Contemplating God at Exeter St David’s

I was in Exeter this week, travelling by train, and so came again across Bridget Hall’s wonderful murals in Exeter St David’s, on the stairs from Platform 1. This one is the clearest clue to what’s going on: the train guard leaning out and gesturing imperiously from the dining car is a pastiche of Michelangelo’s depiction of God the Father creating the sun and moon, from the series of images depicting scenes from the book of Genesis on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Hall’s murals are witty pastiches of some of those images.

To catch the allusion is to enjoy the joke: the serious subjects of Michelangelo’s paintings in their exclusive, sacred and awe-inspiring setting at the heart of the palace of the purported Vicar of Christ become whimsical mundane characters at work or waiting for a train in a British railway station. Smile and walk on to your platform or the exit. Yet they’ve stayed with me, and I think deserve a little further thought – without losing sight of the joke – as examples of theology done in public.

I’m not claiming to know what Bridget Hall was thinking in choosing to nod to Michelangelo. But by putting Michelangelo’s God in a dining carriage on Exeter station, and in alluding to other scenes he painted from Genesis, she makes her murals theological. And that invites reflection.

The depiction of God the Father is as I say, the most obvious. Compare it to the original:

Michelangelo’s muscled God zooms toward us, sending sun and moon spinning into place from nowhere by his gesticulated command, his determination to order etched upon his frowning, bearded face, while cherubs attend in wonder and amazement. Hall’s God looks alone and less certain, less dynamic, leaning rather than zooming, and framed by a window, rather than defining the surrounding space. His gesture, still too large for the setting, might be to point out the right platform to an enquiringly traveller. He has been brought down to earth. This is God as one of us, a stranger on a train rather than a bus, but who might at least be able to point the way home if we’re lost. We don’t suppose even the Pope in Rome will be calling on the phone. (Apologies to Joan Osbourne).

The Exeter mural, precisely by its humour and pathos, pays a wry homage to Michelangelo and passes comment on his deity. That comment could be construed as socio-cultural commentary: God is no longer in his heaven as far as many of us are concerned, no longer a figure of power and command, the paternal archetype of the Christ the Judge of the Sistine rear wall; the tide of faith has (the mural suggests) receded in Devon as on Dover beach. The timetable, standardised time as a universal measure of mechanical causality, rules in place of God, and frames what we make of God. Hall’s God as conductor or ticket inspector could be taken as a wry comment on a deist deity or ‘God of the gaps’, fitted awkwardly into the frame of a cosmos ordered without reference to him, a hypothesis of which we have no need in our World Come of Age.

Alternatively, it could be taken as Feuerbachian or feminist analysis: Hall’s image tells us that Michelangelo’s deity is the projection of human self-understanding in general, and of patriarchal ideology especially. Indeed, it could be taken, consequent on all these analyses, as negative theology: the divine patriarch of the Sistine chapel, and the Deist deity squatting in our universe, are human creations in our image, idols. God is not this, not that. God’s nature, in at least parts of Christian tradition, is beyond comprehension, unnameable, beyond adequate conceptual or visual representation, beyond species and genus, as Aquinas says. Not much apophatic theology, however, makes its point so wittily or accessibly!

What about the other images? I think I can identify two possible allusions. This one alludes to the creation of light and its separation from darkness, the first of the Genesis scenes on the Sistine chapel ceiling and, if I remember correctly, this is also the first mural you encounter as you ascend the stairs at Exeter. Here’s the Exeter image and the original:

Michelangelo depicts God flinging light into being and dividing it from darkness by his robed body in an image framed by possibly angelic nudes reclining against neoclassical architecture. Hall has apparently replaced the deity entirely in her version. Light is represented by an information board, which a pair or couple walk past, animatedly discussing something. The reclining nude angels have been replaced by two male passengers in casual clothing in similar poses to the angels, holding a ticket and (perhaps) a timetable. The one on the right reproduces the right-hand angel’s intense, possibly erotic, gaze at his neighbour. In fact, it is only their poses which allow us to identify the allusion. This is also an image which, in contrast to Michelangelo’s scene, includes a black person in the space analogous to that occupied by Michelangelo’s God. More of that later.

The other image I want to mention alludes to the creation of Eve:

Michelangelo has an elderly God beckons Eve from a sleeping Adam, bordered by more corpulent angelic nudes. Again, in Hall’s mural the angels are the main feature and the only clue to the allusion, transmuted into clothed, lounging tourists, neither replicating the statuesque whiteness of Michelangelo’s figures. There’s no Adam or Eve in the framed image, only a grey bearded man with a briefcase, who looks like he’s swaying backwards as a train passes.

These murals are images in which sacred history has been replaced by quotidian experiences of being in transit, of leisure anticipated or exhausted, of meaningless surprise and ordinary conversations about routes or directions. They are also images alluding to scenes before what Michelangelo, following the Christian tradition, construed as the Fall. They depict a mundane paradise of mild boredom, perhaps of bored erotic interest. In Michelangelo’s images, the human form echoes the divine and the angelic. In Bridget Hall’s murals, God walks incognito as another human, and the angels are earthly, the dramas are small-scale and intimate. These are what we are to celebrate, looking at them at eye level, in public spaces.

They are also images which challenge the hegemony of white bodies as representatives of sacred history, angelic life, and the divine.

One could read them as celebrations of travel, of a time when opportunities for leisure and the disposable income to take advantage of them are relatively widespread. But perhaps one could also see something else. In the Christian tradition, leisure has been seen as a condition of possibility of contemplating God. Perhaps another way to read these images is to see these quasi-angelic figures as contemplatives who, disabused of the idolatrous theologies of projection, patriarchy and whiteness, seek the God who cannot be seen, but whose creative action makes possible the everyday world, the ways we order it, and its dramas and mundanities. Unlike some stations, Exeter St David’s can hardly be compared to a cathedral (sorry). But through Bridget Hall’s murals it can be read as a kind of liminal sacred space where ordinary time may be suspended between journeys, and our attention diverted by images into an imageless prayer.