The Temple of a Thousand Bells

This morning we went to see the installation by Brazilian artist Laura Belém which is the first of this year’s Biennial artworks to be opened to the public.  It’s on display at the Oratory, next to the Anglican cathedral, a Grade I listed building that is only rarely open to the public.

It consists of one thousand suspended glass bells, with sound accompaniment telling of an ancient legend of a temple of a thousand bells that was built on an island.  I have to say, it looks better in the photographs than in reality.  I think the solidity and formality of the surrounding memorials overwhelms the installation.  The bells look plasticky (I am surprised that they are, apparently, made of glass), and it doesn’t look like there really are a thousand bells.  However, if you watch the Vimeo video (link below), you’ll discover they are glass (there’s an interview with the glass-blower, so apologies to him) and it is confirmed that there are a thousand.

The Biennial website explains:

It is a free adaptation of an ancient legend, the story of an island temple whose most remarkable and distinctive feature was its endowment of a thousand bells. Allegedly, the sound of these bells could be heard by travellers crossing the sea even at a great distance from the island. Over the centuries, the island sank into the ocean, and so did the temple and its bells. But the island and its shrine are not completely forgotten, as shown by the unremitting attempts of a sailor to hear again the music of the sunken bells. Although their sound has long vanished into the depths of the ocean and his undertaking seems pointless, the man does not give up trying and obsessively pursues his search.

The artist cannot guarantee that the lost music of these bells (possibly symbolising our continuous and somehow frustrated quest for spirituality) will be heard during the exhibition period. But traces of their sound might find a resonance in the ears and hearts of those who are most able to open themselves to their surroundings and interpret silence.

The Oratory is the former chapel of St James’s Cemetery, the former burial ground which once occupied the rocky hollow on the east side of Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral now called St. James Gardens.  This hollow was originally a quarry and provided the stone from which the Town Hall and other 18th century public buildings in the city were constructed. By the 1820s, however, it was exhausted and a proposal was made to adapt it as a cemetery, Liverpool’s only public cemetery at that date being the non-denominational Necropolis at Low Hill, opened in 1825.

Work began on the new St James’s Cemetery in 1826 and the architect John Foster was appointed to design the necessary buildings and to lay out the ground.  The Liverpool Museums website elaborates:

Through his imaginative use of a unique site Foster created a cemetery of real dramatic grandeur. He transformed the east wall of the quarry into a sequence of broad ramps lined with catacombs cut into the rock face; these led down to the burial ground itself, laid out with winding paths and planted with trees. On the high ground to the north west, overlooking this sunken area, Foster built the Oratory (foundation stone laid 1827) and a house for the minister (later demolished to make way for the Cathedral), while at the south west corner he provided a monumental entrance arch and a porter’s lodge. The cemetery was opened on 13 January 1829 but Foster designed one more addition to it, the small circular temple which marks the grave of William Huskisson (1770 – 1830), the Liverpool MP killed at the opening of the Liverpool-Manchester railway.

The purpose of the Oratory was to accommodate funeral services before burials took place in the cemetery, but it was also used as a kind of cenotaph for housing monuments to the dead.

Following the closure of the cemetery in 1936 the Oratory fell into disuse. In 1980 Merseyside County Council assumed responsibility for its care and carried out major repairs. In 1986 it became part of the newly formed National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside. Further important funeral monuments from elsewhere have now been added to the original collection, including some from demolished churches on Merseyside, making the Oratory into a gallery of 19th century sculpture.

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