The Methodist Modern Art Collection

Ballymena's Braid hosts the best denominational art collection outside of the Vatican after nine churches united to make it happen. 'Surprisingly, they weren't that nervous'

One of the world’s greatest modern art collections has touched down in Northern Ireland. In a historic first, The Methodist Modern Art Collection is making its first appearance this side of the Irish Sea in its 55-year history.

And whisper it quietly, these stunning examples of Christian paintings – described as 'the best denominational collection of modern art outside the Vatican' – are being exhibited not in Belfast, but in Ballymena. From May 11 until June 18, the Braid Arts Centre is exhibiting over 40 paintings by some of the finest British painters of the past century.

Alongside paintings by Norman Adams, Maggi Hambling, Edward Burra, Eularia Clarke, Elizabeth Frink and William Roberts are works by internationally renowned French, Australian, Angolan, Indian and Japanese painters – the Methodist collection is nothing if not inclusive.

For the small but dedicated staff of the impressive Braid Arts Centre, hosting The Methodist Modern Art Collection is something to shout about. 'It’s a major coup,' says Rosalind Lowry, Arts and Events Development Office. 'It’s a very high calibre collection.'

The pictures are unquestionably impressive, stunning even, but is this collection of denominational paintings really only bettered by the works of Michelangelo, Giotto, Raphael and Caravaggio that grace The Vatican? Lowry, an arts councillor of 20-year's standing, is in no doubt. 'Visual arts and painting is my background. I’ve been to the Vatican and I’ve been to many denominational art collections and yes, it is an accurate comment. It is a very significant collection and it’s growing more and more so.'

The history of collection dates back to the early 1960s. It was the initiative of Methodist layman Dr John Morel Gibbs, who was conscious that congregations had little appreciation of the insights that contemporary artists could bring to the Christian narrative. The seed was sewn and a noble idea quickly became a reality. The growing collection of modern paintings has toured towns and cities in England, Wales and Scotland ever since.

It was the vision of two Ballymena clergy, Lowry is keen to acknowledge, which ignited the process that brought this prized collection to the Braid. The Reverend Sarah Groves, of the Gracehill Moravian Church, and the Reverend Maureen Hassard, of Ballymena Methodist Church, approached Lowry with a view to doing what nobody had done before in half a century – that is to say, bring the collection to Ireland.

Lowry didn’t need much persuading. 'There was no question that we would try our best to get it.' And, on a wing and a prayer, get it they did.

One of the collection’s trustees was invited to Ballymena, essentially to vet the Braid as a potential host venue, and to everyone’s delight he approved the proposal. That official vote of confidence galvanized Lowry and co into action. A task force was set up from the various Ballymena Churches. Initially, two were on board, but in the end nine churches have rallied to the cause.

'The idea from the beginning was that it was to be a partnership project,' explains Lowry. Over the Bank Holiday weekend (May 22-26, 2015) each of the nine churches will take a painting from the exhibition and hang it before their congregations. It’s the first time in 55-years that a walking art trail has been part of this well-travelled exhibition.

A festival ambition surrounds the exhibition, with a program of events that includes a singing chef, a brass band and arts spaces whereby local artists will paint in the churches. 'We’ve had to print a separate brochure for all the events that are happening in the churches that weekend,' says Lowry.

With the main exhibition held in the Braid, it would have been understandable had the collection’s trustees expressed alarm at the mere idea of the paintings hanging in multiple locations throughout the borough.

'Surprisingly they weren’t that nervous,' reveals Lowry. 'Each of the churches has its own safety infrastructure, and we started an ambassador scheme where we have 126 volunteers from all walks of life who will help out. They’ll be there to talk to the public about the works, so there will always be two people with each painting. The paintings will never be left alone.'

The paintings in the Braid are hanging in the theatre, which has been converted for the duration of the exhibit. Three of the larger works are positioned on the black box stage, bringing a twist of theatricality to the exhibition.

All depict Biblical stories or images inspired by the Christian faith and a fascinating variety of painting techniques are on display: watercolours, oil, acrylic, natural pigments and ink, aquatint, gouache and Ripolin enamel. In addition, a few works in linocut, pencil and engraved woodblock bring contrasting textures to the eye.

The paintings are also united by the vibrancy of their colours and a lyrical dynamism. These pictures quite literally tell unforgettable stories. Often, provocatively so. From Christ’s entrance into Jerusalem to his healing of the infirm at the pool of Bethesda; from the feeding of the 5,000 to the three wise men and the nativity; from Judas to the crucifixion – episodes that resonate with hundreds of millions around the world, permeating multiple cultures.

For those whose Biblical knowledge is rusty, or perhaps altogether lacking, help is at hand, if needed, to interpret the paintings. 'We’ve put Bibles out for people to reference,' says Lowry. 'There are children’s Bibles, adult Bibles and illustrated Bibles.'

There is also a prayer bowl sculpted by a local wood carver from a fallen tree, into which people can put their written prayers. 'The churches will each collect the prayer messages once a week and pray for them, so there is a spiritual side to it.'

The Methodist Modern Art Collection

The Braid has also set up a quiet area, as it is not at all uncommon at exhibitions of The Methodist Modern Art Collection for people to become overwhelmed emotionally. The paintings are, of course, simply wonderful in themselves, and visitors do not have to belong to a church or have Christian faith to appreciate their beauty. 'It can be as spiritual as you want it to be,' Lowry says.

The collection is a veritable feast for the art lover. The ghosts of Van Gogh and Picasso inhabit several of the paintings. Abstraction and cubism rub shoulders with symbolism and traditional realism. Interestingly, several of the painters were/are non-Christians – faithless, in fact – yet still felt inspired to represent aspects of Christian faith and Biblical legend.

Everyone will have their personal favourites but three of the paintings, it’s worth noting, are best appreciated from afar: John Brokenshire’s ‘Pentecost’, Jyoti Sahi’s ‘Dalit Madonna’ and Maggi Hambling’s tempestuous ‘Walking on the Water’ reveal their wonders best from the far side of the room.

Controversial sculptor and painter Hambling is well known for her paintings and mighty bronze sculptures of the sea. And for her methodology. 'Apparently she locks herself away in her studio with a bottle of whiskey and 40 fags and paints a painting on Good Friday every year,' adds Lowry, relying the trustee’s anecdote.

The public response to the collection in the Braid has pleased Lowry. 'We’re getting people from all walks of life who would never dream of coming to a modern art exhibition, but because they might be in a church congregation they are coming along. The comments have been really, really positive.'

Another huge positive from this exhibition is the way that it has pulled people together from across the local community. 'All the churches are working together, whatever denomination they are,' notes Lowry. 'They’re helping each other out. But this isn’t a good relations project, it’s an arts event.'

The best art has the capacity to inspire and that is clearly what is happening in Ballymena, with the Braid and the borough’s churches united in common cause. What is missing from the collection, however, is an Irish painter. With plans to develop the collection it would be fitting if the Braid's hosting of this renowned body of work inspired the collection’s trustees to commission a local artist.

Whatever the outcome, this breath-taking exhibition has put the Braid and Ballymena firmly on the international arts map.

The Methodist Modern Art Collection runs at the Braid Arts Centre, Ballymena until June 18. Admission is free. The Walking Arts Trail takes place in nine churches of Ballymena from May 22-26.