Near Kashmiri Gate, within the walled city of erstwhile Shahjahanad – what we now know as Old Delhi – lies the St. James Church. Built in 1836 by Colonel James Skinner, today it is the head church of the Church of North India (CNI) as well as the oldest church in the national capital. It stands as a colonial artefact of a bygone era, still frequented by many visitors, churchgoers, clergymen and tourists throughout the year.
We learn all of this from artist-architect Rita John whose mural ‘Sermon on the Mount’ adorns the interiors of the chapel that is attached to the main altar. The Delhi-based Malayalee runs her own practice Also Architects – “a collaborative and interdisciplinary design consortium, along with other like-minded architects who, like me, have expertise in fields other than architecture” – while also independently painting large scale murals.
Her artwork was spotted by members of the church board back in 2013 and she was invited to inspect the chapel and propose a new look for it. “This was a pro-bono commission. Once I came up with a proposal, the board approved the work before the painting began. Tasks included measuring and drawing the interior space of the chapel, conceptualizing the idea digitally and single-handedly executing the entire mural manually,” shares the 30-year-old.
“The church itself, which was built from 1826-36, had a chapel attached to the main altar a few decades after the rest of the church. Hence, this chapel is bare in terms of the stained-glass work or ornamentation one finds everywhere else in the church. One could speculate, the European stained glass artists who did the earlier work probably were no longer part of the project by then. I was commissioned to paint within this chapel space,” she says, schooling us on the history of the space.
“Old historical records, like the illustration of ‘The City of Delhi Before the Siege’ published in The Illustrated London News Jan 16, 1858 show Skinner’s House and this English church as very much a part of the Old city. Much of the events of the Revolt of 1857 occurred around it and the church houses graves of many of the Christians persecuted during the revolt.”
Simultaneously working on other professional engagements, it took John over a year to complete this incredible mural, which the public then got to view in 2015. The artist gives us a breakdown of her artistic process, the piece’s conceptualisation, single-handed execution and her own adaptation and contextualisation of a biblical narrative suited to our social climate and ethos.
“The underlying theme for the new artwork layer was, through the guise of a biblical narrative, the representation of the very people oppressed during India’s violent colonial history. In fact, bringing their imagery into what would historically have been an important colonial space at the time of its inception carries with it a subtle sense of triumph in a country with such a problematic colonial past. The “Sermon on the Mount” scene was chosen since it is one of the most recognizable instances in the Bible where multitudes of common people are being addressed en masse with a message of hope. Interestingly, the scene has been painted many times in the past by various artists throughout the course of Western history.
A 21st century take on this historically repeated story meant reinventing the scene in an alien Indian setting and called for a certain amount of appropriation of the story to fit into what would be an actual place in the hills of India. A specific site in Karsog, Himachal Pradesh was chosen for this and the people represented were also local to that area. Before intervening in the space, I digitally juxtaposed photographs of real people, places, skies and landscapes to generate a cohesive realistic panorama of what this scene would look like. The new artwork predominantly shows today’s Himachali women, children and older folk as the demographic most affected by political and economic turmoil (ironically even today) watching on as history unfolds before them.
In a departure from the traditional composition of the scene where usually the Christ figure is the centre of the painting with all the other figures listening to him rapt, my version does not have a clear visual focus as the “centre” of the painting. One has to search for the Christ figure amongst the many other people and the scene overall tends to merge into its own background as opposed to hitting the eye. Also, many of the figures break the illusion by looking backwards at the viewer with questioning expressions, compelling the viewer to think about them not as mere faceless multitudes, but individual characters with their own issues and doubts.”
“The church board’s requirement initially was only to paint a small area within the arch behind the altar of the chapel. But I spotted an opportunity of creating a far more overwhelming spatial experience if the entire ceiling and side walls was part of the canvas as well . The attempt was to create a three-dimensional spatial experience far more intriguing for the viewer, as opposed to viewing a single object or painting at a distance.
The existing coffers and arches spanning the chapel’s walls and ceiling gave me a strong set of architectural elements to respond to in terms of composing the artwork. Having drafted out the exact architectural elevations and reflected ceiling plan of the space, I was able to play with these elements in a digital composition and figure out the best way to accentuate them within the new artwork layer.
The coffers in the ceiling and arches were painted in contrast in this illusion, rather than hidden, to create dynamic shifting visual experiences as the viewer moves around the chapel. The altar arch allowed the painting done within it to be viewed as if through a window with the scene of the Sermon on the Mount painted as if it is at a distance. The landscape behind the scene continued upwards and around onto the rest of the room as a dramatic sky with clouds, doves and tree branches.”
“Having had the chance in the past to visit Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel and many other fantastic detailed European frescos like the one at Royal Chapel at the Chateau de Versailles by Antoine Coypel, I was deeply taken with the phenomenon of painting ethereal scenes on ceilings bringing to life the space enveloped below. Hence, the idea of using the coffered ceiling of the St.James chapel as a canvas felt like an obvious intervention given the many traditional Western precedents of the “room without a roof” illusion.
Additionally, my own travels to many parts of rural Himachal Pradesh as a young architect sensitised me to the amazing natural landscapes that form a steady backdrop to so many vernacular settlements. The local rustic aesthetic of brilliantly hued skies, rich green hillscapes and an architecture using local materials and crafts greatly affected my visual understanding down to the detail of the fabric worn by the people.”
“The 540 sq. ft oil-painted new artwork layer within the chapel of this heritage monument was executed using only manual techniques. The entire digitally created layout was transferred onto the actual surfaces of the chapel by hand and the painting itself was done with various brushes using an oil-based enamel medium. The back of the chapel and ceiling was painted first and took the most time since it required climbing scaffolding to a 7 metre height and painting a downward facing surface. Since oil-based paints take a long time to dry, each colour was applied across the ceiling and, once dry, layered over with other tones. Added to the factor that the paint drips a lot more while painting a ceiling as opposed to a wall, completing the ceiling was far more painstaking than the rest of the chapel. The detailed scene on the altar, which allowed me the luxury of painting with my feet firmly on the ground, were painted in a series of vivid colours and textures representative of the local aesthetic sensibilities of Himachali people.”
For more information on the mural and Rita John’s work, click here.
Feature Image Courtesy: Suryan/Dang
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