A Fan-tasche-tic Work of Art
An image of Jesus, with well-kempt facial hair, is the highlight of a beautiful reredos (a decorative panel that covers the back of an altar) in St. Stephens Chapel, York Minster.
Whilst it is not unusual to find a depiction of Jesus with a beard and moustache, this 19th century likeness is distinctly dapper. Originally made for the High Altar, the terracotta reredos tells the story of the first hour of Christ’s crucifixion. The scene displays a suspiciously Victorian-looking version of Ancient Rome. It is not just Jesus, but also many of the Roman soldiers who sport well-groomed moustaches.
It was made by Victorian artist, George Tinworth, well known for his biblical scenes in clay. George specialised in sculpting biblical stories shaped by the world he saw around him. He was praised for his original style, full of imagination and character.
This reredos is an example of a pioneering way of sculpting, which focuses more on storytelling than on artistic beauty. While some criticised his panels for being too busy, he thought it important that each of his figures tell their part in a full story. Others praised his new style, which blended the serious with the humorous, and brought a fresh perspective to well-known stories.
So what story is he telling here? The scene is this:
Christ has just been placed on the cross. At his feet, soldiers are throwing dicefor his clothes. To the left are some of those closest to Christ: the Virgin Mary and St. John look up at him, another woman looks away and on the ground is Mary Magdalene - all distraught.
In the left corner another criminal is being nailed to his cross. Soldiers are set to the grim task, whilst officers oversee their work.In the right corner is a man (possibly a slave) sitting on a basket looking up at Christ. Next to him is a little boy tasting the vinegar in the vessel set aside for the criminals to drink.There are spectators all around, some in confusion.Each figure has a purpose and together they create the scene George saw in the Bible’s account of the crucifixion. The scene is there for us to contemplate, as we examine each character, their purpose and the story come together.
But why the moustaches? During George’s day, English soldiers were encouraged to grow moustaches because it was believed shaving the upper lip would interfere with a rifleman’s shot, messing up his aim. Since his characters were shaped from his view of the world, these soldiers have moustaches as well.
George interpreted Bible stories through his own contemporary lens to bring them to life. The stories he tells through sculpture still speak to us today, as well as simply offering an opportunity to appreciate Victorian enthusiasm for manicured facial hair!
By Sarah Lynch, Collections Intern