ROGER WAGNER’s work has been called “medieval” by one of his most sympathetic admirers. In visual terms, this is not the comparison I would enlist. His palette has the clarity of an Umbrian hilltop in the spring. His serene and spacious landscapes under an innocent sky recall the territory of Piero della Francesca; and so do his statuesque figures in their anonymous raincoats or the shabby dignity of rags. Their gestures of grief, contrition, or forgiveness come from the dawn of the Italian Renaissance.
What is medieval, however, is the discipline that underlies his art. It is old-fashioned (in the best sense) to look to an artist to cleanse for the rest of us the doors of perception, but that is what this artist can do — and, in the Middle Ages, would have been highly valued for doing. Meditation, concentration, and discipline were widely practised, and are abundant in Wagner’s corpus.
The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford has at last been given the means to make its own his great canvas Menorah, first hung there in 1994 (News, 5 March). The tireless efforts of Lord Harries to secure this masterpiece for Oxford have borne fruit. It shows the crucifixion against a background of the six massive cooling towers and single slender chimney of Didcot power station, symbolising here the seven-branch candlestick of Judaism. The foreground is a waste of lurid mud, with a scattering of huddled people in deepest mourning for the violation of the Cross, the desecration of our beautiful earth, and the abomination of the concentration camps.
Either side of Menorah, the Ashmolean has been displaying the 22 intimate paintings that illustrate Wagner’s second volume of his own translation of the Psalms, The Book of Praises. These are now on show at St Giles’s Church, Oxford.
After the classic Jewish subdivision of the Psalms into five books to match the five books of the Pentateuch, Wagner’s first volume, published in 1994, covered Psalms 1-41. This beautifully handmade book goes from 42-72. We may look forward to Psalms 73-89, 90-106, and 107-150.
In the first volume, the entire Hebrew text was published alongside the English. Here, the Hebrew is for the most part restricted to quotations, allowing for a finely balanced and laid-out page. Opening it carries a shiver of awe, such as a medieval abbot or prince felt when he opened the Psalter newly transcribed and illuminated for him.
Each group of Psalms concludes with a blessing upon the Lord, in this version of Psalm 72:
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel
who alone works wonders
And blessed be his glorious name
Let all the earth be filled with his
Amen and amen.
The first volume was illustrated exclusively with wonderful black and white woodcuts. Now, thanks to the advances of digital technology, Wagner has been able to intersperse woodcuts with exquisite prints from these paintings, small only in their dimensions. In time he plans to return to the first section and re-illustrate it, incorporating colour.
In a way long honoured among Christians, the Psalms are sometimes seen through the events of the New Testament. Psalm 69 is related, inevitably, to the crucifixion, and the “they” of the Psalmist becomes Everyman, “us” in a worn mackintosh.
In Wagner’s version: “For my food they gave me gall, for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.” In the Authorised Version: “They gave me also gall for my meat: and in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.” In a more recent rendering: “They gave me gall to eat, and when I was thirsty, they gave me vinegar to drink.” The differences are not trivial: generations of English-speakers have regarded animal flesh as their divinely ordained source of nourishment, because their Bible used the word “meat” for “food”.
Psalm 42 is also apt to the Passion:
O my God
My soul is very
Oppressed. . .
Deep calls unto Deep
In the roar of your cataracts
All your breakers
And your waves
Have passed over me. . .
Wagner’s painting is a brilliant account of a waterfall. This is the pre-eminent psalm of water. It opens with that familiar analogy: “As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God” (AV). One modern translation irons out that full Jacobean prose into “As the deer longs for the water-brooks, so longs my soul for you, O God.”
It so happens that both are incorrect. The Hebrew word is neither “hart” (male), nor “deer” (neutral), but “hind” (female), matching the female Hebrew word for soul. The vivid mental image of the vulnerable and gravid hind, terrified of the hounds and panting for water — so appallingly described in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight — is, and always was intended to be, an evocation of the distressed human soul. The Hebrew word for “soul” is always feminine. Our Reforming ancestors banished the feminine, as far as they could, from the Bible. It is Wagner, using “hind”, who gets it right.
In this group of Psalms, Wagner finds a reflection of the unquenchable glory of the resurrection in his defiantly vast (within a compass of inches) and splendid blue angel, poised astride a winding river as he flings towards us his shoe:
Judah is my sceptre!
Moab is my washbowl
To Edom I toss my sandal
Over Philistia I will shout!
We all have our favourites among translations of the Psalms. Wagner is a recognised poet of lapidary quality, and the very act of translation brings with it a fresh understanding of the universal application of these profound hymns.
We have only a tiny percentage of the plays by the great Greek dramatists, but not only the Jewish but the Christian world has been incomparably enriched by the sum of 150 songs of human yearning for the divine. They cannot be translated or depicted too often, if an artist and linguist of Roger Wagner’s capacities is around to do it. That will never be often.
“Roger Wagner: Psalms” is at St Giles’, Oxford, until the end of April. The church is open from 12 to 2 p.m., Monday to Friday.
The Book of Praises can be bought from the Ashmolean Museum Shop at www.ashmolean.org (£110), or directly from Roger Wagner, www.rogerwagner.co.uk.
Dr Tudor-Craig is indebted for help with translation from the Hebrew to Professor Gabriel Josipovici.