Come and behold them: UK Covid heroes star in a real-life nativity scene

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For the Mary and Joseph of the Chichester Nativity, it has been less “no room at the inn” and more “no wedding in a pandemic”. Baby Jesus, meanwhile, far from having visitors from nearby fields and faraway kingdoms, hasn’t even been able to meet his aunt, his uncle or his great-grandparents. One of the shepherds is up to her eyes running the local food bank – and the winged angel looking down from above is the local hospital’s head of nursing.

They are the stars of an art installation that puts “heroes” of 2020 in the roles of the family at the centre of the Christmas story. Like the Mary and Joseph they portray, Catherine and Sam Harding – 26 and 30 – have had to find a way of making do: in the Bible story it was by spending the night in a stable, and in the Hardings’ case it was by dramatically downscaling their wedding after having postponed it twice.

The Chichester Nativity, curated by visual arts expert Jacquiline Creswell, with photography by Ash Mills, is an immersive experience at the city’s cathedral in which pictures of local people for whom the pandemic has been especially seismic stand in for the Bible characters. The Hardings are among 24 people portrayed – and in each case, their real-life stories mirror in some way those they depict.

At the start of this year, the Hardings were planning a wedding ceremony at the cathedral with 300 guests, followed by a barn dance for 400. “Our original date was in March, and we rescheduled for May – but both times we were forced to pull the plug,” says Sam.

Eventually they went ahead with a service for 30 (“and that included both of us and the priest”) in the Lady Chapel in July. “Afterwards, the bridesmaids and groomsmen had to go home because we could only have a tiny gathering for family in the garden,” he says. Their wedding was the only one held at Chichester cathedral in the whole of 2020.

Joanne Kondabeka, a ‘shepherd’ who runs the local food bank.
Joanne Kondabeka, a ‘shepherd’ who runs the local food bank.

In the installation, the couple are pictured with newborn Oakley Biggs in the manger. Son of Louise Shepperd and Tom Biggs, both 25, he was born at the Princess Anne Hospital in Southampton on 10 October.

“He’s my first baby, and the pandemic made my pregnancy and the birth very different from the way it would have been,” says Louise, who works in telemarketing. “Tom wasn’t allowed to attend any of my scans or antenatal appointments – and it worried him, because if there had been any problems he’d have been outside in the car park instead of by my side.”

Covid restrictions have meant many family members never saw Louise during her pregnancy, and key relations including his aunt, uncle and great-grandparents have yet to meet Oakley. But, says Louise, some of them will be going to the cathedral installation. “At least they’ll see him there, in his starring role,” she says. Louise herself is in the tableau. “I’m a shepherd, naturally.”

Among the other shepherds is Joanne Kondabeka, who founded and runs the Chichester District Foodbank. “Covid has been a big challenge – we’ve had a 35% increase in the number of people needing our services,” she says. “Many are struggling on a reduced income in this city, as it’s an expensive place to live. But the community – local businesses, individuals, leaders – have really stepped up to help, and I feel that spirit is reflected in the installation and the fact that it’s drawing on real people and their contribution.”

Angels are printed on see-through fabric suspended over the chancel arch.
Angels are printed on see-through fabric suspended over the chancel arch. Photograph: Ash Mills

The photographs, printed on near-transparent fabric, are displayed on the 15th-century Arundel Screen, which crosses the cathedral’s chancel arch, dividing the choir from the nave. Suspended above them, another photograph, showing angels complete with wings and halos, includes Julie Thomas, head of nursing at Western Sussex Hospitals NHS trust.

She says she had mixed feelings about being portrayed as an angel, finding the idea embarrassing at first. “I manage the nurses in A&E and on the Covid wards, and everyone has had such a difficult time. Like a lot of people through this pandemic, I would also say I’ve simply been doing my job.”

All the same, she admits she has never worked so many punishing, 60-hour weeks as she has over the past nine months. “I’ve worked in the NHS for 39 years, and we were always preparing for a pandemic, but I had no idea it would be like this.

“The uncertainty has been so difficult – and, of course, it’s far from over. We thought things were tailing down but they’re going up again. And while we’re all thrilled about the vaccine – it’s a game-changer – we’re also now having to work out how to get it out to as many people as possible, as quickly as possible, on top of everything else.”

The project’s creator says she wanted to frame the Christmas nativity scene in a relevant and topical way. “I wanted to give it meaning in our real lives,” says Creswell. “We knew it was a bold idea. What we have tried to do is deliver the story of Christmas to show the wonder, the hope, the love and the joy – framed by where we are right here, right now.”

Hafta Ichi
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Come and behold them: UK Covid heroes star in a real-life nativity scene

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