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New work by Lorna May Wadsworth goes on display at Chester Cathedral
Lorna May Wadsworth, A Last Supper, 2009. © Lorna May Wadsworth.

CHESTER.- Two paintings, including one never before seen in public, by the renowned portrait artist Lorna May Wadsworth have gone on display as part of ground-breaking new exhibition at Chester Cathedral, running until 30 October.

Global Images of Christ: Challenging Perceptions features over 50 paintings - including pieces by Wadsworth, Mark Cazalet and Peter Eugene Ball, along with African and Chinese sculptures, plus Orthodox icons - and aims to challenge the Western depiction of Jesus Christ and his followers.

Many of the works have been collected from churches across the UK by Chester Cathedral’s Canon Precentor, Jeremy Dussek and curated by the Art and Design Department of the University of Chester.

Forming the centrepiece of the exhibition is Wadsworth’s famous depiction of the Last Supper (A Last Supper, 2009) – showing the shocking moment when Jesus predicts that the apostle Peter will deny knowing him three times before dawn – with Jesus portrayed as a black man in the 12-foot-long oil on aluminium. Lorna based her composition on Leonardo da Vinci’s 15th-century mural in the refectory of Santa Maria della Grazie, in Milan.

For her interpretation, Lorna chose the Jamaican-born fashion model, Tafari Hinds, as Christ. Explaining why she depicted Jesus as a black man, Wadsworth said: “Painting the Last Supper altarpiece made me really think about how we are accustomed to seeing Jesus portrayed. Experts agree he would most likely have had Middle Eastern features, yet for centuries European artists have traditionally painted Christ in their own image. I cast Tafari as my Jesus to make people question the Western myth that he had fair hair and blue eyes. My portrayal of him is just as ‘accurate’ as the received idea that he looked like a Florentine. I also knew that, from a previous portrait of Tafari, there is something in his countenance that people find deeply empathetic and moving, which is the overriding quality I wanted my Christ to embody.”

Reverend Vanessa Layfield, Diocesan Inclusion Officer at Chester Cathedral commented: "The Last Supper image of a black Christ may be shocking to some, but why? One might argue that an image of a white Christ is just as dishonest as an image of a black Christ, for Christ was neither black nor white, but a brown Middle Eastern Jew.

"The exhibition helps us to reconsider our unconscious bias which causes us to make assumptions about others and in so doing perhaps creates a divisive rather than an inclusive Church."

In addition to A Last Supper, visitors to the Cathedral will also have the chance to see a new work by Lorna, Blue Christ (2021). The sitter for this arresting painting of Christ crowned with gold thorns was the fashion model, Jamel Gordon-Lynch. Again, echoing the influence of Renaissance masters on her work, Lorna painted Blue Christ as a tondo, or circular portrait. The vivid pigment used for the background is a bespoke International Blue Klein paint, first created by the French artist Yves Klein, that Wadsworth had created especially for this painting.

Gordon-Lynch also sat for Pink Christ and Kiss of Betrayal which also form part of the exhibition. Both paintings challenge the normal convention of how Jesus and his disciples are traditionally portrayed in the canon of western art.

Lorna May Wadsworth: “I’m thrilled that Chester cathedral has put together an exhibition of inclusive representations of Christ. This show embodies everything I wanted to convey when I embarked on my Last Supper altarpiece for St George’s Nailsworth parish church 12 years ago.”

Born in Sheffield, Lorna May Wadsworth now operates from her studio in East London. She rose to prominence in the contemporary art world before she had graduated from Falmouth College of Art, with a series of notable works, including portraits of the Right Honourable, Lord David Blunkett and the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams.

One of her most acclaimed works, a monumental portrait of the late Baroness Margaret Thatcher, was completed from five life sittings. The resultant painting is one of the most commanding and respected formal portraits of a modern British Prime Minister.

Throughout her career, Wadsworth has continually challenged the portrait tradition and a recurrent theme throughout her work is the inversion of the gendered gaze. The canon of Western art has invariably favoured the female subject seen through the eyes of the male artist. In her series Beautiful Boys, Wadsworth transfers the power balance, so that she holds the gaze of the male subject and places him on display for all to see.

A recent retrospective of her work, held at Graves Gallery in her home city of Sheffield, brought together her most celebrated works for the first time, including her contemporary interpretation of Leonardo’s Last Supper fresco in Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. Other highlights from her 25-year career include her dazzling portraits of such celebrated sitters as the actors Michael Sheen, David Tennant and Sir Derek Jacobi, best-selling author Neil Gaiman, award-winning film maker Richard Curtis and another former Prime Minister, the Right Honourable Tony Blair.

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