Poignant poppies: a moving art exhibit touches millions

The beautiful ancient St. Magnus Cathedral is host to an emotional art installation, remembering those who sacrificed their lives for peace.

'Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red' poppies at the Tower of London. Mark Cuthbert | UK Press | Getty Images

Cathedrals are impressive buildings at the best of times, but St. Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, Orkney, in the most northern part of the British Isles, is garnering attention this month for a beautiful art exhibit, made up of ceramic poppy flowers. The display marks the 100 year anniversary of the Battle of Jutland—a WWI naval battle in which over 8,500 sailors died.

Poppy installation at St. Magnus Cathedral on April 21, 2016 in Kirkwall, Scotland.

Poppy installation at St. Magnus Cathedral on April 21, 2016 in Kirkwall, Scotland. The sculpture is part of ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ by artist Paul Cummins and designer Tom Piper. Michael Bowles | Getty Images

This imposing cathedral, founded by viking Earl Rognvald and dating back to 1137, is playing a central role in the commemorations to honor the many heroes who lost their lives during the battle, as Scapa Flow in Orkney was the point of departure for the British fleet. And what better way to pay tribute to this terrible loss than by illustrating it with these poignant ceramic red poppies, a symbol of remembrance.

Though it looks like a landslide of poppies, the cathedral is host to just a section of the original piece, Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, designed by Paul Cummins and Tom Piper. The artists, along with many volunteers, created 888,246 handmade ceramic poppies to represent each British and Colonial life lost in the First World War. This bigger installation was shown at the Tower of London in 2014, where the Queen laid a wreath, and younger members of the royal family offered their support by coming to “plant” some of the ceramic poppies themselves.

‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ by artist Paul Cummins at the Tower of London on September 8, 2014 in London.

‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ by artist Paul Cummins, September 8, 2014 in London. Peter Macdiarmid | Getty Images

While royal involvement certainly highlights the emotional importance of this exhibit, it’s clear the general public has also been moved by the stunning field of red poppies: over 5 million visitors came to visit and pay their respects while the installation was at the Tower of London. As a result, two sections of the original scene—one called the Wave and another named Weeping Window—have been touring Britain to give even more people a chance to witness its power as both a part of history and a meaningful work of art.

St. Magnus Cathedral is currently hosting the Weeping Window section, with a river of poppies that seems to flow from one of the cathedral’s tiny high windows. This poignant and impactful symbol has been appreciated by locals and those closer to the events 100 years ago. The grandson of the leader of the British grand fleet, Nick Jellicoe, said in the Guardian: “You look at something like this and you go back to what it really means,” he said. “Souls passed away and there were many on the day … it was 10 percent.”

This ancient cathedral at the heart of a small city is the ideal setting for such a beautiful display, offering its onlookers a quiet pause for reflection and prayeralmost as if the Church, and God Himself, is looking over and protecting these souls.

The poppies will remain on display at the Cathedral until June 12 before continuing their tour of the British Isles.

Queen Elizabeth walks through the poppy field art exhibit in the moat of the Tower of London

Queen Elizabeth walks through the poppy field art exhibit in the moat of the Tower of London, on October 16, 2014 in London. Mark Cuthbert | UK Press | Getty Images

Cerith Gardiner
Cerith Gardiner
Cerith Gardiner was born in London and has been living in Paris for 14 years. She spends her time working as an English consultant, acting as taxi driver to her four children, and wondering if she'll ever be as stylish as the French.

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