'Sculpture – An Act of Praise'

Learn about how Barbara Hepworth's work was influenced by religion and spirituality.

By The Hepworth Wakefield

Ascending Form (Gloria) (1958) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

At various points throughout her career, Hepworth referred to herself a Christian Scientist, an Anglican Catholic and even an ‘atheist’. These different schools of religious and spiritual thought had a profound effect on both her life and her sculptural output.

Barbara Hepworth as an infant with her parents, her paternal grandmother and her paternal great grandmother, 1903 (1903) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

Hepworth was baptised and confirmed at Wakefield Cathedral, a building which she remembered as playing ‘a large part in my early life’. However, during her childhood her parents became committed to Christian Science, a relatively new religious movement that had spread from America based on an alternative reading of the Bible.

Barbara, Joan, Elizabeth and Tony Hepworth (circa. 1915) by Unknown photographerThe Hepworth Wakefield

The central text associated with Christian Science was Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, published in 1875 by the founder of the movement, Mary Baker Eddy. Science and Health argued that there were two conceptions of reality: ‘mortal mind’, informed by the physical senses and based on a materialistic conception of reality, and ‘divine Mind’, which represented the true nature of existence. Hepworth owned several copies of Science and Health, some which date back as early as her teenage years.

Barbara Hepworth with Ben Nicholson at Happisburgh, Norfolk, 1931 (1931)The Hepworth Wakefield

Hepworth’s early reading of Christian Science was reinvigorated in 1931, when she first met Ben Nicholson. Nicholson and his first wife Winifred Nicholson were fervent Christian Science followers. Science and Health is much discussed in Hepworth’s early correspondence with Nicholson.

‘I found some most lovely things, reading [Science and Health]. You know that Science Thought as I know it is the very core of my being – the lovely Genesis of perfect creation and unfolding of spiritual ideas. How beautiful it has been working with you dear.’ 

~Barbara Hepworth to Ben Nicholson, 15 May 1932

Two Forms (1934/35) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

Hepworth’s reignited interest in Christian Science also coincided with her increasing move towards abstraction. While she retrospectively connected her transition to pure abstraction with the birth of the triplets, this might also be read in relation to her practice of Christian Science. The ability of ‘divine Mind’ to transcend the material world offers a parallel with the move away from representation.

Composition in Colours / Composition No. I with Red and Blue (1931) by Piet MondrianMuseo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza

Many of the abstract artists in Hampstead in the 1930s also shared interests in transcendental religious modes. Piet Mondrian explored Theosophy, while Naum Gabo’s vision of Constructive art shared many parallels with Christian Science. 

Pierced Hemisphere I (1937) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

In the early 1930s Hepworth began ‘piercing’ her sculptures, allowing her to physically remove material and sculpt with space as well as matter. In her writing from the period she describes how the ‘idea’ behind a work of art gives ‘life and vitality’ to what would otherwise just be material matter. Sculpture comes to possess ‘a spiritual inner life’. 

Sculptor Barbara Hepworth (1964) by Paul SchutzerLIFE Photo Collection

However, after her separation with Nicholson in 1951 and the death of her son Paul in 1953, Hepworth also returned to the Anglican faith.  St Ives Parish Church was close to her studio and she formed friendships with several members of the clergy.

Reconstruction (1947) by Barbara HepworthArts Council Collection

After their move to Cornwall in 1939, Hepworth and Nicholson continued to follow the tenets of Christian Science, even consulting a Christian Science practitioner when their daughter Sarah was hospitalised in 1944. 

Several of Hepworth’s sculptures from the late 1950s have religious titles, using language and terminology associated with sacred vocal music. These include the related works Ascending Form (Gloria) and Cantate Domino, both of 1958. 

‘Cantate Domino’, Latin for ‘O Sing unto the Lord’, is the opening phrase of Psalm 98. ‘Gloria’, short for ‘Gloria in Excelsis Deo‘ (‘Glory to God in the highest’), forms part of the Roman Mass and Anglican Communion Service.

Ascending Form (Gloria) (1958) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

In 1965 Hepworth wrote that sculpture should be an act of praise, an enduring expression of the divine spirit.’  The titles Ascending Form (Gloria) and Cantate Domino express this idea of praise, which is reflected in their triangular rising forms. 

Sculptor Barbara Hepworth (1964) by Paul SchutzerLIFE Photo Collection

In 1970, Hepworth further expanded on this idea of sculpture as ‘an act of praise’, stating that: 

‘My sculpture has often seemed to me like offering a prayer at moments of great unhappiness. When there has been a threat to life – like the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, or now the menace of pollution – my reaction has been to swallow despair, to make something that rises up, something that will win. In another age [...] I would simply have carved cathedrals’

~Barbara Hepworth, 1970

Prototype for Construction (Crucifixion) (1966-67) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

Between 1966 and 1967 Hepworth produced one of her most overtly religious sculptures, the monumental Construction (Crucifixion). As with her religious works of the 1950s, the return to a Christian theme was connected to events in her personal life: in 1966 she was very ill and consulting both medical and Christian Science practitioners. 

Hepworth Family Gift (2011/2017) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

Construction (Crucifixion) is an abstract crucifix containing three halo-like circles, one in blue, one in yellow and a third, a gold-painted steel circle outline. 

Prototype for Construction (Crucifixion) (1966-67) by Barbara HepworthThe Hepworth Wakefield

Hepworth stated that in Construction (Crucifixion) she wanted to 'go free and hang up a circle.’  Because of its abstract nature, the sculpture departs from traditional iconographical representations of the crucifixion that focus on the pain and suffering inflicted upon Christ. Instead, Hepworth’s crucifixion embodies a sense of contemplation; ‘I find it very serene and quiet’, she stated. 

The font and nave, Salisbury Cathedral, Salisbury, Wiltshire (2009-09-15) by James O Davies, English HeritageHistoric England

Because of its religious subject, Construction (Crucifixion) has been shown in a number of religious settings. In 1968 Hepworth and the potter Bernard Leach were granted the Honorary Freedom of the Borough of St Ives. The ceremony was  accompanied by exhibitions of their work, including at the St Ives Parish Churchyard, where Construction (Crucifixion) was shown. A cast has also been shown at Winchester Cathedral and is currently sited at Salisbury Cathedral. 

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