Henry Moore

The Beauty of a Henry Moore Sculpture

Working model for Henry Moore’s, Three Piece No. 3: Vertebrae (1968)


I have long admired Henry Moore’s sculptures. Through his willingness to explore various ways of representing the human form, as well as his less representational considerations of abstract shapes, Moore has left a huge legacy. His exploration of aspects of the human body is compelling. I especially like an example that can perhaps be described as a hybrid between those works and his interest in more abstract contours. I am referring to his Three Piece No. 3: Vertebrae, shown above. I first came to see and interact with this sculpture while in college, when visiting a scaled up larger version of it on the Safeco Plaza in Seattle (depicted below).

Moore’s Three Piece No. 3 involves a sculptural adaptation of a basic element of both human and animal anatomy, spinal vertebrae. It clearly suggests its biological source while also providing a dynamic interplay between three objects inspired by the same bones.

The top photo above is of the bronze casting of the preliminary plaster model for the sculpture, with roughly the dimensions of 3′ x 8′ x 4′. It is evocative in that scale, where we find it sitting on a plinth for viewers in a gallery. Moore, in the following year, then created a significantly larger version of the same, measuring roughly 9′ x 24′ x 10.5′, of which the Seattle plaza installation is an example. About ten years later, in 1978, the sculptor was commissioned to scale up the work for an even larger placement in the City Center Park Plaza outside the Dallas City Hall. The photos below depict the artist’s own copy of the the Seattle version of the work, as seen in the rather different setting of the Henry Moore Foundation Studio and Gardens, in Hertfordshire, England.


There is something compelling about Moore’s discernment regarding shape, form, and the dynamic interplay that we can see among otherwise static masses of beautifully aged bronze. These are not arbitrary shapes, and I think something within us recognizes the intrinsic connection between these abstract-looking forms and our own physical embodiment. Why do we find such sculptural elements attractive and compelling? Possible answers to this question might lead to a book length response. But I think we can say this: with sculptures like his Vertebrae, as well as with his representational exploration of the overall human form, Moore has shared with us recognizable instantiations of physical beauty with which we have a real connection, and one that is spiritual as well as aesthetic.

For when we recognize beauty in art, and or in nature, we recognize our disposition toward finding beauty. In finding beauty, we are able to discern something profound about ourselves as well as about the imprint within us of the love of our Creator, who is found within all beauty.


The Beauty of Her Gaze


Henry Moore was perhaps the most well-known British sculptor of the 20th century. As happened with some American artists during WWII, Moore was engaged to use his artistic skills as part of his nation’s war effort. His drawings of people sheltering in the London Tube tunnels during the bombing were compelling. And they had a great effect on a certain priest who was considering commissioning a sculpture. In particular, Henry Moore’s way of depicting mothers holding their children struck this priest as indicating a great sensitivity. This led him to hire Moore to carve a large stone Madonna and Child for St. Matthew’s, Northampton.

Though Henry Moore was not a practicing Christian, he was rather thoughtful about the spiritual dimension of this important commission. He was already making sculptures in a modern manner tending toward abstraction (see his St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, Mother and Child). And yet, he knew that this piece had in some way to be different. At the time, he wrote that, unlike secular sculpture, this piece “could not be too abstract or it would have forgone the traditional deep meaning of the subject.” Here is how he described his thinking about the project:

I began thinking of the ‘Madonna and Child’ for St Matthew’s by considering in what ways a Madonna and Child differs from a carving of just a ‘Mother and Child’ – that is by considering how in my opinion religious art differs from secular art. It’s not easy to describe in words what this difference is, except by saying in general terms that the ‘Madonna and Child’ should have an austerity and a nobility and some touch of grandeur (even hieratic {or ‘priestly’} aloofness), which is missing in the ‘everyday’ Mother and Child idea.

Humanly accessible, and yet spiritually apart, might be another way of capturing Henry Moore’s thought here. Like some other artists, Moore achieves this human accessibility by building upon an important strand of Christian spirituality. Mary provides and becomes our human connection with the incarnate Holy One. In this sense, Mary is not only the mother of our Lord, but also the mother of our faith. Look at her posture, in this photo of Moore’s sculpture. As I understand it, a person walking forward seeking to view this work up close, advances along an aisle that is to the side of the sculpture. And so, Mary’s face and gaze engage the approaching viewer. This connection is therefore established before the visitor stands face to face with the representation of the Christ child. To extend this idea, the Church as our mother, engages and upholds us as we approach the mystery of Mary’s God-given child.


This post is based on my homily for the First Sunday After Christmas, December 30, 2018, which can be accessed by clicking here.  Other homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.