I make no apology for the fact that I loathe history. Perhaps if I had been lucky enough to be inspired by a more swashbuckling history teacher at school, my story about history may have been a gripping tale of fascination of the derring dids of the Cake Burner, or Ethelred the Unready. As it was, I spent most of the Upper Fourth year struggling to keep my eyes open and playing Hangman at the back of the class with Helena Gibbons.
So the truth is, I can’t remember a date unless I’m making vegan chocolate truffles with them.
However, I do love a story. My Dad was a fabulous storyteller. Stories flowed through his veins like water down the Mississippi. From bath time stories when my sister and I were allowed to start the first sentence to tales of his very real and frightening wartime derring do. So I grew to be hooked on stories, which is what drew me to choose to draw, and then paint just a little, of the Sacre Coeur, the crowning exquisite glory of Montmartre, the Mount of the Martyrs, in the northern quarter of Paris.My dear friend Karyn and I were on a mission this day to see as much as we could while our feet remained plausible walking aids. Blisters had been tended, muscles stretched, and after a trip on the Metro to Abesses, we began to slowly climb the steps towards what felt a bit like the Holy Grail.
The Sacre Coeur means a lot to me – but only since returning to the UK. At the time it was, without a doubt, “up there” with the glorious Duomos of Venice, the stunning Cathedrales of Malaga, theAlhambra in Granada and the Mezquita of Cordoba, all places I’ve been lucky enough to see. However, it was only on returning back to Base Camp after my trip that I decided to look into what the story was that brought “The Sacred Heart of Jesus” onto the Mount of the Martyrs.
Here’s what I learned.In 1870, when the Franco Prussian War was being fought and war broke out between France and Germany, France was in a desperate situation. Two men, Alexandre Legentil and Hubert Rohault de Fleury were so despairing for their country, they made a pact between themselves and their Beloved God.
They vowed together that should God see willing and fit to spare their beloved France, they would build a church dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ as an act of Reparation, for they believed that the misfortunes of France were caused by spiritual, not political problems.
It was at the end of 1872 that Cardinal Guibert, the then Archbishop of Paris, approved the vow and chose Montmartre, and in 1873 Parliament declared that the Basilica was in the public interest, thereby making the land available for a church to be constructed.
The work was entirely funded by donations, many very modest, that were collected throughout France. And what was most lovely was that the names of the donors were carved in the stone.
The statistics make horrifying reading. 138,871 dead; 143,000 wounded; 474,414 capturedBy the time I read that statistic, I had a pencil sketch in front of me. Suddenly, all those wounds, all those stabbings, gun shots and dismemberments became real for me in my heart, and I knew exactly what I needed to create with my pencil and my brushes.
I needed to honour all the lives lost while still capturing something beautiful and healing at the same time.
So I started to mix greens, but instead of painting greenery, I began to watch as the different greens dripped, like blood from an unstaunched wound, down the paper. And then I turned the paper upside down, as if I was the “enemy”, and began again with shades of blue, purple and pink to create the sky, still dripping, oozing, ceaselessly flowing from this central point.The work took on a life of its own. My own emotions went on a roller coaster of sadness as I painted, dried, painted more, waited and watched.
The process of building and layering was deeply cathartic for me. The journey of bringing all those tens of thousands of lives lost into a place where they could feel the love of these two men, their vow, and the endless love of God, in whatever form, was my sole aim.
The painting has been criticised by many as appearing “unfinished”. And I make no apology for that. While we still fight each other and generate dis-ease among our brothers and sisters on the planet, how can anything be truly “finished”. And yet I see great joy in the journey, after all, some wise person once said to me “it’s not the winning, but the taking part that counts”.
I hope you too will love this beautiful depiction of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, created by two men with a heart felt wish to make something beautiful out of so much pain and sadness. After all, we can all look at our sadnesses and run from them, or we can turn to them, learn from them and grow, can’t we?