Almost 20 years ago, the Woolf Institute in Cambridge, with strong links to the university, was set up to undertake research and scholarship in understanding relations between three religions – Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Its main aim was, and remains, to encourage tolerance and foster understanding between those of different faiths.
The Institute has grown over the years as it has gained funds, particularly from Muslim countries. It recently opened a new building on the adjacent site of Westminster College and to commemorate the event, the Institute, under Director Dr Edward Kessler, commissioned the renowned artist Helaine Blumenfeld to produce a marble sculpture that reflects the Institute’s aims and philosophy. The work, entitled Tree of Life: Encounter, has now been officially unveiled.
Helaine Blumenfeld was an obvious choice, having created more than 90 public sculptures. Visitors to Hyde Park may have seen her Tempesta or may have viewed Fortuna in Jubilee Park at Canary Wharf, to name but two. She has close ties to Cambridge where she both lives and has a studio. This is the latest in a number of her sculptures on view in the city.
Tree of Life: Encounter is a monumental, thought-provoking and beautiful work that stands nearly four metres high and weighs three and a half tons. When you think that the artist began with a block of 42 tons, you can imagine how much carving took place to create the final piece. She first made two plaster models, small and medium, before completing the final marble sculpture in a process that took three years, begun when the new Woolf Institute building was nothing more than a foundation.
The choice of marble was important. Blumenfeld opted for Carrara, used by artists since Roman times. Michelangelo sculpted his David from it. It’s strong and will stand the test of time. What’s more the veins are soft and don’t overwhelm the sculpture. Blumenfeld first visited Pietrasanta in Italy near the Carrara quarry, in 1975 and it was in her studio there that this sculpture was created.
The bottom of Tree of Life consists of three trunks representing each of the three religions. Within the spreading branches and foliage, made extraordinarily delicate in contrast to the hardness of the material, the three strands combine in a spirit of unity, hope and expectation, symbols of dialogue, peace and understanding.
As you walk around the work, the perspective changes, a very relevant aspect to the brief. As Dr Kessel of the Woolf Institute remarked, “It’s understanding other people’s perspective that is at the root of the Institute’s work.”
At a period in our history when Islamic terrorism is rarely out of the news, when there’s an apparent rise in anti-semitism in Europe and continued intolerance towards Christians in the Middle-East, the hope that’s engendered in this piece of art is most timely.
When I spoke to Helaine Blumenfeld at the inauguration, I asked her what she hoped viewers of her new sculpture would feel. Her answer would apply to art in general.
“I hope they’ll get a sense that unity is important and the sense that there is more than just where we are sitting in our lives, that there’s something to hope for, something to aspire to and that there’s a realm beyond the material that we touch every day… I became a sculptor because I believe that art is able to unravel the mysteries of the human soul in a way that surprises us.”
The sculpture is situated in the courtyard of the Woolf Institute, Madingley Road, Cambridge CB3 0UB.