Gleeful cruelty that is always contemporary
Posted: 02 Nov 2006 @ 00:00
GREAT BRITAIN has produced a number of religious artists who do not fit
easily into any recognisable category, artistic or religious: for example,
William Blake, and, in the 20th century, Eric Gill. Stanley Spencer was one of
His paintings contained themes and images that were very personal to him.
Many of these derived from happy childhood memories, but his paintings also
have a wider significance because they touch on universal themes, and often use
traditional Christian imagery, albeit in a fresh way.
Throughout his life, he painted scenes from the Passion cycle, and, just
before the Second World War, he began a remarkable series of paintings on
Christ in the Wilderness, now in the Gallery of Western Australia, in Perth.
Spencer was a consciously religious painter, who expressed his religion in a
celebration of earthly things, however mundane. He believed that love, rooted
in this religious feeling, was what made art possible: “Love is the essential
power in the creation of art, and love is not a talent. Love reveals and more
accurately describes the nature and meaning of things than any mere lecture on
technique can do. It establishes once and for all time the final and perfect
identity of every created thing,” he wrote.
For Spencer, this love was integrally intertwined with strong feelings of
sexual attraction. In his paintings, he wants to affirm life and everything in
it: not just the obviously beautiful, but the earthly, and, indeed, what
appears to many as the grotesque — all with one joyous, peaceful celebration.
In the light of this, it is somewhat surprising that Spencer’s final
painting in this Passion cycle should be so stark and uncompromising in the
human cruelty depicted. Spencer hated suffering, and any dwelling on it in art.
Yet this crucifixion scene brings us up against some of the harshest aspects of
But Spencer knew what he was doing. When there was a public outcry against
the gleeful cruelty of the tormentors, he was unabashed. The painting had been
commissioned for Aldenham School. When he was invited to speak to the boys, he
said: “It is your governors, and you, who are still nailing Christ to the
Cross.” He knew that all of us have a capacity for human cruelty.
The scene is set, as so often, in Cookham, in Berkshire, this time in the
middle of the High Street. Familiar houses are on either side, but, in the
middle, is a huge pile of rubble in which the crosses have been set. Spectators
lean forward from the window of a house on the right, their faces full of the
usual inquisitive curiosity. Spread on top of the mound is the prostrate figure
of the Virgin Mary, spread-eagled as though left there by the sea.
The men who nail Christ to the Cross take a horrible pleasure in their task,
while one of the thieves strains forward to “cast the same in his teeth”. A
schoolboy with disproportionately long legs ties the thief’s arm to the
The City Livery Company that supports Aldenham School is based on the
brewing trade. The two men hammering in the nails are depicted as brewers’ men,
in their distinctive hats. They prepare to hit the nails home with all the
force they can muster. At the top of the canvas, storm clouds gather. At the
centre of all this terrible cruelty, Christ looks up to heaven, awaiting his
This is a disturbing painting. But the crucifixion of Christ, like all
expressions of human cruelty, is rightly disturbing. One of the problems of
painting the crucifixion is that it can be turned into such a beautiful work of
art that we lose any sense of its reality. The reality was as painful a form of
torture as human ingenuity has devised. And this, sadly, is what human beings
are still capable of.
Questions for reflection
What expressions of human cruelty do you see in the faces in the painting,
and where do you see parallels today?
In the painting, Christ’s face is turned heavenward. Which of the sayings
from the cross might he be about to utter?
This is an edited extract from The Passion in Art
by Richard Harries (Ashgate; 0-7546-5011-1)
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