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Artist Gerry Judah’s landmark St Paul’s sculptures urge us to learn from the past

As Easter approaches, artist Gerry Judah has unveiled two white crosses in the knave of St Paul’s Cathedral to commemorate a century since the start of the First World War.

The cruciform sculptures, scarred by the bombed-out shells of buildings, were commissioned by Canon Mark Oatley, Chancellor of St Paul’s, and draw a link between the historic conflict and wars being waged today.

Judah, who lives in Highgate and has a studio in Gospel Oak, says: “I have worked on these themes before, but I wanted to do something bespoke for the space, something that embodied the cathedral, which itself is quite an emotional symbol of resistance for Londoners – of Britain standing up against the enemy during the Blitz in Herbert Mason’s famous photograph of the dome through the smoke.

“The white cross symbolises the war graves and remembrance but I wanted to contemporise it by bringing in the connection with current conflicts in places like Syria and Baghdad which are direct products of the carve-up of the Ottoman Empire.”

He adds that the cross is both a potent religious and artistic symbol.

“Some of the greatest paintings are of the crucifixion. It is a focus for Christianity, for peace and hope but it is also a violent symbol, a structure that had a guy nailed on to it and who died on it.

“I wanted to draw those threads into the pieces. They are strongly geo-political sculptures.”

Canon Oatley said the First World War is embedded in the national consciousness but added “you cannot be indulgent with memory”.

“A hundred years sounds a long time but I don’t think societies get over a trauma like that as quickly as they might like to think.

“There is a kind of nostalgic remembering but also a remembering that is about loyalty to the future, putting yourself back together and learning from the past. This is a work that sets out to do that explicitly by recalling the crosses of the war graves, and contemporary landscapes we see on the news every day, lives being ended and scarred forever by the same rupture.”

He believes Easter is a good time to draw these connections, and St Paul’s, which is littered with monuments to Generals and Admirals from historic British wars, a good place.

“Both religions and art work best when they set out not to answer questions but to question answers. After a hundred years, mythology and complacency set in and here’s a work that provokes us into interrogating the present world, throws it all up in the air, and asks what are the true effects of this war?

“I wanted the sculptures here for Holy Week. The Christian faith is such that human faith is carried on the cross. God bears the weight of human failure and there is no bigger failure than war.”

Judah, who was born in Calcutta and came to the UK aged 10, describes his sculptures as “theatrical, pieces of performance, interventions in this cathedral that is so designed in its architecture”.

“All my work is huge, I like the big expression, but these aren’t works about my personal journey, I like my work to be about something else and as an artist I serve the thing I want to say.”

Having lived in Highgate for 32 years, he considers himself a Londoner and views the capital as a place of opportunity.

“Here I am, an immigrant and artist given the freedom to commemorate an event so enormous in the most important building in the country and to make my own geo-political slant on it – that’s what I call an opportunity.”