An essay by Dr. Tom Slingsby
Bright Rising by Rebecca Hind is a numinous site-specific artwork commissioned especially for the Lady Chapel at Dorchester Abbey. At first glance it seems an unearthly departure from the de facto conventions of religious art: shining out from below the stained glass windows is an alternate light source, more commonly associated with lunacy, the carnivalesque and the mysteries of the night sky than with the symbology of organised religion. What is the genesis of this singular image and what reflections does it elicit from the pilgrim to Dorchester Abbey?
Bright Rising is a “reredos” painting. The term derives from 14th century Anglo-Norman, the language spoken by the the aristocracy pre-eminent in Britain following the Battle of Hastings in 1066. It would originally have referred to a screen placed behind a table, or simply to an open fireplace. Reredoses hold an important place in the history of religious art, and were just as likely to be tapestries or reliefs as they were to be paintings. They date back to a time when the art object was designed not to be a portable instrument of commerce (easy to transport and rehang), but an integrated permanence. Framing and placement are almost as important to a reredos as the image itself. At their finest, such works are designed not just to cohere stylistically with the architecture, but to reflect and magnify the ritual and spacial ambience which is so essential to the religious life of a site such as Dorchester Abbey. Hind has conceived Bright Rising with just such a holistic vision: the waters out of which her moon seems to ascend are a continuation of the waters of the Thame, in which King Cynegils was baptised and out of which the Abbey itself first arose. The refractions of light through the clouds echo the form of the cross.
In spite of the threads which connect this work back to the very earliest examples of religious art, the celestial has the power to reconfigure the viewer’s suppositions in Rebecca Hind’s rendering. Like the pilgrim, the moon is a peripatetic entity, perpetually in a state of departure or arrival. But when a cycle is completed – as it surely is in this work – the moon allows us to see the world made anew, as transformed by its silvery light. Hind has infused her pictorial space with a presence akin to that of the natural elements: ever-constant, yet in perpetual change. In this way the painting avoids the feeling of ossified immobility which so often stymies religious art. This is an effect not easily accomplished. Having long been one of Britain’s most accomplished landscape watercolourists, Hind began stretching the medium to its limits in order to pursue a new interest in scale and tonal depth. Watercolour is traditionally valued for its translucence. It requires great skill and patience to achieve a saturation comparable to that which we see in acrylic, oil or gouache. This is done through the repeated application of colour washes, demanding great care and attention on the part of the artist. She must avoid either soaking the paper through or allowing uneven puddles or brushmarks to form. The advantage of this technique is a shimmering tonal richness which can only be fully appreciated on close inspection, when the fine granulation of the pigment across the rough surface of the paper becomes visible.
Since the landmark exhibition of moonscope (2007), a series of paintings exhibited at the Museum of the History of Science, Hind has increasingly used this uncanny saturation as a way of exploring natural phenomena: the night sky, fire, and water, are refreshed as objects of aesthetic and spiritual contemplation. These pieces, most notably her triptych Scintilla: the glittering speck (2010) a triptych made for Christ Church, Spitalfields, have taken the medium of watercolour to new dimensions. Compositions of this scale require the artist to interact with them in different ways, meaning that Hind’s works are no longer cosy affairs of the easel, but maps of artistic dexterity, which she has nimbly circumnavigated, tipped, and tipped onto, in order to form a new type of performative record. Hind has adopted risky techniques, such as pouring large volumes of paint onto the paper, an action which colours the sky like rapidly moving banks of cloud. Another instrument of her practice which doesn’t fit into the landscape painter’s standard- issue tin box is the Dremel, a small power tool. This is used to strategically abrade the surface of the painting, revealing the shocking white which describes the sheen of light on the water and the stars which surround the moon. This latter presence reminds us of the painting’s links with the Book of Revelation, which depicts The Virgin Mary standing with the moon under her feet, and “upon her head a crown of twelve stars.”
But despite its deep roots in biblical imagery, Bright Rising avoids lapsing into dogmatic rigidity often found in permanent artworks. Its overwhelming accomplishment is to place the viewer into a rich and flexible interpretative space. An unexpected eruption of the celestial into the architectural, of night into day, the painting urges us to detect constellations amid cool stone, to relocate ourselves at the porous frontier of the internal and the external. As we finish our contemplation of Bright Rising, and head back out into the world, it is hard not to feel that Hind’s celestial work allows us to find traces of the divine in the world outside the Abbey.