Sir Nicholas Serota

Catalogue Essay

Christ’s Chapel, 500th Anniversary

2010 marked the 500th anniversary of consecration of the Chapel at Christ’s. The anniversary is to be celebrated by the installation of two new site specific altarpiece paintings on the theme of the Deposition made by the young contemporary history painter, Tom de Freston.

The paintings have been designed to respond to the unique spatial, spiritual and aesthetic demands of the Chapel and the subject of the Deposition has been chosen to complement the presence in the antechapel of Sir Anthony Caro’s sculpture on the same theme.

Caro is one of our country’s most admired artists and the College Chapel is a space of great importance and history, both architecturally and spiritually. For a young artist such as Tom de Freston to have been afforded such a commission is a huge credit to him, his work and the College. The way in which Christ’s has embraced contemporary art in this manner is unusual, but reflects both an understanding of the role art can play in worship and the long history of the involvement of the College with the visual arts.

De Freston’s paintings normally explore themes of Tragedy in contemporary painting, with his most recent body of works drawing directly from Shakespeare’s plays and Milton’s Paradise Lost. In his altarpiece paintings, the multiple figures, narrative and interior space seen in his literary paintings have been sacrificed in order to create a diptych which responds to the specific challenges of the Chapel commission. Each painting shows a single figure hovering between dark columns. As such, the figures seem to exist in direct relation to the space of the Chapel itself.

The placing of the figures, choice of colours and the sense of self-reflexive light all disclose de Freston’s interest in a history of images that were also important to Caro, notably Rembrandt and Rubens. The solid geometry of the paintings and the hovering forms show an acute understanding of the construction of space and form. De Freston’s canvases, whilst structurally similar to each other, are a dialogue of oppositions, in which he explores both the fleshy, weighty pathos of the Deposition, and the ethereal weightlessness and hope of the Resurrection.

Caro’s sculpture and de Freston’s paintings are confirmation that contemporary art is still able to offer a new and engaging reflection on themes that have fascinated artists for centuries. The responses to the works published in this catalogue are testament to their achievement in giving eternal questions contemporary form. This catalogue reveals a series of conversations; between two works of art, between the works and the austere beauty of the Chapel, and between the two works and earlier works that take the Deposition as their theme. These conversations provoke a rich engagement with faith and spirituality. That the 500th Anniversary of the Chapel has afforded an opportunity not just to look back but also to look to the present and the future is an impressive achievement. The installation of de Freston and Caro’s work creates a harmonious celebration in a Chapel where art, architecture, prayer and music come together to provide a deeply moving spiritual experience.


Sunday 24th April 2011