In 2015 the Church of St Martin of Tours in Bilborough, Nottingham received the prestigious SPAB (Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings) John Betjeman Award in recognition of the sensitive recovery, restoration and conservation work undertaken on two murals in the sanctuary of the Church painted by the artist Evelyn Gibbs (1905-1991). The murals, completed in 1946, had been hidden for 42 years and they depict the Annunciation, the appearance of the Angel Gabriel to Mary announcing the news that she was pregnant by the Holy Spirit and would give birth to Jesus (Luke 1:26-56) The murals are located either side of the east window in the chancel. They portray Mary and Gabriel situated in the old village of Bilborough which was the original setting for the Church. Today Bilborough is no longer a village but is at the heart of a large housing estate.
The murals at St Martins were believed to have been destroyed during modernizations in 1972. However, the murals were (re)discovered by electricians rewiring the Church and, following sensitive and thoughtful restoration are now on display in all their glory. Churchwarden Hilary Wheat has commented that “People have really worked to make it a great place to come to worship and to come and have events; a place for the whole community really.” (1) She affirms that “The building was beautiful and should be preserved, but what I really wanted to happen was for it to become, once more, a vehicle where the community could work together to tackle its own problems, such as poor education and health, and high levels of unemployment.” (2)
The (re)discovery and restoration of the murals has, therefore, had a transformative and renewing effect. Indeed, the experience of (re)discovery and restoration together with transformation can be regarded as significant themes of the Lenten season. The mural of Mary kneeling as she receives the news that she is pregnant is a simple, yet profound, reminder of the value of being still, taking stock, giving thanks and being open and receptive to the gifts which life brings. The image is one of a deep stillness and tranquility in the midst of a major turning point in Mary’s life. I regard this beautiful image as a reminder, and as an invitation, at some point each day to stop, be still, be silent, and give thanks.
Lent recalls the experience of Jesus in the wilderness where, for forty days and nights, he wrestled with those things which had the potential to challenge and undermine the positive values of love and compassion which He embodied. For many, therefore, Lent is a season of thoughtful introspection, taking stock of one’s life and reflecting upon the ways in which that which the composer John Barry called ‘The Beyondness of Things’, that to which many give the name God, is known amidst the challenges and opportunities of living. During such a time one can often (re)discover significant insights into one’s life and its priorities. In effect, Lent invites us to take the opportunity to stop, to be still and to take stock of who we are and where we are going. It is a season which permeates with a sense of looking forward, new beginnings and preparing mindfully for that which is yet to be. It is a time to say Yes! To the glorious gift of life.
The Church of St Martin, in its restoration of two stunningly beautiful Evelyn Gibbs murals can be recognised as undertaking a transformative task which, in the murals’ profound aesthetic and spiritual qualities, can be a catalyst for promoting positive well-being. They invite us to truly say Yes! to life.
Many thanks to Kate Griffin, Communications: Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings, for kindly providing the image of the Evelyn Gibbs mural.
For Further Reading:
Rediscovery & Restoration: Murals by Evelyn Gibbs at St Martin’s Church, Bilborough by Pauline Lucas (Shoestring Press; 2015)
Kelvin Ravenscroft worships with St Margaret’s Church, Whalley Range, Manchester