Cathedral Censing Angel
15 April 2012
‘Censing Angel’ cathedral artwork project
About a year ago the Norwich Cathedral asked if we would like to be involved in a collaborative project between Notre Dame High School, Norwich School, UEA film school and two local artists: Maz Jackson and Joy Whiddett.
The challenge we had been given was to create a piece of art – a new ‘Censing Angel’ to replace the medieval one that used to hang in the nave space of the cathedral.
What is a Censing Angel?
An angel is essentially a celestial messenger – usually God’s way of passing vital pieces of information down to humans to help them through difficult circumstances or important events. Whilst angels usually send messages from God to humans, the way humans send messages up to God is, of course, through prayer. The Censing Angel has a special role to play in carrying human ‘messages’ up to God. ‘Censing’ is the practice of burning incense during certain church ceremonies and services. The smoke is said to carry the prayers of members of the congregation up to Heaven.
This concept appealed to the artists originally involved in the project. We could see that the role of the Censing Angel could be extended to have a wider or universal significance for everyone – including followers of any religion and non-believers.
The Appearance of the Angel
The angel looks very much at home hanging in the cathedral. It fulfils the intention of drawing attention to the narrative carvings in the vaults of the cathedral. The contours and muscular shaping of the willow work reflect the many branches that the columns culminate in across the roof space. The twisted willow wands in the wings are like wisps of incense smoke containing one-word messages provided by staff and students from both schools – messages designed by Notre Dame High School students, under the guidance of teacher Emma Rhodes, were cut from light-gathering acrylic in bright colours that echo the stained-glass windows surrounding them. The painted plaques encircling the rim of the censing bowl were made by students from both schools, using a traditional ‘egg tempera’ technique demonstrated by artist Maz Jackson. They are designed to reflect the carvings in the vaults above.
Several other people have been involved in designing, organising and making the angel and accompanying elements, yet there is a wonderful unity and a deceptive visual simplicity in the final work. With so many elements present and so many people involved in its conception and creation it is reassuring to see it come together with such a natural presence (on a supernatural theme!). Joy Whiddett’s willow work (with some assistance from Norwich School students) has had a very unifying and containing effect.
Like the medieval censing angel that used to hang in the nave, the intention is to bring out the new angel on special occasions.
Norwich School & Notre Dame High School Messages
Initial thoughts for the project were that we should produce something that involved the school community as a whole (or at least a large numbers of contributors) and that the piece should be contemporary in style and ‘message’, as well as meaningful to both its creators and audience.
I held an assembly in which I asked all staff and pupils, if they were given the opportunity to send a message directly to God (or to the entire global community, perhaps) but the message could only be a single word, which word would they choose?
At the end of the assembly over five hundred single-word messages were written on paper wings and collected. Textile teacher, Emma Rhodes, also took this idea and presented an assembly, collecting similar messages from staff and pupils at Notre Dame High school.
The messages then formed a vital contribution to the ‘meaning’, of the piece. The two schools involved in the project used the angel to send their own messages out to the bigger community. In this way the message of God (or simply of ‘Good’ for those who are non-believers) may be communicated to humans through the angel. The most frequently occurring words have been incorporated in the wings of the angel, creating a general message from us as a community. The intension was that the resulting work would be meaningful to both its creators and audience.
Norwich School staff & students involved in the project:
Mr R Suffling
Dr R Slade
Mr M Stokes
Notre Dame High School:
Mrs E Rhodes
Mr M Peter
Orla Fottrell- Gould