The Catholic church’s favourite artist

He painted pop star Madonna in the nude, went to war armed with charcoal and oils, and battled an addiction to drink and drugs. Now Peter Howson, Scotland’s most famous contemporary artist, is undertaking his greatest challenge yet by completing a massive painting for the Catholic Church which the artist hopes will rival Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling.

The Martyrdom of St John Ogilvie will be a giant oil painting, 5m wide and 8m high, which will feature 600 individual figures in the largest crowd scene ever painted in Scotland. The subject is the Catholic saint who was hanged at Glasgow Cross in 1615, and the work is the biggest commission by a Scottish Catholic cathedral since the Reformation. The artist, a born-again Christian who rediscovered his faith after quitting drinking eight years ago, hopes the painting could lead to a commission from the Pope. He said: “Since I was young, I wanted to do a major painting for the Church. I looked at Michelangelo and thought, “I would love to do something like that! That sounds big-headed and I suppose I am big-headed, but this is a dream for me.”

The painting should be completed by 2010, when St Andrew’s Cathedral in Clyde Street reopens after major renovation works. Yesterday, Archbishop Mario Conti said: “St John Ogilvie is our only canonised Scottish martyr. I have always felt that we should have some memorial to this saint. Now the opportunity has arisen to have a truly world-class painting done by Peter Howson, a painter I have long admired both for his artistic talent and his spirituality.” The cost of the commission has not been disclosed, but has been met by anonymous benefactors.

Mr Howson, who previously painted his interpretation of Madonna in the nude and was the Imperial War Museum’s official artist during the Bosnian war in 1995, has in recent years dedicated his artwork to religious themes. Yesterday he said: “I have an image of the painting in my head. It’s a martyrdom of a great man of courage. My job is to awaken people with the image.â€?When Archbishop Conti was asked how the man who painted a naked Madonna ended up with such a commission, he joked: “if you want to see nudes, you only have visit the Sistine Chapel.”
The controversial artist also criticised a £1.5 million golden statue of model Kate Moss and said modern art is “gimmicky” He said: “That Kate Moss statue, that’s disgusting. Most of the art world is trying to do something gimmicky. True art is when you try not to be original.”

Between two and three hundred preparatory drawings will be drafted by Mr Howson before he embarks on the final work. The artist, who has previously painted a 100ft mural in London, said “industrial amounts of paint will be required. I presume it will be done on canvas. But it will have to be a specially made canvas that’s big enough.” The commission was applauded by James Macmillan, the Catholic composer, who said: “The Catholic Church in Glasgow has now stepped into the forefront of the dialogue between religion and culture. The implications of this painting – its size, subject, place in Glasgow, its focus in the worship of modern Christians – is stunning.”