It is not every day that a Jewish artist is given free rein to make his mark on the walls of St Paul’s Cathedral.
But then, Gerry Judah is not one to follow convention — as can be seen by the six-metre-high cruciform sculptures he has constructed, now hanging either side of the famous church’s Nave Pier walls.
The sculptor — who was born into a Sephardi community in Calcutta, India and came to the UK with his family at the age of 10 — was approached by St Paul’s officials last year with the unique opportunity to commemorate the centenary of the beginning of the First World War.
The result is two lofty, three-dimensional crosses — painted white to represent the war graves of northern France and Belgium and bearing in model form the ruins of war-torn buildings.
“As an immigrant Jew, to be able to commemorate the most important event of the 20th century in the highest church in the nation and be able to give it my take and my own polemic was a phenomenal platform,” Mr Judah said.
“The challenge was to interpret my take on the war — and war in general — but also to appreciate the sensibilities of a cathedral like this.”
Mr Judah, 62, said he focused his designs on the symbol of the cross as it stood both as an “appropriate image of remembrance” — but also one of violence.
“You have to remember that the cross is a very violent symbol, as it was originally designed to kill people. I thought I would maintain that violence as a polemical reminder that wars have been forever fought over religion.”
As for the irony of a Jewish artist producing crucifix-shaped designs, Mr Judah explained: “I discovered the Renaissance when I went to art school. For me, the crucifixion was not an act of religion but a discovery of art and of amazing artists like Della Francesca and Raphael.”
The sculptor, whose work often comments on the waste and futility of war, said it would have been hypocritical to focus his pieces purely on remembrance.
“It’s all very well looking at a war that happened 100 years ago,” he said. “But we have catastrophic wars still happening today in which cities are being decimated.
“That is why I took the pure shape of the cross and festooned it with contemporary, destroyed buildings. It’s a way of contemporising memory.”
The London-based sculptor has produced sculptures for several religious institutions in the past — including a display at his own shul, Finchley Reform Synagogue, in commemoration of the Czech Memorial Scrolls. He said he was inspired by “the theatricality of religion.
“I grew up in India, where there were hundreds of temples, mosques and synagogues. We had the most amazing synagogues there, so it was a very spiritual place to live.
“It’s actually still my ambition to do something big in a synagogue. I’d love to design a beautiful altar piece, where the challenge is harnessing the expression of that particular community.”
Describing his faith as “constantly feeding” his art, Mr Judah said the poignancy of being the first Jewish artist to display work at St Paul’s was far from lost on him.
“I am very much a Londoner, but you can still sometimes feel like an outsider at the same time. So to be able to come into such a place and be fully embraced and appreciated was fantastic.
“The first minute I met the chancellor of St Paul’s, we had an instant rapport. I told him a Jewish joke and he started laughing. We got each other,” he said.