The All Souls Altarpiece

The new Christmas altarpiece for the Mary Chapel, completed in December 2010, was made entirely by parishioners. The altarpiece was constructed by John Coates and painted by self-taught artist Louis von Rago, based on a design by Ed Perlman. Intended as a celebration of the love and light of Christ that comes into the world at Christmas, it combines both traditional and contemporary elements. It is meant to be especially accessible to children.

Among the traditional symbols are those from scripture: the angels, the sheep, the ox, and the donkey. Following traditions in art history, flowers can take on biblical and theological meanings. White lilies represent the purity of the Virgin Mary but also foreshadow the crucifixion of our Lord, as some white flowers are a part of the mustard family, whose Latin name is Cruciferae. The red carnation is known in Northern Europe as Naegelblume or nailflower, because its blossom was thought to represent the serrated edges of a medieval nail. Together, the flowers represent all creation’s joy at the birth of a savior, but also connect his birth with the death and rebirth we celebrate at Easter.

The more contemporary symbols include shepherds wearing “technicolor dreamcoats” and multicultural angels playing instruments (including a saxophone) who sing “happy birthday” as well as “Gloria in excelsis Deo.” The black sheep among the others represents all of God’s children who may come to Christ through unconventional paths, many of whom form the heart of this parish. The manger is complete with a barn cat, whose sainted relative (a cat who has died and gone to heaven) can be seen watching from the top left side of the roof. The All Souls altarpiece serves as a background for our needlepoint nativity figures, also made by parishioners.

A contemporary altarpiece with needlepoint figures in an English Tudor chapel might seem incongruous—except for the theological truth these things represent. Like the householder in the Gospel of Matthew, we seek to “bring out of our treasure what is new and what is old.” At All Souls we combine ancient and modern, old and new, the comfortable and well-worn with the jarring and contemporary. Our God is large, and so is our faith.

Glory be to God in the highest.

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