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I would not dream of pretending that the phenomenon I have been describing is specific to works shown at the Royal Academy, merely that I am particularly conscious of the way that artworks can have a sacramental dimension in some of the recent exhibitions which have been held there. So, I want now to consider three other occasions where I have been conscious of what I am calling the extra-artistic — the idea that there might be an evocation or an experience of transcendence in the experience of contemporary art.

The first is the work of Alison Watt, the Scottish painter. In fact, the first time that I was alerted to the significance of the sacred dimension in contemporary art was when, some time ago, the late Tom Devonshire Jones asked me to be a judge on the annual awards for the organisation he established called Arts and Christian Enquiry (ACE). I saw an awful lot of bad art, quite frankly, ham-fisted attempts to brighten up churches with what someone thought might be a good idea and too often wasn’t. But we saw one work which remains in the mind. This was a piece which Alison Watt had done called Still in Old St Paul’s in Edinburgh. I hadn’t been to the church before, even though it is quite close to the Fruitmarket Gallery in the centre of Edinburgh and near the National Gallery. One reaches it by what feels like an old medieval corridor and then it is quite dark. To my surprise, I’ve discovered that the church is Victorian, not late medieval. To the left of the high altar is a memorial chapel dedicated to those who lost their lives in the First World War. But what sticks in the mind is not the architecture of the church, but a work done by Watt, of cloth, nothing more than a large image of white cloth hanging in folds. I want to read what she wrote about the experience of doing the painting because I think it conveys very clearly the sense of the sacerdotal. You don’t have to be religious to understand the meaning of the draped cloth:

I worked on Still in my studio for about a year; visiting Old St Paul’s almost every day. I needed to go back again and again to the Memorial Chapel to remind myself of the space. It’s the largest work I have ever painted and the most physical thing I have ever done. It was also the most mentally draining. Making Still became an obsession. The scale and design of the piece was a carefully considered response to the physical structure of the space, yet ultimately I wanted to convey how I feel when I was in the chapel. It was an overwhelming feeling of sadness. It was extraordinary. I thought I knew every inch of the painting but as it started to be installed, I was astonished how little I recognised it.

It’s a nice piece of writing because it conveys very clearly how a work of art can become something that its artist did not necessarily expect or intend it to be, the takeover of emotions which enables artists to produce something beyond intention.

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