Saint Edmund of Abingdon
A life-sized bronze on a 4m curved Yorkstone seat and paving commissioned for St. Edmund Hall, Oxford, unveiled in June 2007 by the Chancellor of the University, Lord Patten. The brief was to produce a sculpture that represented the college’s patron saint, and encapsulate the friendly, intimate atmosphere of the college today.
Making a sculpture of a figure from the distant past is a little like writing an historical novel. You gather as many facts as are available, form an opinion about the possible appearance and personality of the person you are dealing with, and use a good deal of imagination to produce an image that is necessarily subjective.
We know little of Edmund’s appearance except that he was bearded and would, because of his extreme asceticism, have been emaciated. The earliest representation of him (in St. Michael’s Church, Oxford) was produced some fifty years after his death, and is in any case, like others of him, a typical, stylized representation that could be any bishop at almost any time. He is standing, in bishop’s clothing, with his hand raised in benediction. I wished to move away from this image in order to try to represent a man with whom I had become increasingly interested.
In contrast to his appearance, we know a considerable amount about the Saint’s personality because of the detailed attestations of his contemporaries which were a necessary part of the canonisation procedure. He was an ascetic, who even by the standards of his own time carried the concept of mortification of the flesh to extremes. Overburdened by a sense of duty to both man and God, he often gave way to the importunities of others but did not do so simply as a matter of course, and was sufficiently strong of personality to stand up both to the barons and the king to settle a dispute that was heading in the direction of civil war. He was charismatic, and his preaching drove many to join the crusades or enter the cloister. Therefore I had the interesting task of presenting a considerate yet strong personality within a body wasted away by extreme asceticism. In addition to that, I wanted to represent the frustrated scholar; the man who sent his servant to the monks who came to ask him to become archbishop, with the message, “go away, I’m reading”! What Edmund really seemed to enjoy most was just to sit and read, but enjoyment was not a priority for him. So I decided that it would be an act of kindness to allow him to read at last, the cross which he brandished whilst preaching and which was so important to him, pushed back a little from the forefront of consciousness, though still a real presence. I also felt that a life sized Edmund, sitting and reading would be appropriate, since he could blend in with and in a sense be lost amongst the people who would come to surround him. This seemed fitting for a man who avoided the trappings of authority, refusing to wear the mitre and gloves of his office, and who was regarded as friendly and helpful to others, despite huge personal austerity.
(My research into the personality and appearance of St. Edmund are based principally on two books by C.H. Lawrence: The Life of St Edmund by Matthew Paris and St Edmund of Abingdon, a study of Hagiography and History, complemented by information from J.N.D. Kelly’s St Edmund Hall.)