Copper Sulphate Chartres & Copper Sulphate Notre-Dame by Roger Hiorns

Roger Hiorns

Copper Sulphate Chartres & Copper Sulphate Notre-Dame, 1996, Card constructions with copper sulphate chemical growth, Perspex cover, 137 x 125 x 65 cm, Saatchi Gallery, © Roger Hiorns, courtesy of the artist and Corvi-Mora, London; Saatchi Gallery; Photo Courtesy of the Saatchi Gallery, London

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A great Gothic cathedral is not just a beautiful building, but a miniature cosmos replicating the worldview of medieval Christendom. It is as though the universe as described by Thomas Aquinas’s Summa or Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy had been realized in three-dimensions.

Modern science has now claimed the cosmos and repeatedly rewritten its narratives afresh, with little or no acknowledged help from sacred tradition. Human civilisation constructs ever taller buildings, many of them striking in their bold ingenuity, but lovers of Scripture can no longer impart a theocentric vision to the world they inhabit—or to its ongoing history—with the simplicity of that former age. Reading today’s world through the world of Scripture involves as much loss as it does gain, as much exile as homecoming.

Contemporary British artist Roger Hiorns evokes the frailty of this past by rendering two paradigmatic Gothic edifices, the Cathedrals of Chartres and Notre Dame, in thin, fragile cardboard. These great testaments to a past civilisation appear on close inspection to be delicate and transient. A sense of their inevitable disintegration seeps out in the copper sulphate growths that overpower their hosts and threaten to consume them. These crystalline ‘tumours’ speak of the blind and insurmountable force of nature in a scientific age. Yet the blue also seems luridly unnatural in this context, suggesting that modern humanity’s reverence for science can breed a jarring grandiloquence of its own—much more confounding than anything from the ‘primitive’ past.

Today’s lover of Scripture is caught between capitulating to the architectonic pressures bearing down on the text, or a retrograde denial of twenty-first century complexity. Speaking down the centuries, Psalm 88’s continued lamentations in the darkness seem to give voice to the interpenetration of loss and gain that emerges from living at the intersection of these worlds.

Psalm 88 is not easy reading. It has no comfortable resolution nor easily perceived sense of hope. The Psalm could even be read as a moment within Scripture that describes the text’s own undoing, and which thus offers a juncture peculiarly analogous with living by Scripture in the fact of our apparently inexorable, contemporary void.

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