Chichester has a history of commissioning religious tapestries: a Lurçat tapestry which hangs in Bishop Otter Chapel and two tapestries, one by John Piper and the other by Ursula Benker-Schirmer, which hang in Chichester Cathedral. In A Sense of the Sacred: Theological Foundations of Christian Architecture and Art Kevin Seasoltz argues that Ursula Benker-Schirmer’s Reconciliation Gobelin (tapestry) in Chichester Cathedral is “[m]uch less successful” than Piper’s when he considers form and space. His reasoning is that the symbols present in Piper’s tapestry “speak for themselves; no explanation is necessary” whereas in Benker-Schirmer’s:
There are numerous symbols, including a chalice, a candle, a fig tree, and a fish, but the symbols are not at all easily recognized, nor are they integrated into a whole; consequently, the tapestry comes across as a fragmented collage. [Seasoltz, 2005:340]
The Shrine of St. Richard in the retrochoir of Chichester Cathedral was a destination for Middle Age pilgrims and was considered by many pilgrims to be the third most important after St Thomas in Canterbury and the Virgin Mary at Walsingham. Robert Holtby (Dean of Chichester 1977-1989) wanted to re-establish the cathedral retrochoir as a focus for pilgrimage which led to the commission of Ursula Benker-Schirmer’s Reconciliation Gobelin(also known as the Anglo-Germanor Benker Tapestry). [Holtby, 1991] Benker-Schirmer’s tapestry hangs on the reverse of the Sherbourne Screen while John Piper’s hangs on the front.
Fig 1. John Piper tapestry in Chichester Cathedral and Fig 2. Ursula Benker-Schirmer’s Reconciliation Gobelin in Chichester Cathedral
The Shrine of St Richard is the place of interment of Bishop George Bell’s ashes. During his life, Bell worked for German reconciliation and according to Holtby ‘the major financial contribution [for the tapestry] came from Germany’. The tapestry was intended to be ‘a sign of Anglo-German reconciliation and friendship. It was also a symbol of Christian unity.’ Ursula Benker-Schirmer was born in Germany but was working at the nearby West Dean Tapestry Studio when the commission was undertaken. In response to the theme of reconciliation, Benker-Schirmer arranged for the central panel of the tapestry to be woven in Marktredwitz, Germany whilst the two side panels were made in West Dean Tapestry Studio. In June 1985 when the tapestry was unveiled, Benker-Schirmer declared ‘[t]he message of the tapestry affirms that there is peace between God and men’. [Holtby, 1991]
The tapestry measures almost 40 square metres and is designed to be viewed from a distance. Made of pure linen, cotton and silk it weighs approximately 80kg, taking three and a half years from conception to completion and requiring 4-6 weavers (men and women) at a time to create. The scale of the tapestry was largely dictated by the size of the Sherbourne Screen, however Benker-Schirmer split the design into three separate panels which could be seen as a reference to the Holy Trinity.
Benker-Schirmer’s design uses traditional Christian symbols together with elements reflecting the life of St. Richard of Chichester. Some of the Christian symbols included in the design are obvious and others require that the viewer spend more time with the work:
- The chalice is the symbol of Holy Communion and eternal salvation
- The bowl is a symbol of reconciliation between God and man
- The central cross is the focus for Christian idea of redemption
- The lotus-flower is a symbol of sloth which is one of the seven deadly sins and the serpent is seen rising from a lily.
- A dove is a symbol of Holy Spirit and peace
- The trinity is represented by the three separate panels and the triangle. The apex looks ‘like a pair of compasses, opening the world, the bright blue aperture pointing into the universe and to eternity beyond’. [Benker-Schirmer 1991:29-30]
- A compass symbolizes drawing a line around our own desires and passions, keeping within circle of self-restraint and moderation (foundation of morality & wisdom) and is generally a symbol of mankind’s ability to learn about the world. [Freemasonry, Mackey, 1882]
- The fig tree represents knowledge and fertility. Fig trees are particularly relevant to this site as they were said to have been tended by St. Richard locally when he lived amongst his people having been banished from Chichester Cathedral by Henry III.
- The fish is a symbol of mankind, a sign of Christ and membership of church. The fish also represent movement, direction and time although they seem to be swimming right to left when convention places the future to the right and past to the left when looking at timelines.
In 1538 Henry VIII ordered the destruction of shrines and so there is little evidence of what the original Shrine of St Richard looked like. There are references to a ‘silver-gilt shrine, encrusted with jewels’ and ‘six coffers, a casket and a little box’ were delivered to the Tower of London containing 112 images in silver-gilt, relics and jewels. [Chichester Cathedral] What Seasoltz described as a “fragmented collage” could be seen instead as a reference to the jewel encrusted shrine that was destroyed. Benker-Schirmer used the refraction of light by crystalline structures to represent the four elements earth, air, fire and water by the colours green, white, red and blue. The crystal-like shapes are also reminiscent of stained glass and the colours were chosen to be sympathetic to those of the nearby Chagall window unveiled in October 1978.
Fig 3. Chagall stained glass window in Chichester Cathedral
As a non-religious person, I was surprised to read Seasoltz’s description of the Reconciliation Tapestry. Personally, the complexity of Benker-Shrimer’s tapestry intrigues me far more than the more famous Piper tapestry. The fact that you cannot instantly recognise all the symbols and have to work harder to understand the significance echoes the idea that when life is difficult it can be harder to see the underlying purpose or have faith.
The tapestry was intended to permanently transform a space that was described by Robert Holtby as “dull” into what is a vibrant and thought provoking space. Each time I visit the Reconcilliation GobelinI see something new, arguably a successful fulfilment of Robert Holtby’s aim to bring ‘symbol or colour to stir the imagination or devotion appropriate to a shrine’. [Holtby, 1991]
Word count: 995
Benker-Schirmer, U. (1991) ‘The Benker Tapestry: The Artist Writes’ In: Foster, P. (ed.) Chichester Tapestries Lurçat – Piper – Benker: A Sequence of ExplorationChichester: West Sussex Institute of Higher Education pp26-30
Chichester Cathedral (s.d) https://www.chichestercathedral.org.uk/about-us/delve-deeper-1/the-shrine-area-of-st-richard.shtml(Accessed on 29 June 2018)
Foster, P. (ed.) (1991) Chichester Tapestries Lurçat – Piper – Benker: A Sequence of ExplorationChichester: West Sussex Institute of Higher Education
Fränkische Gobelin Manufaktur (s.d) http://www.gobelin-manufaktur.de/english/portrait/portrait.htm(Accessed on 29 June 2018)
Freemasonry (s.d) http://web.mit.edu/dryfoo/Masonry/Essays/emblem.html(Accessed on 29 June 2018)
Holtby, R. (1991) ‘The Benker Tapestry: The Commissioning’ In: Foster, P. (ed.) Chichester Tapestries Lurçat – Piper – Benker: A Sequence of ExplorationChichester: West Sussex Institute of Higher Education pp25-26
Mackey, A. (1882) Symbolism of Freemasonry: Illustrating and explaining its science and philosophy, its Legends, Myths, and Symbols. New York: Clark and Maynard
Seasoltz, K. (2005) A Sense of the Sacred: Theological Foundations of Christian Architecture and ArtLondon: The Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd.