Seville’s Museum of Fine Art is a gentle, serene series of galleries on two floors, set around a large main gallery. The light is calmly natural, and in summer the aroma of jacaranda from the little courtyard garden near the main entrance seems to follow you around. It cannot but be uplifting, a quality it might owe to the fact that for five hundred years it was a monastery.

In September of 1835 the open order of monks that had built the thirteenthcentury convent of the Merced Calzada, in what is now the El Arenal district of Seville, was expelled, ‘disentailed’ in Spain’s Reformation, and the palatial yet studiously tranquil building was taken by the state.

But rather than being destroyed or acquired by a grandee as his private mansion as it might have been in the English version three centuries before, it was reopened in 1841 by royal decree as El Museo de Belles Artes, effectively the national gallery. And instead of disappearing into the banqueting halls and drawing rooms of magnates, the paintings and sculptures commissioned by convents, monasteries and churches, confiscated by Spain’s new liberal government, were given this permanent public home.

It is now Spain’s second largest gallery after the Prado in Madrid, with important works added from the twentieth century. At the core of its collection, however, were, and are, those works of art acquired by the religious institutions of the city mostly during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, paintings and sculptures that were often the only fine art that generations of congregations ever saw.

On the walls of the former convent church are dozens of works by Bartolomeo Estaban Murillo, through which can be seen the development of this prince of Andalusian artists, born among the tile-makers and potters of the nearby Triana district, as he becomes more confident in line, brushwork and colour. He painted them for this religious community, and many of them are a tribute to his obsession with the Virgin and Child; he often painted them in seventeenth-century domestic settings, using his neighbours as models for the biblical narratives.

There are also the wonderfully modelled Mannerist paintings of Francisco de Zurbarán, made for the Cistercian monks at La Cartuja just across the river in whose monastery Columbus had worked before his first American voyage and where his body was later brought. There is a magnificent polychrome full-figure sculpture of St. Jerome by the Florentine Torrigiano who went to Seville in the 1520s and made it for the church there devoted to the saint. In a bitter irony the tempestuous Torrigiano (credited with breaking Michelangelo’s nose in an argument) was arrested for heresy by the Inquisition after a public outburst shortly after completing the piece, and starved to death in prison.

There were no public art galleries, as we know them, when Murillo and Zurbarán were painting, and in the medieval tradition artists were obliged to enrol as craftsmen with cities’ guilds in order to be licensed for commission. Religious establishments were by far the biggest clients. Their walls and floors became public art spaces accessible to rich and poor who had immediate access to great art, some of whose quality is transcendent. The art was made to be seen in the badly lit, hushed atmosphere of sanctity, and yet it had the drama, comedy and horror with which a varied audience could be on familiar terms.

So it was throughout Europe, not least in Britain and particularly in England, although here those sanctified galleries that were not destroyed by Thomas Cromwell’s legions of Reformation despoilers had their art vandalised by Oliver Cromwell’s yahoos with their grotesque obsessions with blasphemy and idolatry.

Art has returned to hallowed ground, however, and not in a mood simply to put fresh, bright things into dull surroundings in order to attract more worshippers. The church is looking for a new spiritual alliance between aesthetic and religious emotions.

Two years ago William Pye’s ten-year commission to create a large total immersion font for the thirteenth-century Salisbury Cathedral came to fruition when his rhomboidal sculpture was unveiled in the centre of the nave. It is made of green patinated bronze and as a tribute to medieval masons it stands on a plinth made of Purbeck Freestone, the same stone as was used to build the cathedral and taken from the same Dorset quarry.

It has just been announced that St. Paul’s Cathedral has commissioned a piece of contemporary art from the video artist Bill Viola. It is part of the St. Paul’s Cathedral Arts Project to explore the encounter between art and faith, and the cathedral has recently had temporary installations by Rebecca Horn, Yoko Ono and Martin Firrell. Viola’s, to be unveiled early in 2012, is permanent: two multi-screen plasma panels shown as altarpieces on the themes of Mary and the Martyrs. They will stand at the end of the quire aisles, flanking the high altar, and their purpose is, unashamedly, to seize people’s attention and make them reflect, much as Gozzili’s wondrous frescoes of Sant’Agostino in San Gimignano first did six hundred and fifty years ago. If Viola’s twenty-first- century installation works it will function in much the same way, Viola says: as aesthetic objects of contemporary art but also as practical objects of traditional contemplation.

This is not Viola’s first experience of working in churches. He had a piece in the church of San Gallo for the Venice Biennale of 2007, and a triptych in Milan’s Basilico di San Marco in 2008, which had originally been commissioned for Durham Cathedral in 1996 where it got national notice because if its use of nude figures.

Twenty years ago Lincoln Cathedral attempted to embrace contemporary art by installing Leonard McComb’s Young Man Standing, a golden largerthan- life figure of a naked man. Its anatomical exactness was found to be offensive and the chapter had it removed from the nave. This autumn the piece was back in a hallowed atmosphere, in Gloucester Cathedral, and there was no objection. It was part of the largest exhibition of contemporary and modern sculpture ever mounted in a church, and potentially a good deal less controversial than many of the other seventy-two pieces by fortyeight artists in the exhibition, entitled Crucible. It was the parting gift of the cathedral’s dean, Nicholas Bury, before his retirement, and a watershed in the history of art and churches.

More contentious than McComb’s golden man might have been David Mach’s Crucifixion, another larger-than-life nude figure, this time screaming in agony with arms outstretched in crucified pose, made with thousands of wire coat-hangers. We are used to the Victorian portrayal of the crucifixion as serene and rather gentle, Nick Bury told me, but crucifixion was not gentle, it was horrible agony, and we can tell it like that now. Damien Hirst’s contribution was equally uncompromising, St. Bartholomew, Exquisite Pain, showing the martyr in classical pose but, on closer inspection, completely flayed with his skin dangling from his wrist like a wet raincoat. Marc Quinn had a skeleton kneeling in prayer before a chapel altar. Bury thought Marcus Harvey’s Nike would be more difficult to come to terms with, because although the piece – a bronze winged helmet mounted on a tripod of Bren guns – is a readable statement about nature being in thrall to power and victory, and dependent on the gun, encountering a Nazi helmet in a church is somehow a shock.

The exhibition had been unanimously approved by the chapter, and because there was no charge there is no figure for the number of visitors. On the Saturday afternoon I saw it there must have been a thousand people in the cathedral, so an unscientific estimate for the two months the show was on could be reaching towards a hundred thousand. From his own market research the dean reckoned on an approval rate of eighty percent, with only ten percent saying the exhibition should not be there. ‘There has been a sea-change in attitudes. People are not offended by nakedness as they once were, even in a cathedral,’ he said to me. ‘There has been a great step forward.’

Admittedly, he and the professional curators of Gallery Pangolin had left little to chance in terms of quality, with the list of artists a fair pantheon of living and recently living masters: the likes of Ralph Brown, Kenneth Armitage, Bryan Kneale, Phillip King, Antony Gormley, Sarah Lucas, Glynn Williams and both Lynn Chadwick and his son Daniel. Standing outside the South Door main entrance to the cathedral was the gigantic pagan Vulcan by Edouardo Paolozzi. On the door’s other side is another Marc Quinn, The Artist’s Eye, a six-foot bronze sculpture of his own iris. William Pye, who, despite his association with Salisbury Cathedral, is an avowed agnostic, was also represented in Crucible with Miniscus, a contemplative water sculpture. ‘The debate about art in a religious context is very much up now,’ he said, ‘and I think that the motivation for art in cathedrals is not to reflect the worshipping congregation but to get the public into churches, to provoke and excite them. The church has been too bland for too long, and doing this can only be a good thing.’

Pangolin is the Gloucestershire foundry owned by Rungwe Kingdon and his wife Claude Koenig with whom all of the artists represented have at some time worked. The exhibition was curated by Koenig and Jane Buck who were given a free hand, and it took them two years to organise.

‘It was a courageous decision by the cathedral,’ Rungwe Kingdon said. ‘We wanted all the work to have some connection with Gloucestershire, too, which makes the range that much more extraordinary. And we wanted to make the point that this is an important exhibition that not only didn’t need be in London, but couldn’t be.’

Some of the work was for sale, and the cathedral took a small percentage to go towards the costs of the exhibition, which ran to around a hundred thousand pounds. They had help from the Arts Council and from charities, and Pangolin gave their services free. Dean Bury had been a champion of art in churches, and gave space to exhibitions throughout his thirteen years at Gloucester. He loves the cathedral and is delighted by the notion of great art being seen in a greater work of art, this building.

There has been a church on the site of Gloucester Cathedral since the seventh century. Henry III was crowned there and Edward II buried there. It changed from an abbey into a cathedral with the Reformation, but a century later Parliamentary troops destroyed the stained glass windows and the forty-two figure sculptures in the Lady Chapel that medieval visitors would travel miles to see. The thirteenth-century misericords, however, were left intact with their often distinctly irreligious subject matter, including the first known depiction of a football match.

Gloucester Cathedral is also one of the few that still retains a stonemason’s yard, and it has created a series of new gargoyles to replace long lost medieval ones. One of the masons, Jordi Raga Frances, had a sculpture in the exhibition, and sold it.

‘I think cathedrals are the place for contemporary art, particularly cathedrals like Gloucester that do not charge for admission,’ Canon Bury told me during the exhibition. ‘A cathedral should be a place where the world and other things meet together. Contemporary art here has a different quality of surprise and, I hope, delight from an art gallery, such as White Cube, where those who go are already aware of what they will find.’

He thinks that cathedrals up and down the country that are discovering the value of art in attracting new visitors are fulfilling an ancient and mostly lost duty. ‘It is a very important interface between the cathedral and the rest of the world, and we should not turn our face against contemporary art which is so much a part of the world.

‘Do we have an iconoclastic mindset? I do not think we have any more, and I would like to see exhibitions of this size happening regularly – Cheltenham has literature and music, why not a Gloucester Festival of Sculpture? The trouble is that cathedrals have very few resources and traditionally they have been concentrated on conservation, restoration and music. Visual art has not been part of that, in spite of the great tradition, and I believe it is time that it was.’

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