By a strange fluke, romantic Valentine’s Day today coincides with Ash Wednesday in the religious calendar – roses, chocolates and champagne contrasting with 40 days of fasting for Lent. In London, Valentine’s Day and London Fashion Week is being celebrated with red inflatable cuddly love hearts floating on top of or inside London landmarks, a project conceived by Anya Hindmarch as a declaration of love to London and Londoners, to cheer people up and make them smile. (It is a shame that the Houses of Parliament is not included in the scheme; with Brexit, they are in need of it). Over in Southwark however, a dark cloud floats and hovers overhead, filling the gothic chancel of Southwark Cathedral in front of the High Altar, a cloud that reminds Christians of the dark month ahead ending with the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, at which point the sun is blocked out and daylight turns to night, but also of what happens on Easter Sunday when the darkness is lifted. Whether you are Christian or not, this cloud, like the red love hearts, is about love, but love that comes out of darkness, and hope that comes out of despair.
Since 2012, Southwark Cathedral has continued the rich tradition of religious art with its excellent annual Lent Installation, commissioning contemporary artists such as David Mach, Edmund de Waal and Angela Wright to respond to the meaning of Lent. This year Susie MacMurray has responded with the black cloud “Doubt” that embraces visitors and worshippers at the cathedral, until the end of Lent when the clouds will part and light will flood in. There is a further meaning to Susie’s work – she explains that it was in part inspired by a conversation on depression and anxiety she had with a solder who had served in Afghanistan, who felt that if during his time of service there was a dark cloud hovering behind his neck. While it made her think of the 40 days and 40 nights of Lent, it also reminds us that clouds are both mental and physical; it is easy to remove the physical cloud and let the light it; not so easy for the mental cloud.