Liviu Mocan: Archetypes
Archetypes is a beautiful project bringing to the heart of Cambridge the key truths of the Reformation celebrated and reimagined in a group of five artworks.
Continuing the celebrations of last year’s 500th anniversary of the Reformation,
each work evokes one of the five ‘solas’: that we know God through ‘Scripture alone’; our salvation is through ‘Christ alone’, which is ours by ‘grace alone’ through ‘faith alone’, to ‘the glory of God alone’.
At the same time, the theme of ‘Archetypes’ emphasises that the Gospel chimes with fundamental themes of human life common across all cultures: revelation, sacrifice, transcendence, belief and destiny.
The setting of the exhibition in the grounds of Great St Mary’s Church on King’s Parade could hardly be better. It is within sight of the thousands of students and tourists who pass by every day, in the heart of a city where the Reformation has been so central to history and learning.
The sculptor, Liviu Mocan, was born into a Christian family in Romania in 1955, a time when, under the oppressive, atheist Ceaușescu regime, public expression of one’s Christian faith was a serious crime. He studied at a state-sponsored art school, where he graduated in 1975. Like many Christian artists working under hostile conditions, he had to learn to express his beliefs in ways that were authentic but encoded, and his career until 1989 was one of quiet subversion.
Since the fall of the Communist regime, he has emerged as one of the leading figures in Romanian art, winning a number of national and international prizes and commissions.
The works are all broadly ‘conceptual’, in that they evoke ideas, rather than simply illustrate events or objects. But unlike so many conceptual works, which lack visual interest and are exhausted as soon as you have got the idea, these are also beautiful, intriguing objects, which repay repeated contemplation, and provoke meditation.
They are unified by colour, as they are all cast in either brass or bronze. They are also linked in size, arranged in an ascending spiral from The book that reads you to the central work, the gloriously uplifting Trumpet in the Universe.
It is hard in a work of art to convey the spiritual existing within the material, without straying on the one hand into a Platonist separation, and on the other hand into kitsch. But Mocan’s works have a wonderfully heavy sense of reality in their materials, while using space to give them a sense of weightlessness that points towards the spiritual.
Although it is not obvious from the works, each has also been made using modern construction methods, which were new to the sculptor: computer-aided design, 3D printing, laser and water-jet cutting, and advanced welding techniques.
The five themes
The theme of ‘Revelation’ is taken up in The book that reads you, a vertical pile of 49 open pages. The number 49 being the square – or perfect form – of 7, the number that symbolizes completeness or perfection, this points us to the completeness of Scripture. But the pages are inscribed not with words but with eyes. This is a book that not only reveals God, but reveals our own hearts.
The Lamb of God is perhaps the most directly figurative work in the collection, cast in the shape of a ram. It is covered in gold circles, which could be more eyes, but look to me like gold coins. On closer examination the viewer finds a dagger in the breast of the lamb, hidden by the fact that its hilt is shaped like one of the coins. This is the ‘lamb that was slain’, now alive again, and with its fierce gaze and firmly planted hooves, it also evokes the ‘warrior lamb’ of Revelation.
The ladder of the world brings together a rich variety of references. The idea of the ladder to heaven comes from Jacob’s dream of a stairway in Genesis 28, on which he saw angels going up and down to heaven from where he lay. Jesus then explicitly connects this image to himself, when he tells Nathanael that he will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man’ (John 1:51). So Mocan’s winged figure could be an angel, or the risen Christ, or ourselves being raised up into the heavenly realms. Or all three. It evokes the theme of transcendence from this world to the presence of God, for which most people hope in one form or another.
Here, in a touch of conceptualism, it helps to know that it is made of 49 layers of brass, beautifully and richly shaped. They are held together with 365 vertical rods. Contrasted against its solid feet, these spaced layers suggest weightlessness and ascension. Seen from the front there is an intriguing slant to the planes, which gives the sense of climbing, and yet the figure itself is vertical and stable. Viewed from the back one sees that its forward lean is counterbalanced by the huge wings.
Anchor cast up to heaven is a captivating concept. Here we have a literal image of a metaphor – that faith is an anchor. But most startling is that, from the remains of a small boat, this disproportionately vast, solid anchor points upwards, not downwards. You would feel pretty safe if it was stuck in the seabed. But it reminds us of the security of our hope, that is anchored in the very presence of God.
The fifth work is the appropriately vast Trumpet in the Universe. There is no literal trumpet here, but the shape of the work clearly evokes one pointing up to heaven, while the large circles round the top seem to represent more trumpets blasting out to the world around us. It is all upward movement, upward and outward, evoking the glorious richness and never-ending glory of our God, in whom is all our hope.
And, as all creation sings the Creator’s praise, the base of the work is inscribed with twelve texts relating to Cambridge scientists, writers and thinkers. This is an acknowledgement of how their work explores and celebrates God’s creation, from the sub-atomic to the inter-galactic, and has led, through the arts and science, to human flourishing and the increasing richness of culture.
The five sculptures were planned to be displayed within a large, pre-cast metal circle, set in the ground. However, in an interesting twist, the circle proved slightly too large to fit comfortably into the courtyard. A grave stone was inconveniently in the way. In an inspired response to this constraint, the circle was cut so that the grave stone intrudes into the circle, reminding us that death is the silent, lurking problem which leads us to celebration of these five truths. Through Christ, sin is forgiven, death is conquered, and hope is secure with Christ in heaven. And the grave itself reminds us that this is for everyone: the name on it is John Smith.
The exhibition at Great St Mary’s Church, Cambridge, is open daily, 9 a.m. to 5.00 p.m., until 6th January 2019. Free entry.
The exhibition is organized by a collaboration of the Jubilee Centre, Great St Mary’s, and Fundatia EL, a foundation for promoting arts, culture and Christian values in Romania and internationally. It has been funded almost entirely by donations, and the organisers are seeking further financial help towards the costs of the exhibition and possible purchase of the works for permanent exhibition. To contribute, visit www.archetypes-sculpture.org. or contact the Jubilee Centre (www.jubilee-centre.org; 01223 566319).
Archetypes: copyright artist. Photographs: copyright Jubilee Centre/Rebecca Ledzion
[This review first appeared in Evangelicals Now, October 2018.]