I’m not at all sure how the St Barnabas church murals came onto my radar. But onto it they came. Thus I felt compelled to include these astonishing paintings – and the church itself – in Swindon in 50 Buildings. While researching that book, myself and Royston Cartwright had a drive out to Gorse Hill – the location of St Barnabas to have a look. Sadly the church was closed but we got photos of it for the book.
Anyway – I’ve managed to see them now! Myself and Linda Kasmaty went to a talk about them in the church.
About the artist
These wonderful works are the creation of one John Perret, the priest of Stanton Fitzwarren. John Perret entered this world in 1892, Nr Lyon, France. And he departed it in 1971 at Whitchurch-on-Thames.
Born into a devout Catholic family in France, he became exposed to Anglican theology during his studies. He later moved to the UK and became an Anglican priest. A step that prompted his family back in France to cut off all contact.
At length Perret became involved in the Parish and People movement. This involved Anglican reformists advocating for Parish Communion as the main worship event in parishes – and for a collaborative, team approach to ministry. Perret made contact with the reformist movement in France and and set-up student exchanges with Anglican and Catholics able to celebrate communion together.
Perret’s family rift healed after Vatican II – a series of council meetings that initiated change and dialogue in the Catholic Church.
A student in France at the time, Perret fought in WWI and found himself taken prisoner. He told a story of a German soldier saving his life: ‘he gave me some wine, called an ambulance …not a bad welcome to Germany.’
The reason for the murals
The raison d’etre for these works is as a thank you for help given to his parish during a period of illness. But they’re also an offering to God: Ad Mairorum Del Gloriam: to the greater glory of God. An aid to worship.
As far as is known, John Perret had no training in art. It’s clear though that he had ability. God-given if you like – and he used that ability to create this stupendous offering to God. They’re certainly not your usual church art.
The image below explains all the sections of the mural. There’s too much for me to recount here – I urge you to go and see them!
My photos aren’t great – I commend you to Duncan & Mandy’s website for a much better photographic chronicling of the works, Their site also tells us that the artist prepared the walls with white lead and canvas for the work. And that Perret painted them in the years 1946, 1947 and 1948. The immediate period post WWII was a time of remembrance and renewal.
The South Mural
The scene before you on the south side of the chancel and Sanctuary represents the movement towards the altar, the offering of St Barnabas, the apostle, carried on by the parish, whose patron he is.
The murals are designed to fit within this church. Their aim is to show how we connect with God – not only on Sundays but in our daily lives in Swindon.
The North Mural
The scene on the north side represents the mission of the church expressed by the spiritual coming of St Barnabas to Gorse Hill. It’s a movement from the altar, showing that worship, which begins with offering, cannot remain barren. It must instead issue in action and conquest.
Things to look for
Should you go and visit St Barnabas – and DO – these things are so worth seeing, look out for:
1. St Barnabas and St Paul represented as Jupiter and Mercury
2. They reach Gorse Hill and its gas works – they’re supported by the prayers of the churches they leave behind and raise a fiery cross. You can see Swindon in the background with the GWR Works and the green downs behind.
3. The men of the parish, helped by God’s grace – symbolized by a powerful angel, raising a factory from the dark world of greed towards the peace of God and offer it to him.
4. The women of the parish offering their children
5. The young men offering a railway engine
6. The parish priest presiding over the corporate offering of the family.
And so, so much more! They really are the most incredible, amazing works – and if anything falls into the category of hidden gem these wonderful works of art do. And we have them! In Swindon! We must treasure them – they have to be unique. I can’t think that another church anywhere could have something like this.
And see also for the full story of the mural paintings: http://allsaintsstbarnabas.org.uk/the-story-of-the-mural-paintings/
A bit about St Barnabas’ Church
The church is a Grade II listed Anglican parish church built 1885 by JP Seddon.
From A Church Near You:
St Barnabas’ church is one of Swindon’s ‘railway churches’ built to serve the employees of the GWR works and a 15 minute walk from Swindon town centre with its football ground, shops, pubs and railway station. We have a fine set of contemporary stained glass, a rood, and our sanctuary has a unique mural depicting Swindon as the ‘New Jerusalem’.
The other two railway churches are St Mark’s, in the railway village and St Augustine’s in Rodbourne.