In thirty years of writing hymns I have been asked to write by all kinds of folk – composers, heads of schools, organists, Directors of Music and senior church members – and they have asked variously for a hymn that will become their school’s Assembly hymn, a hymn about their church’s beginnings, a local anniversary, about a person, on the subject of a new series of sermons (and, once, for one particular sermon), but only once have I been asked to write a hymn about paintings. It happened a few weeks ago
The request came from the Rev Gordon Giles, Vicar of St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, and I’ve never been faced with so many problems. Problems that taught me a lot. At first, it sounds straightforward: these are wall paintings, frescos. The whole of the glorious Chancel roof is covered in paintings, the walls, too. Each is on a subject spoken of in the Bible. And the point of the hymn would be that these paintings have now been thoroughly and professionally cleaned and restored. So what’s the difficulty? Once I began thinking in detail, I soon found out.
A lot of sitting and thinking began. I wanted to avoid any implication in the hymn that the paintings were icons, that the church would be worshipping or addressing them in any way.
I wanted the hymn to make immediate sense to the newcomer. The purpose of the paintings had to be made clear before people could give thanks for them. Explanation can call for long phrases, and long phrases can be boring to sing. And, most worrying of all, just how do you sing about paintings?
Sleep came fitfully that night.
But right at the beginning one hazy thought had lodged itself in this not particularly bright head, and I hung on to it. The thought: these paintings had just been cleaned. One hundred years of soot and dust had been removed. They were now bright and shining. They had been renewed. And we, too, have to be renewed. The paintings were a parable.
So, I reasoned, let’s begin with a statement of intent: We come to this place to remember and meditate. That’s what you do in church.
Next, the idea of looking up and seeing something: And lifting our eyes we can see there a parable – beauty renewed in a shining array. And proceeding swiftly to the nub of the subject: The paintings remind us of God and his way with us.
Now, the paintings themselves and their content could safely become the subject: Prophets and priests on the earth that we share; And there go disciples, apostles and cherubim. . .
But not every detail of the way God came into our affairs could be represented. So a reminder – we use the visible to remind ourselves of the rest: Mary with her child, and Mary, the Magdalene woman as she stoops to look into the empty tomb, the risen Christ breaking bread in the upper room, and so on. So: They help us imagine. . . etc.
Then can come the thanksgiving for the hard work of those in the distant past who gave their money and their labour in the preparation and realisation of the paintings, unique to the church of St Mary Magdalene, Enfield. Next, the reiteration of the thought that these restored paintings serve as a parable to everyone singing about them. Then, a closing doxology.
With the final draft finished there came the actual singing (croaking, actually) through it, from start to finish, making sure that each word and phrase fitted smoothly into the tune. The tune had been decided upon after consultation with my friend and colleague, John Barnard. He has written the music for most of my hymns (and you have almost certainly sung Michael Saward’s ‘Christ Triumphant’ to John’s tune, Guiting Power). He was his usual helpful self and felt that the traditional tune, Was Lebet , the tune associated with O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness, would be the perfect match.
Textual difficulties abounded, but now I’m grateful to The Reverend Gordon Giles for the experience. I hope that the hymn will do its job, that the act of singing about the paintings will lead to a deeper understanding of their role in the life of the church, and of this Enfield church in particular.
We come to this place to remember and meditate, Speaking to God as we sing and we pray, And lifting our eyes, we can see there a parable - Beauty renewed in a shining array. The paintings remind us of God and His way with us, Prophets and priests on the earth that we share; And there go disciples, apostles and cherubim, Silently hearing our praise and our prayer. They help us imagine the Lord and his suffering, Mary the Magdalene down by his tomb; We picture the risen Lord seated among them all Breaking the bread in a quiet upper room. Today we remember the work of those long ago. Giving these treasures for us as we praise; Dear Lord we give thanks for their love and their thoughtfulness, Fruit of their faith in the Ancient of Days. These pictures, once veiled in the wear of a century Cleansed and renewed with their beauty revealed! And thus do our souls become veiled by our waywardness, Till, through God’s power to renew, we are healed. All glory to God for his goodness and love for us, Glory to Christ, our Redeemer and friend, To God’s Holy Spirit be glory for evermore, In every one of us, world without end. Tune TRAD: Was Lebet O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness