jesus’s head.”

Due to a fire in 1986, caused by a visitor who put a burning candle too close to the sculpture the Pieta was badly damaged and the whole surface suffered burns or got so massively charred that the sculpture was replaced by a copy.

To make the copy, the original sculpture was further violated. A kind of modelling material was applied onto the burnt original to replace some of the original contours and about 300 drawing-pins were inserted to create marker points. You can still see evidence of these if you look closely.

After the copy had been made the original sculpture including the modelling material and drawing-pins was stored in the attic of St Paul’s and forgotten about.

In 2009 it was discovered by Stefan Knor, when he was preparing a light and art installation for the ‘Long Night of the Museums’.

Inspired by the powerful charisma of this seriously damaged piece of art he sought permission from the authorities to acquire it on a permanent loan. 

Stefan did not try to restore the Schmitt Pieta.

First he wanted to free it from all previous alterations, the modeling material was scraped off, the pins were removed and the charred surface was stabilized.

The second step was to give the sculpture some artistic treatment by the partial application of 24 carat gold leaf in order to turn it into a new contemporary piece of art.

It was then that the Pieta was transported to the church of St Thomas, the Retreat House of the Diocese of Trier in the village of St Thomas, where when it is not on loan elsewhere it is situated in the apse of a chapel featuring a Phoenix window.

This sculpture which shows us the body of Christ lying across his mother’s lap, has itself been through death and resurrection and so speaks even more powerfully of the death and resurrection.

Two stories then which undergird our experience of this piece.

We gather this evening just within the octave, the 8 days of Easter, and also on the eve of the feast of the Annunciation, when we remember the angel Gabriel being sent to Mary with a message from God that she was to be the mother of Jesus, to be the God bearer, Theotokos. 

These two feasts the Annunciation and Easter are both beginning times. And the pivot between them is that moment depicted by the pieta.

The annunciation heralds the birth of Jesus and all that was to follow in his earthly life and ministry. How poignant the words of Mary as in total obedience and surrender of her life to God she says, ‘be it unto me according to thy word.’ Yes she had her questions, how can that be, but ultimately she trusted God and was ready to play her part. 

It is something of the grace of God that he only asks us to take one step at a time. How much harder in that moment would it have been for Mary if God had revealed to her that this child was only on loan for such a short time, that 33 years later she would be cradling the body of her child after he had been brutally put to death on a cross.

Had she known all that, how much harder to have said Yes.

Throughout  Jesus’ earthly life, Mary gently moved along the path the way that had been chosen for her, pondering all these things in her heart. Did she have any idea where it was all leading  -we shall never know. 

Easter begins with the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. That moment which can only be, because of the image we see in front of us, the death of Jesus.

That moment which moves us on to Jesus’ ascension into heaven and the coming of the Holy Spirit.

This is a moment of new beginning for those who have followed Jesus in his earthly life, including his mother and for the whole church from then until today.

In the resurrection of Jesus we are invited to see the fulfillment of all that has gone before, all that has come out, of God choosing in Jesus to share our humanity.

In his resurrection, Jesus ushers in a new creation, a new way of being. The parables of his earthly ministry describe the reality of ‘another country’ a different way of doing things. The shepherd throws caution to the wind leaving the 99 to go after one lost sheep, the woman spends all her energy on searching for the one lost coin and throws a great party when she finds it, surely costing her far more than that, the father with no regard to his status runs out of the house to greet his lost son.

In his resurrection Jesus brings within our grasp a new way of being, a way that has come out of the costly choice of taking on our humanity, bearing our sin and walking with us the way of suffering and pain.

The pieta, challenges us to open our hearts and minds to the costliness of risking and loving.

It reminds us that in our earthly journeying God has already and will continue to journey with us.

It is about holding and being held.

It shows us powerfully that when we align ourselves with the loving purposes of God, then even when it is hard the glory of God will shine through.