Covid-19 may have scuppered our chances to marvel over Michelangelos in the great cathedrals of Europe, but there is significant sacral art to be found right here at home.
It's thought that as few as 16 per cent of Kiwis attend church regularly, but take us to Europe and you'll see us queuing outside St Peter's with the best of them. While church overload can swiftly set in on an overly ambitious European trip, there's much to be said for experiencing art in its intended setting, rather than on the context-devoid walls of a gallery.
I had never really thought much about home-grown religious art until I stumbled upon the Dame Louise Henderson retrospective in the Auckland Art Gallery earlier this year. My discomfort that I had never heard of this acclaimed artist was only compounded by the realisation that I had known her works all of my life, from the walls of Catholic parish churches dotted around Auckland. Gazing at the carefully displayed preparatory sketches for her altarpieces and stained-glass windows got me wondering, what other treasures are hiding in our local places of worship?
A cathedral in Parnell
A great place to start the search is Parnell's Holy Trinity Cathedral, not least because it has its own dedicated gallery in the basement, displaying paintings on loan from the Wallace Arts Trust. I've always found the Anglican cathedral's hodgepodge of styles jarring – the architectural equivalent of the Hooked on Classics disco version of Beethoven's Fifth – but parts of the complex are undeniably beautiful. Before entering the cathedral proper, Terry Stringer's familiar Mountain Fountain greets you like an old friend – for decades it served as Aotea Square's de facto skateboard ramp.
The defining feature of Holy Trinity's hulking 1990s extension is an immense expanse of stained glass, designed by leading Kiwi artists. The restrained greens and browns of Shane Cotton's west windows stand in contrast to the tropical template of Robert Ellis' east windows, which bathe Anne Robinson's clear-glass baptismal font in washes of colour. Looming over it all is Nigel Brown's vibrant Great Window – purportedly the largest expanse of stained glass in the Southern Hemisphere. Despite the disparate styles, what unifies everything is a palpable South Pacific sensibility.
In contrast, St Michael's Catholic Church in Remuera could have been transported directly from Tuscany. It's Auckland's only real Romanesque-style church, embracing the rounded arches and barrel vaulting that revolutionised early medieval architecture. There's plenty for art lovers to peruse inside, including two 1840s oil paintings, one of which is a detailed reproduction of Murillo's The Holy Family, which hangs in the Louvre. The bas-relief of the archangel on the facade is the work of Richard Gross, Auckland's go-to sculptor of the early 20th century; it's his buff, naked athlete perpetually posing on the gate of the Auckland Domain.
Hidden art in South Auckland and West Auckland
It's not just the posh suburbs that can boast of ecclesiastical treasures. Dame Louise's aforementioned mosaic altarpiece adorns St Joseph's in Ōtāhuhu. Crafted from a muted palette of pale pink, blue and yellow tiles, this unassuming depiction of an open-armed Christ is warm, gentle and surprisingly androgynous.
Dame Louise dials up the colours exponentially in her vivid stained-glass depictions of Saints Peter and Paul which flank the entrance to Holy Cross Parish in her namesake suburb, Henderson. The cartoonish ginger-bearded saints look like they'd be great fun to share a glass of West Auckland wine with. She also sculpted the large steel crucifix on the wall behind the altar.
Holy Cross is also notable for the work of another of our most distinguished 20th-century artists, Milan Mrkusich. Mrkusich is renowned for his abstract paintings and prominent public works, notably Te Papa's multicoloured windows. His contribution at Holy Cross takes the form of a powerful set of stylised Stations of the Cross mosaics, and a bright depiction of the Madonna and Child surrounded by apple trees and grapevines – a setting charmingly familiar to anyone from the Henderson Valley.
Mrkusich's work is also a defining feature of what's arguably Auckland's most underrated example of mid-century architecture, St Joseph's Church in Grey Lynn. Inside, soaring red-brick walls are juxtaposed with colourful wedges of glass – 185sq m in all – set into angled recesses and culminating in a resplendent figure of the resurrected Christ. The Stations of the Cross here are Mrkusich's too.
The name that's conspicuously missing from this roll-call is New Zealand's most famous artist, who famously revelled in religious themes. In 1965, Colin McCahon painted a set of windows and a 6m-wide, three-panel Way of the Cross for a now-defunct Remuera convent. To see these nowadays you'll need to visit the Auckland Art Gallery, which brings us full circle.
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