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Religious and Botanical Artist / Mathematician-

Sue Mason FLS

Date of photography:  20th April 2017

Under the influence of an inspirational teacher, Sue Mason discovered her love for the arts at an early age;  in particular, she began to understand the importance of symbolism in religious art and with this burgeoning comprehension, she embarked upon her own unique creative journey.   As both painter and sculptor, she’s long been associated with Kew Gardens and especially with St Anne’s on Kew Green, ‘the Botanists’ Church’, where some superb examples of her work can be seen and admired.   Studying Mathematics at the University of Sussex, she excelled in her understanding of geometry, symmetry and pattern recognition, both in nature and in Maths, and she sees pattern recognition as one of the essential foundations of both Mathematics and Art.   Living close to Kew Gardens has provided Sue with the inspiration for some of her larger canvases:  she has, for example, depicted Decimus Burton’s iconic Palm House, juxtaposing quite brilliantly Burton’s architecture with the foliage of the palms that inspired him and that now flourish so rampantly within the house that he designed.   Plants, of course, are ubiquitous in the symbolism of Christianity and inspired by her own faith, Sue will always strive to achieve in her art the perfection that she discerns in the natural world of God’s creation.

The full story:

When the Great Fire of 1666 swept through the City of London, over 100 churches lay in its unpitying path;  eighty-six of these were indeed destroyed, including old St Paul’s Cathedral, at that time, one of the largest churches in Christendom.   What we now think of as Wren’s iconic St Paul’s Cathedral rose, phoenix-like, from the ashes of its predecessor;  an architectural and artistic masterpiece, it was seen as a symbol, not only of the spirituality of a city built on trade, but also of its pride and its resilience.   From this time on, London grew hugely, absorbing many surrounding villages and hamlets as it expanded into our sprawling modern capital, its spirituality now enshrined in thousands of churches, synagogues, mosques, gurdwaras and temples of every sort and kind.  

Though less numerous than its places of worship, London’s many museums are charged with the preservation of religious artefacts from all over the world, and these help to demonstrate how religious institutions have for centuries been amongst the leading commissioners of architects, sculptors, painters, silversmiths and a host of other artists.   To this day, many artists continue to be inspired by their religion or by some spiritual dimension in their lives;  indeed, some even propound the notion that all human creativity is no less than the Divine communicated to us through the medium of the artist.

Sue Mason FLS would certainly claim to be inspired by the beauty she sees in plants and in nature, and in that beauty she perceives the hand of God, whom she regards principally as the “Great Creator”.   I had the honour to meet Sue Mason when I was part of a creative team at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and I had the great pleasure of working with her on several projects.   Over twenty years later, when I determined to cover the important topic of religious art as one of the components of this project, I was very pleased that Sue agreed to take part.

If we cast an eye across the great sweep of European art history, from the cave paintings of the early Palaeolithic age, to the great monuments of Ancient Egypt, to the temples of Classical Greece, to the architecture of classical Rome, medieval Byzantium and the great Moorish and Ottoman dynasties that followed them, we will find that human beings have depicted more than just figurative representations of their fellow human beings, of the animals that they feared and/or hunted, and the immense variety of the natural world;  they also sought to portray, to represent and to celebrate various forms of supernatural power, including their depictions of some of the earliest conceptions of gods, beings who were clearly revered as masters of the living world.

Many ancient civilisations sought to deify the fearful natural powers that they saw operating in the world - the sun, the moon, the great rivers and the tempest - and these became increasingly to be associated with individual, personalised gods who seemed in lots of ways to have many of the same virtues and foibles as mankind itself - the pantheons of Greece and Rome witnessed exactly the sort of family squabbles that we might easily witness closer to home than Mount Olympus.

These gods required worship and temples to receive such worship in;  they inspired the design and construction of some of the world’s most famous, most beautiful and most remarkable buildings.   And such buildings demanded decoration, in the forms of painting, mosaic, and sculpture, artistic traditions that were carried, through Byzantium, into the great medieval and renaissance traditions of the Christian church.

Figurative representation amongst those peoples who embraced Islam was not generally permissible, so Muslim artists expressed the essence of spirituality through the repetition of beautiful, geometrical patterns, capturing the order and serenity of creation, and through exquisite, calligraphic decoration, though this might be seen principally as a means of communicating scripture, divine wisdom revealed in extracts from the Qur’an in decorative form.

But Christianity probably makes greater use of religious images than any other major religion.   Exemplary scenes from the Old Testament and narrative events from the Life of Christ are the most common subjects.   The earliest Christian art to be preserved is found in the Catacombs of Rome and in early sculptures on sarcophagi.   Medieval illuminated religious manuscripts are often beautifully wrought and the best will be counted amongst the finest examples of Christian religious art.

The Renaissance, resting as it did upon classical foundations, certainly produced some of the finest works of secular art, but it was also an epoch that saw a plethora of commissions for religious art, for churches, monasteries and the interiors of palaces.   These works, many by some of the world’s most celebrated painters and sculptors, are now the treasures of national galleries throughout Europe and around the world.  

It will be only too obvious that the above is no more than the very briefest, outline sketch of how religious art has, from the earliest times, been an integral component of human culture, woven into the warp and weft of civilisations, and influencing creative trends right up to the present day.   Learned readers will, I hope, appreciate the necessity for this very superficial treatment and accept my apologies for the many omissions and generalisations that have inevitably been made.

Having skipped across several millennia of art history, we have reached a convenient point to say something more about Sue Mason FLS whom I have described as a ‘religious artist’ although she is, of course, much more than that;  she is also a fine botanical painter and a skilled mathematician to boot.     

Sue Mason FLS is both painter and sculptor and she has long been associated with the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and especially with St Anne’s Church, on Kew Green, sometimes known as ‘the Botanists’ Church’.   Built in 1714, St Anne’s is the place where some superb examples of Sue’s work can be seen and admired.  

Born into what she describes as a comfortable, middle-class, professional family, her childhood was spent in Essex:  “I was an only child and I had a perfect childhood.   Though my own parents were not themselves especially creative, my mother’s family certainly was so it wasn’t perhaps surprising that I was holding crayons and drawing with them even before I’d learned to walk.   I went to a local convent school partly because my mother, who was not herself religious, wanted me to have religion and that dimension of my childhood experience has significantly shaped my life.”  

Under the influence of an inspirational teacher, Sue discovered her love for the arts at an early age;  in particular, she began to understand the importance of symbolism in religious art and with this burgeoning comprehension, she embarked upon her own unique creative journey.   Despite encouragement from her school to pursue training that would lead to some sort of creative profession, Sue opted instead to read Mathematics at the new University of Sussex - this was the path that her parents had preferred - and there she excelled in her understanding of geometry, symmetry and the recognition of patterns, both in nature and in Mathematics, and ‘pattern recognition is the basis of both Mathematics and Art’.   By way of example, Sue comments:  “Give me a whole sheet of mathematical formulae that contains but a single error and I can see, almost immediately, where the pattern is broken.”   A rare talent indeed.  

Living so close to Kew Gardens provided Sue with the inspiration for some of her larger canvases:  she has, for example, depicted Decimus Burton’s iconic Palm House, a remarkable structure inspired by the geometrical patterns of palm leaves.   She juxtaposes quite brilliantly Burton’s architecture with the foliage of the palms that inspired him and that now flourish within the house that he designed;  it is amongst Sue’s most powerful two-dimensional work to date.

Sue is a lover of nature, especially plants and trees, and she has visited Kew Gardens so many times over the years that they almost seem like her own back garden, a continual source of inspiration and, more recently, also a treasure-trove of reference material for her religious artwork. Plants, of course, are ubiquitous in the symbolism of Christianity.   To give but a few examples:  the apple, when shown in Adam’s hand, symbolises sin, but in the hand of Christ, it represents salvation;  the red carnation stands for love whereas its pink sister bloom is a symbol of marriage;  grapes evoke the blood of Christ while the lily epitomises purity;  etc, etc.   In observing closely a fine, complex piece of religious art, one must discern and appreciate the multiple layers of symbolism that have been woven into it.    

In 2006, in memory of Libby James, Sue was commissioned to design and create a Paschal Candlestick for St Anne’s.  This piece symbolises the story of our salvation from the beginning of all things and points to the light of the world that flows from the resurrected Christ.   The lime wood is beautifully carved in a bas relief design, incorporating three trees that connect Earth to Heaven.   Around the centre, it is symmetrical, conveying an appreciation of the perennial dichotomy between Good and Evil, light and dark.

At the base of the candlestick, there is the Tree of Knowledge, placed by God in the Garden of Eden, with the serpent coiled around at the root - Et in Arcadia Ego.   In the middle stands the Tree of the Cross, encircled with the Crown of Thorns - the Cross is central to Christian salvation and provides the visual link between Earth and Heaven; the Tree of Defeat has become the Tree of Glory, for where a life was lost for mankind, there a life has been restored in Christ.   At the top is the bountiful Tree of Life, laden with fruits both plentiful and various, symbolising how Good and Life will triumph ultimately over Evil and Death.   The carvings show twelve different fruits and the leaves that are for the healing of the nations.

To celebrate the tercentenary of St Anne’s Church, in 2014, the inspirational and courageous vicar, Fr Nigel Worn, commissioned from Sue the creation of new altar fronts and liturgical vestments (priestly garments) together with a new font.   Sue duly produced a magnificent set of designs to decorate the Altar Front, the Falls, and the Bourse and Veil, together with a suite of liturgical vestments, all steeped in biblical and liturgical symbolism and making extensive use of plant references, mostly drawn from Kew Gardens - this is, after all, the ‘Botanists’ Church’.   This was indeed a monumental undertaking, with 3,000 hours required for the embroidery alone - this demanding, painstaking work was carried out by twenty volunteers, all members of the congregation, led by Daphne Jowit and supervised by Amanda Ewing, of the Royal School of Needlework at Hampton Court Palace where, in the School’s workshop, the separate pieces of work were finally assembled.   The finished result is both exquisite and magnificent.

If there is a single piece of Sue Mason’s work that will place her on the list of the most important religious artists working in England, then it will be the new Font for St Anne’s, also commissioned to mark the church’s tercentenary.   It is also perhaps one of Sue’s most daring pieces of work, based wholly as it is on the principle that ‘less is more’;  the fierce simplicity and purity of the design echo the neo-classical elegance of the church’s architecture yet stand in vibrant contrast to what is an otherwise richly decorated interior.   Sue based her design on Kempe’s distinctive East Window, the window one sees on first entering the church:  her design echoes the simple chalice shape, formed by the elegant white tracery of the window, and the Font’s pure, classical lines embody new life, new growth, shooting upwards from the ground, fountain-like.   The work is highly characteristic of Sue’s oeuvre, where the artist views the world through the eyes of the mathematician.   The Portland stone chosen for the new Font is brilliantly white and smooth, and evokes the ideas of childhood purity and innocence.   (The block was mined from the lowest layers of the quarry;  it is highly compressed and contains no large fossils;  and it was carved on the Lytox machine, using the latest computer-assisted technology.)

The floor surrounding the Font was carved by hand in the traditional way by a team of masons who incised the fish and the waves by using a straight chisel at an angle of 60 degrees.   A fine example of traditional master craftsmanship, the new floor consists of two contrasting, concentric panels of Portland stone, one is pure and unblemished, matching the font, while the other contains tiny marine fossils from 145 million years ago, thus referencing the Creation - life began in the waters.   Thus, the new floor around the font creates the effect of symbolically crossing the River Jordan as one enters the church.

For the purposes of this project, I have concentrated principally on Sue’s religious art.   She comments:  “I am inspired when I see beauty in plants and nature, and in beauty I see the hand of God;  I have always seen God as the great Creator.”   Inevitably, Sue’s work continues to change and to evolve;  indeed, on her desk lay the early designs for a new project, one that illustrates the very evolution of life itself.   Though it is in the form of a frieze, it depicts how evolution is not linear, how its progress can be presented almost like the map of the London Underground, a map that leads us on a journey through a myriad of fascinating life forms yet keeps us from getting lost on our way, to the creation of Mankind.   The work is still in progress but already it reveals itself as the work of someone who understands the world through Science and Mathematics but who prefers to use art to illustrate the beauty of the nature she sees.   It is a complex work of many intersecting patterns and, like Sue’s illustrative page of mathematical formulae, she will be the one to spot any imperfections and to expunge them from the work.   Being an artist-mathematician, or a mathematician-artist, is very demanding, for nothing less than perfect forms will do.   But Sue has shown how, with her truly indefatigable attention to detail, be it in her research or in the execution of a design, she will always strive to achieve the perfection that she discerns in the natural world.   She is an artist of unique talent.

Churches and religious orders may no longer be the regular commissioners of religious art that they once were, though Father Nigel Worn, the Vicar of St Anne’s Church, on Kew Green, is no doubt one of many honourable exceptions.   However, contemporary artists continue to explore religious themes and to incorporate religious iconography into their work.   Pablo Picasso certainly did so, most famously perhaps in his masterpiece, ‘Guernica’ of 1937, and, somewhat surprisingly, even Andy Warhol created a series of paintings of ‘The Last Supper’.   Occasionally, modern artists have deliberately set out to challenge religious orthodoxy or tweak the nose of the Church establishment and question its teaching.   During 2000 and 2001, Maurizo Cattelan’s sculpture of Pope John Paul II crushed by a giant meteorite caused a great deal of controversy when it was shown in a gallery in Poland, the country of his birth.

When Chris Ofili’s, ‘The Holy Virgin Mary’ (1996) a mixed-media ‘painting’ of oil paint, glitter and resin, mixed together with elephant dung, was shown at Charles Saatchi’s London ‘Sensation’ exhibition, the work was described by some as “sick” and “disgusting”.   When the work was exhibited in New York, the then Mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, declared that:  "The idea of having so-called works of art in which people are throwing elephant dung at a picture of the Virgin Mary is sick.”   Subsequently, the work’s planned exhibition in Australia’s National Gallery had to be cancelled.

Andres Serrano’s, ‘Immersion’ or ‘Piss Christ’ of 1987 provoked even more extreme reactions in the US, when it was exhibited at the Southeastern Centre for Contemporary Arts, in North Carolina.   It was a photographic print of a small, plastic crucifix submerged in a tank of what the artist described as his own urine.   Serrano received hate mail, including death threats, and lost all his government grants.   The work was seen as blasphemous;  it was later attacked by two gallery visitors wielding a hammer.  

Both of these works caused much controversy but they are rather more complex in nature and intent than was perhaps perceived by the stereotypical, devout gallery visitor and their simplistic, hostile reaction may tell us more about those who attack such works than about the artists.   Often, the most daring artists will pose questions that the religious establishment might prefer not to address;  long may they be inspired to do so.     

Text edited:  20th May 2017 and 5th September 2018

Page modified: 17th March 2019