The reformed sinner who will paint a saint

The artist who made his name by painting Madonna in the nude is to create the most significant Roman Catholic work of art in Scotland since the Reformation.

Church leaders have commissioned Peter Howson to paint the Martyrdom of St John Ogilvie, a huge 26ft by 16ft work for the interior of St Andrew’s Cathedral in Glasgow. St John Ogilvie was hanged within yards of the church in 1615 and Howson, a convert to Christianity who has also recovered from drink and drug addictions, said he hoped his painting would renew the faith of all who see it. Featuring the largest crowd scene ever painted in Scotland – with more than 600 figures – the painting will adorn an altar in the cathedral from 2010 and is expected to become a tourist attraction.

The internationally-acclaimed Glasgow artist, who squandered a £1 million on his addictions and once painted ‘private commissions’ for gangsters to feed his habits, has been a Christian for eight years. Since his Madonna days, he has become well known for devotional artworks – and the Roman Catholic Church said it had no qualms in choosing him. Archbishop Mario Conti, the leader of the city’s Catholics, said: “This is the biggest commission for a Scottish cathedral since the Reformation. Peter is a world-class painter and I admire his artistic talent and his spirituality.” The Archbishop said it had been his ambition for years to extend the church’s historical and artistic heritage . He added: “Peter is acclaimed here and abroad for his powerful religious imagery and he is fascinated by St John Ogilvie.”

The cathedral will close in 2009 for renovation and the painting will adorn the Blessed Sacrament altar when it reopens. Howson’s work sells for six-figures but the Archbishop said: “The project is underwritten and all costs covered by benefactors. who do not want to be named. It is being done at no cost to the Church.”

Howson, 50, who studied at Glasgow School of Art, is known for his powerful figurative work, which is collected by celebrities such as Madonna, David Bowie, Bob Geld of and Jack Nicholson. The artist is about to stage a £1million exhibition, featuring his most expensive work – an 8ft x 6ft oil called The Harrowing of Christ with a price tag of £300,000. In May, Howson set a record for his work at Sotheby’s when his triptych – The Three Faces of Eve – sold for £300,500.

The artist said: “I’m delighted and humbled to be to asked to create a work of art for a cathedral. I’ve always had a secret ambition to do something for the Vatican – maybe this is the first step.”

Howson, who suffers from Aspergers syndrome, a form of high functioning autism, confessed that the prospect of creating his largest ever painting “frightens the hell out of me”. He added: “However, I am looking forward to starting it.”