This Easter, 25 members and friends of Duke Divinity School traveled to Cambridge, England for a week of theology and the arts in and around the historic setting of King’s College Chapel. This year’s Duke-Cambridge Collaboration developed from a similar venture  in 2010, building on a growing partnership with Cambridge.
Speaking at the close of Easter 2010, former Duke Divinity School Dean Gregory Jones said, “We have just begun to see what can be brought forth when theology and arts are combined. This dream, not a fantasy, this dream has been realized this week, and much more can be done.” Holy Week 2012 heightened and fulfilled this expectation, widening DITA’s vision of a vibrant and enriching engagement of Christian theology and the arts at Duke Divinity School and beyond. The framework for the week was provided by the Easter at King’s Festival of Music and Services .
Scholars and musicians from Duke met and performed with counterparts from the United Kingdom and beyond. They included Irish poet Micheal O’Siadhail, Scottish composer James MacMillan, and theologian Alan Torrance from the University of St Andrews. Academic inquiry was interwoven with poetry, music, and visual art. The events spanned Palm Sunday to Holy Saturday and included a performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion conducted by Stephen Cleobury and a Good Friday rendition of MacMillan’s Seven Last Words from the Cross.
Showcasing this interweaving of arts and theology was the Rumours of Passion concert in Clare Chapel Cambridge. Duke Divinity School commissioned new poetry from Micheal O’Siadhail in response to the four Servant Songs of Isaiah. The poems (read by O’Siadhail) were interspersed with music and set in counterpoint to the biblical passages (read by, among others, Professor Ellen Davis). In a further expression of the collaboration between Cambridge and Duke, a musical setting of the second poem, composed by DITA Director Jeremy Begbie , was sung by a choir of singers drawn specially for the occasion from both Durham, N.C. and Cambridge. O’Siadhail’s poems were printed in a full-colour presentation brochure that drew art and photography into a creative whole.
Maundy Thursday saw the culmination of Illuminating Messiaen , a Divinity School project launched in the fall of 2011. Photography was submitted by faculty, staff, students, and alumni in response to the seven movements of Olivier Messiaen’s Visions de l’Amen and evaluated by a panel including expert jurors Eric and Candace Law. The seven winning photographs were mounted in an all-day exhibition on Maundy Thursday, and formed the backdrop to two events, the first in Corpus Playroom and the second in the antechapel of King’s Chapel itself.
In the intimate theater of Corpus Playroom, British pianist and broadcaster David Owen Norris gave a pre-concert talk, introducing the audience to Messiaen’s extraordinary work for two pianos that traces seven biblical themes from creation to consummation. Jeremy Begbie and London-based concert pianist Cordelia Williams performed the piece. On his website, David Crabtree  – one of the Duke visitors and award-winning anchor at WRAL-TV – commented, “After experiencing last night's performance, one would find it difficult to believe the first playing of Messiaen's work in May of 1943 could have been more powerful.”
The audience was led through a spectrum of sounds and emotions – power, humour, pain, child-like joy, and poignant beauty. 35-inch reproductions of the winning photography, mounted in front of the Chapel’s hand-carved oak organ screen, offered a visual interpretation of Messiaen’s score.
As with the Wednesday concert, an artistic printed program with the winning photographs was given to the audience. Accompanying the photographs for the third movement (entitled “The Amen of the Agony of Jesus”) were the words, “Christ bears the intensity of God’s verdict on the world’s wrongdoing. He cries out, laments, sighs, sweats blood. Only in this way can humanity be re-made.”
The words resonated with the sermon delivered earlier by Duke Divinity School Dean Richard Hays to a packed Chapel at the Maundy Thursday Eucharist. When Jesus broke the bread that Passover night with his disciples, “he was in fact handing himself over to death for our sake, handing himself over as broken bread to be consumed by us in a new feast that unites us all,” Hays said. A true remembrance, Hays said, will be an active response to this generosity, of “handing our own lives over, and sharing generously with our brothers and sisters in the new covenant.”
Also during the week, scholars who had met previously in 2010 and 2011 joined composer James MacMillan again to work with him in forging a new St. Luke Passion, co-commissioned by Duke Divinity School. Distinguished conductor and Bach scholar John Butt, in a learned and ebullient presentation, helped the group look back to Bach’s St. Matthew Passion as they looked ahead to the emergence of a new Passion. Written for choir and orchestra, the MacMillan piece will receive its U.S. premiere in Duke Chapel on Palm Sunday 2014.
All photos by Pilar Timpane, with kind permission of King’s College Chapel, Clare College Chapel, Trinity Hall and Corpus Playroom. More photos from Holy Week are available online.