Elena Unger At Saint Bartholomew The Great

Elena Unger At Saint Bartholomew The Great
Elena Unger is an alumnus of Fine Art and a recent graduate of Philosophical Theology at the University of Cambridge. She combines painting, sculpture, performance, sound, film, and installation to produce immersive, extra-liturgical installations. Her studies and practice are mainly concerned with the ontology of artistic making, and how works of art do not merely represent the divine, but participate in it.


Eleven Twenty Three

Elena Unger grew up in Vancouver, Canada and moved to London in 2015 to study art at Goldsmiths. She frequently exhibits across London in both group and solo shows, and was recently a CHASE Junior Research Fellow in Theology and Art, as well as an artist in residence at Saint Bartholomew the Great, London’s oldest church.

Elena Unger’s theories are something to be actively experienced within these walls. To celebrate the church’s 900th birthday, Unger and Heidi Pearce brought together over twenty emerging and established contemporary artists, presenting an immersive, multi-sensorial exhibition entitled Eleven Twenty Three. This explored and revealed the unique configuration of space, sound, and liturgy in St Bartholomew’s, as well as its effects on one’s perception of time and history.

The feeling visitors often describe when stepping into St Bartholomew’s, is a heightened awareness of its historical significance, whilst simultaneously feeling as though they have stepped outside of time. Time has stripped the original form of Saint Bartholomew’s, once a bustling complex, down to its essential form. What stands now is a stark Norman cruciform, grafted together by other historical styles, a patchwork of fragments which together form an imposing, monolithic vision.

The bare cross simultaneously implies birth, death, resurrection, and ascension and suspends all of those in one iconic image which transcends time and place. Saint Bartholomew’s is a place thoroughly steeped in events and history, it collapses its own history, and history itself, through the nearly ceaseless repetition of its liturgy over the past 900 years, which aims to unite temporality with the infinite. Saint Bartholomew’s, because of its state of exception as an unbroken liturgical space, as well as that of a historical space, stands at all times outside of the zeitgeist and yet firmly within it.


“How many angels can fit on the head of a pin? Elena Unger’s masterful paintings use the language of high romanticism to draw you into their sublime scenes. Closer inspection of the paintings reveal immense detail alongside myriads of hidden figures. Found in collections and galleries worldwide, Unger’s work continually surprises and delights.” – Vogue Gallery Feature


Responding to a space like St Bartholomew’s artistically is inherently difficult. It is a building with an instantly identifiable essence. The walls seem to pulse with life, listen, and watch. It exudes a quiet dignity, wearing the presence of millions of parishioners and visitors over 900 years like a patina.

Saint Bartholomew’s is also an uncompromising space which often overwhelms artwork. Thus, any art placed within the space needs to respond to the building with authenticity and sensitivity, or it risks sliding off the walls or being swallowed by its all-consuming form, not to mention its heritage and legacy. Its curators have approached this by choosing artworks which work with St Bartholomew’s discerning walls, rather than against them.

Many of the works that are selected are chosen because they echo the diagrammatic structure of the building: purpose built as a vessel for liturgy. These works do not, however, echo the Church through the mere representation of religious images or ideas, as art in religious contexts often does. Instead, they have chosen artworks that “participate” in the unique temporality and spatiality of the space itself. Just as the Church itself brings the infinite into the experience of finite time and space, many of the artworks they have chosen aspire to do the same.

Other works in its exhibitions take a different approach. St Bartholomew’s walls, though uncompromising, are also porous. They allow the outside world to permeate in and become a part of the fabric of the place. While visitors may feel as though they have stepped beyond time, they also feel the immense weight of it, and the often cacophonous layering of presence, and past made present. The artworks that respond to this aspect of St Bartholomew’s are interventions that show the interaction between the building, the outside world, and other histories. This kind of artwork adds to the patina of human presence within it.


Curating Colloquy

The Priory Church contains a number of artworks from notable artists, which work together as part of the whole. Some of these pieces are temporary, while others are available on a permanent basis. ‘Exquisite Pain‘ is Damien Hirst’s aureate anatomical statue of St Bartholomew – found just inside the main door of the church.

St Bartholomew, one of the original twelve disciples, was sent as an Apostle to Armenia, where he was killed by being skinned alive. The classic iconography of the saint sees him naked, his muscles exposed, his skin hanging over his arm – and in his hands, the instruments of his torture. This statue sees Damien Hirst conform to this imagery, but give it a unique twist: the instrument in his hand is not a standard knife, but a scalpel, used in the hospital across the road which also bears the saint’s name.

Also of note is ‘Colloquy‘ by Sophie Arkette, created for an exhibition at the Temple Church as a response to the ongoing celebrations of Magna Carta. This remarkable work is now on loan to the Priory Church, and its various parts have been positioned around the building in what is only a first attempt to find the right location for each.

The glass elements are etched with text, which is both illuminated and distorted by the effects of light – both from candles that are in some cases lit within the element, and the light from sources around the building – as well as water distortion, which is also included within parts of the work. In the artists words:

“Colloquy is a project celebrating the letters and poems of mediæval visionaries, such as Bernard of Clairvaux and Hildegard of Bingen, and Lanfranc Cigala and Guillelma de Rosers. Against a backdrop of the Magna Carta and the political wrangling between King John and his disaffected barons, Colloquy is a commentary about the importance of the rule of law, of love and of chivalry. The word ‘colloquy’ in legal definition is the conversation between barristers and a judge.

In 1146, Hildegard of Bingen, a Benedictine Abbess, wrote to Bernard of Clairvaux seeking his advice about the authenticity of her religious experiences. Clairvaux’s response arrived with assurances and encouragement, written in a hand that was both humble and respectful. For those familiar with Hildegard’s work, her allegories of Justice, her songs and poems, her music and paintings and her many correspondences, often in response to those, such as Eleanor of Aquitaine, who sought her wise counsel, her letter to Clairvaux is no surprise. Nor did she stop at Clairvaux, politically speaking, for there are records of letters she wrote to Pope Eugenius III between the dates of 1148 and 1153, and to Pope Hadrian IV in 1155.

Each of the glass candle-holders that form a single piece has been inscribed with the text from an ongoing correspondence, be it literary or poetical. Bernard of Clairvaux’s letter to Prior Guigo of the Grande Chartreuse is a meditation on the meaning of divine law.”