In 2014 a new work of art was added to our College Chapel: a bronze Pietà by Gillian Kaufman.
The Pietà is an ancient theme in Christian art, depicting the Lamentation over the Dead Christ. In it, the Virgin Mary cradles the body of her son Jesus in her arms as he is taken down from the Cross, and we are invited to meditate on this moment of tenderness and grief.
The Church that became Jesus College Chapel was dedicated to Mary at its founding in the 12th Century. The extraordinary emphasis on Mary in the late Middle Ages led to a reaction by the Protestant reformers: while the dedication to her was never changed, all the Chapel’s images of Mary were removed. Even in the 19th century, when Pugin wanted to dedicate one of the lancet windows to her life, the Fellows of Jesus College refused.
Now Mary can be restored to her rightful place, as one who better helps us to understand Christ's true nature; Christ is the focus of the Pietà, but his suffering is not simply a solitary spectacle. In the Pietà we see not only the human agony of anyone who has lost a loved one, but also the capacity of the believer to share the redemptive sorrow of her Saviour.
The location of the Chapel’s Pietà was chosen to provide a devotional focus to the north transept. Cast in bronze at just under life size, the piece descends from the agony of the face of the mother and the mortal face of her son to collect the gaze of the viewer in a tender communion of hands at its centre. The physicality of Christ’s body, from the flex of his arm to his visible ribs, is dramatically contrasted not only by the humble shrouding of the Virgin figure, but also by the permanence of the medium itself.
How the sculpture came to Jesus College
Sculptor Gillian Kaufman was commissioned to create the Pietà in 1955 by St Mary’s Cathedral Basilica in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. Commissioned originally for a burial site for the Catholic Bishops of Bulawayo, the Pietà is now housed in the Garden of Rest beside the Cathedral. The original life size sculpture is terracotta, but unfortunately it cracked across the base whilst firing. It was covered with a bronze 'skin' to repair it before delivery to the Cathedral.
In 2011, Kaufman’s nephew James Hudleston, a benefactor of Jesus College, proposed that the Pietà be recast in bronze and presented to the College. Both Kaufman and the Archbishop of Bulawayo, Alex Kaliyanil, supported the project. A team from England and Zimbabwe, led by British sculptor Robert Hunt, made a mould of the Pietà. The mould was shipped to England in more than 40 pieces to be cast in bronze at the Talos Fine Art Foundry in Quarley, Hampshire. This is the sculpture that now stands in our Chapel.
About the artist
Born in 1928, Kaufman in her long career has completed many public commissions in England and in Africa. She has exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer exhibition and the Royal Society of Portrait Sculptors, to which she was elected as a Fellow in 1975. Kaufman attended Bournemouth College of Art and then spent a further three years studying sculpture at the Royal Academy Schools in London before winning the Gold Medal for Sculpture and a Travelling Scholarship in 1950. The scholarship allowed her to study in Greece and work at the British School of Archaeology in Athens.
In 1953 Kaufman completed a sculpture of of St Francis of Assisi in Portland stone for her former school, the Convent of the Cross in Boscombe. In 1955 Kaufman travelled to Bulawayo in Zimbabwe (then Southern Rhodesia) to visit her sister, Jeanne Hudleston, who had settled there. After teaching art for a short while at Townsend High School, she married Bulawayo businessman Basil Kaufman, and settled in Bulawayo permanently.
Among the many public works Kaufman has completed in Africa is a massive sculpture cast in fibreglass which adorns the side of Pioneer House in Fife Street, Bulawayo. She has also completed numerous commissions for portrait busts as well as other large commissioned pieces in Zimbabwe and South Africa. She continues to create occasional commissioned sculptures and painted portraits.