Waterford’s Brian Whelan brings a depth of experience as well as spiritual exploration to his interfaith mural, “Holy City,” that is hanging in the north transept of the Washington National Cathedral’s central nave.
The painting, which the cathedral hung as a commemoration of the 15th anniversary of Sept. 11 attacks, depicts “the three Abrahamic faiths,” Whelan said in a recent interview at his Waterford home. The mural will remain in the cathedral through January.
The 9-foot by 12-foot mural is a riot of color and images. It consists of nine paintings, depicting the three faiths peacefully co-existing, their houses of worship supporting and uplifting each other.
Whelan’s vision of unity appealed to those involved with acceptance of art work for the cathedral. The Rev. Randy Hollerith, dean of the cathedral, praised Whelan’s depiction of Christian churches, Islamic mosques and Jewish synagogues existing in harmony.
“Brian offers us a vision of true interfaith coexistence that is especially poignant ahead of the anniversary of one of the greatest American tragedies in recent memory,” Hollerith wrote for this year’s anniversary.
Following 9/11, the cathedral served as a national gathering place for mourning, reflection and prayer. It also holds interfaith services, as well as Friday Muslim prayers and celebrates the diversity of America’s religious traditions.
The son of Irish parents, Whelan, who was born in London, said his painting is not fact-based but his “aspirational vision of what a holy city looks like,” an abstract depiction of cultural unity, where people live together in peace, acceptance and in harmony, as “a haven for the soul.”
His religious background in an Irish Catholic family is very influential, although one would not call his work or his inspirations stereotypical by any means.
As student at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, Whelan said, “there were moments when I knew what was important—a door had opened.” He was brought up in Catholic schools, surrounded by religious subjects, but his inspiration that came from medieval religious art was not so much intellectual as emotional and imaginative.
Whelan’s paintings are strongly evocative of the medieval tradition, but have a vigor and a rough life force, particularly the male figures who stare out of uncompromising and direct eyes—his saints and kings are not mere namby-pambies.
When he went into churches, he knew, “this is who I am, this is my heritage.” That heritage included the relationship between the medieval church and pubs. It was the medieval monks who brewed ale and mead, who provided healing and care, and that relationship became synonymous with his paintings. He had to forget everything he’d learned at art school, and at first it was hard going.
Then Whelan went to the Hammersmith Irish Art Show, where he found a ready welcome—and sold eight paintings on opening night. Not only were his new colleagues embracing and welcoming, they were very generous in sharing contacts with him.
When he went into the cathedral at Bury St. Edmunds in East Anglia, in England, “another door opened.” He became intrigued with the history of Edith Cavell, the World War I British nurse and daughter of an Anglican vicar who did much of her work in Belgium. Outspoken and fearless, she was always taught to share with those less fortunate than she, and she put that resolution to the full test, helping both English and French wounded soldiers and French and Belgian civilians escape from occupied Belgium to neutral Holland. She was arrested in 1915 and executed by the Germans for her role in helping the escapees.
Deeply impressed by Cavell’s story, Whelan painted 14 images reflecting her spiritual life and death, which his wife Wendy Roseberry suggested he offer to the Washington National Cathedral before they were installed in Norwich Cathedral, where she is buried.
“We dropped this proposal into their hands just as the U.S. government had asked the cathedral to do something on the start of WWI. The timing could not have been any better. The show opened on July 27 and ended Sept. 18, 2015, and then went on to Brussels and from there to Norwich,” Whelan said.
The “Holy City” notion for the anniversary of 9/11 at the Washington National Cathedral came about as it’s a subject he paints frequently, so he offered to do a large piece that would hang centrally and be floodlit.
The commitment and welcoming acceptance by cathedral staff has impressed the couple. To both, the peace and joy of the mural is the “antithesis” of the horror of 9/11.
One comment which Whelan appreciated was by retired British art critic and art historian Sister Wendy Beckett, who presented a series of well attended documentaries on art for the BBC in the 1990s. “I think God has His hand on Brian. … His art is so original and comes from within, which always makes people think.”
See more examples of Whelan’s work at brianwhelan.co.uk.