St Cuthbert's Final Journey

Following 9th century monks as they flee from invading vikings with the body of St Cuthbert and the Lindisfarne Gospels – and undertake a momentous journey that helps shape England

Pieta by Fenwick Lawson….Unique Insights from his Daughter

Richard said he would love it if I wrote about the Pieta by Fenwick Lawson for his blog. And I said I would love it too. But when it really comes down to it there is so much to say from so many different opinions and I feel the weight of all of them as I am Fenwick’s daughter. I know what I should say. I know what I need to include but somehow feel it is difficult to write from my heart and say what it means to me. Some things I know I shouldn’t say for they may be taken out of context of my feelings and thoughts and others would breach confidences.

pieta - detail

Pieta by Fenwick Lawson

So, maybe if I divide all of these up into sections then each may stand on its own – let’s see if it works.

The first section then is a précised draft from an intended book. This is what I know about the Pieta from listening to Fenwick.

In terms of Christian iconography, visual references to the pity of the Virgin Mary and dead son (hence the name Pieta, from the Italian ‘pity’) do not appear until around the 12th century, which predates its appearance in the late middle ages as the thirteenth station of the cross. Its appearance may be in response to an aspect of the human condition that had hitherto been absent in the liturgy. Illustrations of the pieta began appearing concurrently with the emergence of the narrative and have continued to do so, the most famous of which are those of Michelangelo in the 16th century.

Rondanini Pieta by Michelangelo

Rondanini Pieta by Michelangelo

Fenwick has a deep interest in the ‘Rondanini ‘, one of the Pieta’s by Michelangelo, a sculpture that he saw in 1958 when on his travels in Europe. His reading of the sculpture is in variance with the mainstream explanation however, he justifies his explanation as a fellow traveller and artist. He believes that Michelangelo was attempting to return to a simplicity of form in an earlier work. Fenwick found that as his eye was led downwards, through the composition to the weight of the sagging body, it dismissed the fragmented arm. Then, through the formal concerns of the piece, the eye is then reversed though the fragmented arm, into an upward thrust, which he likens to Brancussi’s ‘Bird in Flight’. It was in this that Fenwick saw the possibility of the notion of the Resurrection and believes that Michelangelo was searching for something other than a physical earthliness. The fragment worked for a significant purpose, which was to embody the sculpture with a duality of meaning, the mother’s pity and also resurrection. Fenwick realised that his attention was also drawn to the ‘objectness’ of the piece of sculpture, regardless of content: “toward the sculptural image as opposed to it’s narrative”. Fenwick stated, “It is to this great sculpture, in humility, I pay homage. I do not wish to invite comparison but I do wish to invite reference.”

Pieta by Fenwick Lawson

Pieta by Fenwick Lawson

Fenwick’s Pieta took nearly seven years to complete. In his deliberation of the carving in its initial stages, he felt that the usual narrative of the Pieta thematically spoke of death and he struggled for several years to find a way of including the notion of life through resurrection in order to give it the duality of meaning analogous to that of the Rondanini. The Christ figure is the brutalised image of death – however one arm is reaching toward the mother, the container or giver of life thereby suggesting the notion of resurrection. On this basis, the mother is the dynamic force: as the vehicle for giving life and as such is responsible for the continuation of mankind. Thematically it reflects the narrative in the bible when Christ handed on his mother to John, his disciple, saying “Mother there is your son” and to the disciple, “There is your mother…” Built into his Pieta is the recognition of handing on through the positioning of the hands in both of the figures. Compositionally the fully carved hand of the Christ creates a visual connection with the right hand of the mother whose left hand, in Fenwick’s words, ” …through the outward gesture offers on life, through sacrificial death, to the viewer.”

The sculptor has added a further, more contextual metaphor in the application of brass to both figures.  The polished brass applied on the mother is a container for light enhancing her notion as the giver of life whereas the verdigris loincloth on the Christ figure is the polarity. However there is yet another metaphor here – the verdigris covered brass can be polished thereby suggesting transfiguration.  The mother herself also contains a duality of meaning. The break-up of the image, through the tree splitting, suggests the trauma of bereavement. At the same time, the carved form expresses a calm and tranquil state continuing through the outward gesture of her hand.

There are many formal concerns that are embedded into the sculpture – for example the serpentine line, on the mother,  is intended to move the eye around the image – if one is looking at the head the line will take the eye back to the hand – if one is looking at the hand the eye is guided to the head.

Another dimension of relevance was given to the Pieta, not by the sculptor but by accident. In 1984 the sculpture was exhibited in the south transept of York Minster. The roof of the Minster caught fire directly above the carving. As the roof burned, molten lead fell, reaming the mother’s brow and splashing her knees. The heat of the fire caused the head and face to split further. Fortunately a wrought iron screen protected her by deflecting the beams away as they fell. The Christ however, took most of the battering as he was lying across the ground, taking the brunt of the falling debris. He was singed, burnt and splattered with lead. Far from damaging the sculpture, the intended communication was enhanced by the effects of the fire.

Fenwick Lawson

Fenwick Lawson

“The ‘Pieta’ taught me that there are language systems other than my own which can reinforce the content …I never thought of getting a blow torch out but it added a dimension which is fantastic.”  (Fenwick Lawson)

The theme of the Pieta is a vehicle for Fenwick to deal with the human condition through the pertinence and significance of the mother and child theme. In this instance it deals with the trauma of the mother outliving the child. It transcends the dominant culture of the artist in that the theme can be relevant to everyone regardless of past, present or future where the male is sacrificial and the female grieves.

Ok, so that summarises some of Fenwick’s thinking. My mother, Joan, wrote about the Pieta. Whilst she has a great knowledge of the ‘art’ and ’academic’ raison d’etre she also has another perspective.

She wrote this:


Her presence holds the night,

In the morning light,

Echoing steps and voices,

Chink the stillness of the stone.

She greets them with peace,

They pause to take in her being,

Feeding on her motherhood,

Drinking in the spirit born of pain,

Feeling the inevitability of reality,

And the wonder and mystery of life and death,

Her serenity gives them hope,

And they are renewed,

An awareness of who they are,

And maybe why,

Is awakened.

The love from this universal mother,

Freed from the tree

Flows through her fingers,

Shiny; polished; hands on hands,

All take her blessing,

And remember her presence,

Her beauty travels with them,

To strangers in faraway places.

The lifeblood and pain that translated and freed her,

Was given by someone they don’t see,

A pawn like us all, bound in humanity,

That huge machine,

We feel individual,

We dress

We express

We feed ourselves

Or so we think,

In truth we feed each other.

The unknown hand that freed this much-loved mother,

Cries out for help,

But those whom he feeds don’t hear him weep,

Split and cracked his soul must heal itself,

Wounds caused by rebuff, exclusion and doubt,

Are deeper than the opening drying wood,

Are more searing than the lead that rimes,

Or the sparks that char,

The fare is costly,

But those who look see not the man,

Giving his life for a mother, a man, a child,

Gentle in his life,

Intent to cause no pain,

His own spreads,

Cutting; gouging; deep sores for which there is no balm,

But time and understanding,

Which is slow to grow.

Joan Lawson (c. 1985)

I don’t read this poem very often – I cannot bear the pain. The last three verses are about my father. You see my mother has the perspective of my father’s wife. She facilitates, she feeds him, she brings him tea, coffee – she spends time alone because he is working either in the studio or in his head. She watches him contemplate, she watches his trauma, his internal and external struggles. Sure she can put a plaster on his cut hands but she cannot take away his constant searching and pain when he is carving. She just has to watch. Sure she can comfort him when yet again his work is rejected. You may not think that the Pieta has ever been rejected – oh it so has. We found it once, in pieces, in a warehouse in an army barracks in Yorkshire.  It still belongs to Fenwick – no-one has ever bought it. It has had fungus growing out of it – sad times. Fenwick has never had a patron – he avoids galleries because he fears they might dictate. He just carves away and we have to find a place for his work (or not ::sigh:: ) when it is done. I digress.

Just a last note on my mother – to be able to write these last verses shows that she is on that journey with him, the painful exploration of ‘self’ and of rejection. Every sculpture that is created should read “by Fenwick and Joan Lawson”, for it is truly so.

Ok, so this last bit is what I think and feel about the Pieta. I have a good understanding of it in relation to Art and Art History – of course I would. I have a good understanding of how it is put together – we have carried it around enough – dad on one end of straps around the Christ figure and either me or one of my brothers, with straps on the other. It is heavy!

Placement changes the meaning – don’t get me wrong, I think it is in the right place in Durham Cathedral but I didn’t always think so. Now it belongs to the people of Durham and by that I mean it is yours. You might be a visitor, you might be transient, you might be a resident. Whichever category you belong in, it belongs to you.

I had a problem with placement because, for me, the Pieta is “Woman with Dead Child”.  If you came across it in a forest that is what you would think. Your first reaction would not necessarily be “Oh, come look, it is a Pieta”. It would resonate with your own human condition without an organised religious meaning. Sure, if you spent time there you would find a religiosity and a spirituality – but then that would be from inside you rather than from inside a church or cathedral …….. or taking it even further it would be a catastrophe if it was permanently placed in a gallery!

Pieta by Fenwick Lawson in Durham Cathedral

Pieta by Fenwick Lawson in Durham Cathedral

So, going back to the notion of when the Pieta first appeared in Christian iconography in the 12th Century and why – I guess there must be some writing somewhere that would guide me but I haven’t found it just now. I guess there was famine and war and there was nothing in the liturgy to support women – interesting notion that. The male dominated ‘Church’ needing to support women – maybe the status and, dare I say ‘power’ of women was perhaps a tad more than we are lead to believe in his-story.  So – where did this come from? We know that Christianity borrowed from earlier belief systems and whilst the mythology (is that the right word?) of Isis and Osiris can be argued in relation to the Pieta, the iconography is so strikingly similar it persuades me into thinking that they have been borrowed. And then if we take it further back (where did Isis and Osiris come from?) we go back to the human condition. That woman grieves for her dead child. So does man, I am not arguing that, but woman grows life and howls in death. One only has to look at ‘Woman with Dead Child’ by Käthe Kollwitz to understand that it is the human condition we are experiencing. If her work was in a Cathedral it would be called ‘The Pieta’.

You may want to argue the toss here and I will listen and be more informed but for now, that is what I think.

My father’s Pieta is special to me for all of the reasons outlined in the sections above. I love it, I visit it when I can; I touch it, I stroke it, I whisper my secrets to the Mother and I kiss her. I sit on the prone figure and feel the wood and stroke his face. Of course I would do this – it belongs to me as well for I am one of you.

As an artist myself I know it is a grand piece of work, grand. I know it is imbued with all of the meaning Fenwick intended and even without that it has an ‘objectness’ of its own. It can stand alone as ‘sculpture’. But I have watched it grow and grow and grow. I mean over the last few years – not while it was being carved. It grows with every person who experiences it – and you all have your own story to tell about it. I find it difficult to express the feelings I have when I hear your stories. Wonderment, sadness, incredulity are just some of them. It brings peace to some of you, it brings hope to others. It ‘unlocks’ emotions that you wouldn’t believe. People have been able to talk about experiences or happenings when hitherto they had been locked away in a dark place. I have been there, I have heard their stories, I have comforted them. I have some in writing. I am not saying that some sort of ‘religious miracles’ happen around it – what I am saying is that somehow, Fenwick has created a sculpture that is able to speak to you, and listen to you, in whatever circumstance you find yourself, should you so wish it to be so – he has found a route of communication, into a long forgotten part of our being, our psyche, call it what you will, that creates an experience that we all share within our most basic human condition – should you want it to. My son has a lovely expression – “If it doesn’t happen now mam” he says, “It may happen just now.” It is a time thing, but it is there if you need it.

Anna Lawson

9 comments on “Pieta by Fenwick Lawson….Unique Insights from his Daughter

  1. Heather Martin
    March 17, 2013

    It’s wonderful to hear the artist and his family speak about this piece and his attitude to his art. I love Fenwick’s piece in St. Mary’s Church, Lindisfarne, of St. Cuthbert being carried off the island by the monks.
    Fenwick’s work is so tactile and I always touch the wood at St. Cuthbert’s head and the backs and hands of the monks as I pass.
    I’m so glad that Fenwick’s daughter gives us ‘permission’ to do the same with the Pieta. I didn’t feel I could do that when I visited Durham Cathedral. I now feel I can, if I wish to, when I visit this year.

    • richardwhardwick2013
      March 17, 2013

      Thanks Heather. I’ve never touched either piece but I agree wholeheartedly and I’m looking forward to doing so within the next month. In fact I’m gong into the cathedral this Wednesday after the St Cuthbert’s Day Walk from Chester-le-Street. There’s something about wood that is so tactile….
      Forming a friendship with Anna Lawson has been a heartwarming experience. She is a beautiful person with a social conscience and is a great artist in her own right too. I love The Journey (wooden version at Lindisfarne and bronze version in the centre of Durham) but Pieta is the sculpture I can’t get out of my head. It’s such a powerful and beautiful piece so I was delighted that Anna agreed to write about it…

  2. Anna Lawson
    March 17, 2013

    Heather, if you ever feel like touching a sculpture you must do it for it is not ‘instinct’ or ‘fancy’, it is permission from the creator of the piece. They are giving you permission through the mark-making. Some marks take your eye for a walk, some draw your attention either away from or towards something important. If you feel like touching then you have already been given permission.
    It is hard to explain but if one looks at it in this way it may help. If you have a friend who is in an emotional place you will know, through their body language, whether you are able to hug them or not. Their body language guides you, informs you of how to react. Be confident to listen to what your heart wants your fingers to do. Put your mind away for the time being for it is bombarded with ‘convention’ that is not part of the sculptor’s intention. Follow the body language of the sculpture.

    • Heather Martin
      March 19, 2013

      Thank you, Anna. Your father’s work is so tactile so I’m happy to follow your advice!

  3. Mary Gilmartin
    March 18, 2013

    What a great article and backstory of Fenwick’s Pieta by Anna Lawson. The elongated face of the sculpture captured my attention and thanks for posting.

    • richardwhardwick2013
      March 19, 2013

      Thanks Mary. It certainly is a great article and a unique backstory too. I’m looking forward to stroking Pieta tomorrow and giving some thought to all those that have lost…

  4. kljolly
    March 22, 2013

    I am certainly glad to know more about the artist of what struck me years ago as a most arresting sculpture in Bede’s church (St. Paul’s), the archangel “St. Michael and the Devil.” The other sculptures are even more moving, but that one really caught my attention.

  5. Vera
    December 10, 2019

    This is lovely and beautiful! The article and the scupture. So much love and devotion. (There is such great respect towards this woman, that in some churches she takes the most important place in the building – the dome above the altar:

  6. Pingback: How Michelangelo’s Pieta Impacted on a Mother Grieving the Loss of Her Child. | Dawn's Journey

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