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Old truths seen in a new light, and in London

28 March 2014

Richard Harries considers what we can learn from Mark Cazalet's triptych Three Johannine Miracles, the Blind Man

Permission by the Artist

The world after the miracle of grace: the triptych Three Johannine Miracles, the Blind Man by Mark Cazalet

The world after the miracle of grace: the triptych Three Johannine Miracles, the Blind Man by Mark Cazalet

THIS triptych by Mark Cazalet (b.1964) is a personal response to three miracles recorded in St John's Gospel. To the left, the man cured at the pool of Bethesda (John 5); to the right, the raising of Lazarus (John 12); and, in the centre, setting the perspective for the whole work, the blind man who was cured (John 9), which also happens to be the Gospel for this Sunday.

I like the central scene in particular, because it shows the blind man going back to what he most enjoys doing in everyday life, fishing in the canal, but now with a huge happiness, because he can see what he is doing. The white stick is laid aside, and the man, eyes open, gazes up at the sky.

These three Johannine miracles form part of the pre-Lent preparation in the Orthodox Church, indicating the healing of body, mind, and spirit.

Cazalet is a versatile artist who has worked in a range of media in different styles, and who has done a number of commissions for churches. He likes to set Gospel scenes in a contemporary setting, and believes that they can be given a new freshness in this way.

I find his cityscapes particularly striking, because, while most of us can find beauty in the countryside, there is beauty to be foundin an urban landscape, if we open our eyes to it. For example, Cazalet has done a series of West London Stations of the Cross, where Christ is depicted on the way to the cross in the middle of the motorways and street scenes that so often seem noisy and oppressive.

One of this series, Christ Being Judged, for example, is set in a small patch of derelict land underneath an overhanging stretch of motorway, with a train in the distance. It is the dark underside of the motorway which dominates, for Cazalet believes that the Christian faith isa hidden affair, not easily picked out in the power struggles of the world.

Yet there can be a strange beauty in such urban scenes, and this comes out especially in his study Kensal Rise Gasholders, Sunrise, Midday, Evening. Old gasholders are sometimes preserved now as examples of high Victorian engineering: one is being restored for that purpose near King's Cross, by the canal, for example.

Even leaving aside the desire to remember our industrialising past, however, its stark, symmetrical ironwork is a thing to behold. Cazalet captures this well in his study of the Kensal Rise gasholders in the three different lights of sunrise, midday, and evening. The two great frames of the gasholders in this miracle of the blind man are equally effective.

Traditional studies of Jesus healing a blind man show him touching the man's eye. In Cazalet's study, we do not see Jesus at all. Rather, this is the man after the healing, miraculously able to go back to his old life,but in a new way. He is of Afro-Caribbean background, a knitted woollen hat on his head, standing relaxed and at peace with the world.

The end of his rod is balanced neatly on his arm, which is curled around his back, the line dropping straight down into the canal. The light of the painting, the sky, the light green of early summer, and the fresh watery blue of the canal exude both serenity and cheerfulness.

The painting to the right, of Lazarus, is set in a typical London graveyard, with a handsome 1820s church in the background, and one of those grandiose tombs, complete with Grecian urn, from that period. Traditional depictions of this scene show Jesus's summoning Lazarus from the tomb; and, invery early ones, pointing to it with a kind of wand.

In this study, again, Jesus is not shown, just Lazarus, emerging into the light of day in a thin singlet, with a surprised, eager look. The light green of the trees expresses the freshness with which Lazarus now sees the world. Indeed, what we have here, and in the painting on the left, is the world as it is seen and experienced after the miracle of grace has touched us.

In the painting on the left, there is a shallow outdoor city pool, suitable for young children, although one man is lying sprawled on the side, sunning himself. A large woman, pregnant again, is dunking a child in the water.

I read this scene as the crippled man looking at the pool with his newly healed body, able to see the healthy exuberant life around him for the first time. It is difficult to see that life if you yourself are caught up in the burden of your own affliction - but, once released, how different the world looks.

The scene is set in Hackney, where Cazalet worked with a school on a painting. "The only real is local," the artist writes, quoting G. K. Chesterton. It is our world, the ordinary everyday world of our multiracial city - full of sights and sounds and strange beauties - but now to be seen with eyes opened by grace.

The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is the former Bishop of Oxford, and the author ofThe Image of Christ in Modern Art (Ashgate, £19.99 (CT Bookshop £18); 978-1-4094-6382-5) (Books, 20 December). This Lent series is based on the book.

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