Elisabeth Frink’s Walking Madonna (1981)

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In October 1981, the Dean of Salisbury Cathedral, Wiltshire, wrote to his parishioners to inform them that ‘a new resident will be observed in the Close.’1 The initially temporary figure subsequently became a permanent inhabitant of the genteel eighteenth-century Cathedral Close. At the centre of the Close is a sizable lawned square, surrounded by historic houses, including the Queen Anne period Mompesson House, which is now owned by the National Trust. Walking south towards the pale, pollution-tinged, Cathedral, along the east side of the Close, a substantial white painted gate stands ajar.

Within the Cathedral grounds, set on a truncated triangle of frayed and patch-worn grass, is the Walking Madonna. So slight that she is almost invisible – a mere shadow lost amongst the municipal clutter of four utility signs, the tall path light sited before the Cathedral porch and the apparently random rubble of large sandstone rocks on the east lawn. Her diminutive frame stands just less than 2 meters and is dominated by the scale of the Cathedral. Perhaps this tension of scale is a reference to humanity’s perceived insignificance against the presumed might of the Church. The dark patina of her bronze casting blends perfectly with the sombre gape of the huge perpendicular Gothic windows; her sun-tipped relief is lost in the reflected solar glint on the glass.

The tension of her suppressed anguish is visible in the slightest rise of her taut shoulders and grieving pinched-lip countenance; her modest demeanour echoes that of a nun, likened to Sister Raphael, the headmistress of the convent that Elisabeth Frink attended. The simplicity of the Madonna’s sackcloth textured clothing and waif-slender frame quietly proffers solace rather than chastisement for those who choose to meet her gaze or place their hand in her grasp-polished left hand. She is stilled by the depth of her thoughts, motionless, yet walking with resolute purpose. She strides forth into the Salisbury community, facing unexpectedly outwards, away from her spiritual home.

Recognising that Mary, the mother of Jesus, is conventionally considered to be a member of the community, the remarkable decision that Walking Madonna was to be placed ‘moving out from worship to be where human needs are to be met, not just in Salisbury but in the wide world’ was taken.2 In making this decision the parish elders, probably unknowingly, redefined the principle that traditional ecclesiastic sculptures were set apart from their brethren. Here the Walking Madonna integrates with the crowds, allowing her to gain the community’s acceptance. Viewers engage with her presence. Her face is aligned almost at eye level for an adult of average height and because she is plinth-less, her hand is often held; she stands within – rather than loftily above – the congregation as they arrive for and depart from services. Her siting does not detract from any sense of reverence, nor has she been vandalised. She simply exists beside the tourists, the worshipers and the locals who use the Cathedral pathways as a short-cut.

Those who take a moment to linger may appreciate this elderly lady’s grace; her slight form is powerfully engaging and, for the faithful, she may offer more than purely artistic appreciation.

  1. The Dean continued, ‘This figure symbolises … human dignity and creativity over militarism and totalitarian disregard for human dignity and rights.’ Stephen Gardiner, Frink (London: Harper Collins, 1998), pp.226-7.
  2. Ibid., p.227.

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