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The art of sacrifice

11 November 2016

Caroline Levisse curates a selection of religious art inspired by the First World War

Parish of Mountain Ash

Downward look: a stained-glass reproduction of James Clark’s painting The Great Sacrifice

Downward look: a stained-glass reproduction of James Clark’s painting The Great Sacrifice

READING my great-grandfather’s war journal, I am struck time and again by the importance of his Christian faith while he was a soldier on the Western front during the First World War. He wrote about praying every day, visiting village churches, and enquiring about the times of the services. Undoubtedly, his faith provided not only reassurance and comfort, but a place of escape from the mayhem, a moment of pause.

Indeed, this was the case for many soldiers. There are numerous photographs from the time that show large groups of men, in uniform, assembled around chaplains who are taking makeshift services. The men’s religiosity was also shown in tangible objects: Roman Catholics often carried small figures of Mary and other saints in their pockets, or in the lining of their uniform, which were thought to have almost talismanic power, bringing divine protection to their owners. Crucifixes were also carried — often made by the soldiers themselves out of wood, or soldered on to bullet cartridges.

These artefacts, made by soldiers using the refuse of warfare, are referred to as trench art. The most common material used was shell casing, which soldiers collected and decorated with religious symbols. The piece included here is a candle holder made entirely out of an old shell, ornamented with a cross and a sun: two symbols that evoke the promise of the resurrection. Moreover, the top of the shell has been carved as if to suggest the shape of a crown, perhaps a reference to Christ’s victory over death.

BEYOND the personal importance of faith for soldiers at the front, religion also played an important part in pro-war rhetoric. Churchmen argued for the moral legitimacy of the war in sermons, and openly encouraged young men to enlist, besides using the pulpit to vilify the enemy. The Germans were constantly portrayed as barbarians whose expansionism and militarism had caused the war and threatened “Christian civilisation”. Christians were implored to fight as patriots and martyrs, in defence of their way of life.

As a result, there are many religiously loaded propaganda images from the time. Charles Ernest Butler’s painting Blood and Iron, for example, sums up the war effort as a fundamental struggle between good and evil. The title alone reinforces the perception of the Germans as warmongers: it directly alludes to the words of Count von Bismarck who, in 1862, notoriously said that Germany’s unity could only be achieved through “blood and iron”, a speech interpreted as signalling his violent intentions.

Painted in 1916, and exhibited at the Royal Academy, the piece depicts Kaiser Wilhelm II on horseback, followed by his army. He is turning back and looking indifferently at the civilian victims at his feet. Hovering behind the Kaiser, the Angel of Death urges him along his path of destruction. In the background, a city — thought to be Louvain, in Belgium — is ablaze. In the foreground, Christ is helping the fallen; his compassion is in stark contrast to the Kaiser’s contempt.

In painting the city in flames and the suffering civilians, Butler intends to show the extent of Germany’s unlawfulness and brutality in invading Belgium. It was a populist message, and a reminder of the reason Britain declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914 — indeed, a necessary message in 1916, a time when public morale was wearing thin.

The overt propagandist message of this piece, however, is rare in British art from the First World War. This type of imagery expressing and encouraging the anti-German sentiment was usually confined to less durable media, such as posters and postcards.


IN A journal entry from June 1915, the French artist Maurice Denis wondered: “How can Christian people — to whom murder has been presented as a very serious sin — from one day to the other, around the declaration of war, become murdering fanatics?” The marriage of faith and violence was problematic for this painter who was both deeply religious and patriotic, and who felt that religion should be a source of resistance to war.

It was almost impossible, however, to say such things in public. During the First World War, few people dared to openly express pacifist sentiments, although, notably, Pope Benedict XV pleaded for peace several times.

In socialist circles in the United States, the figure of Jesus was sometimes used as an anti-war symbol. In the July 1916 issue of the socialist magazine The Masses, for example, published Boardman Robinson's anti-war cartoon, The Deserter, which shows Jesus being executed by a squad made up of soldiers from five European countries (at that time, the US had not yet entered the war): the pacifist, like Christ, is a rebel challenging the dominant discourse.


SOME artists used biblical narratives and symbols to express their experience of the war. The Russian painter Natalia Goncharova and the German Ernst Ludwig Kirchner both created scenes inspired by Revelation.

It is, of course, Christ’s Passion that is most commonly linked with wartime suffering. The parallel of Jesus and the soldiers in many artworks conveys the consoling message that their sacrifice had a redemptive purpose, and provided a means of making sense of such unprecedented destruction: the loss of nearly ten million soldiers, and the many more physically and psychologically wounded.

As early as 1914, James Clark, a provincial English artist, painted The Great Sacrifice. The piece shows Christ on the cross with a soldier lying at his feet, presumably dead. The Christ figure is almost transparent, absorbing the colour of the landscape behind him, and the suggestion is that Christ is an invisible comforting presence beside each fallen soldier. The soldier’s right hand rests on Christ’s feet. “With this gesture,” the art historian Jonathan F. Vance writes, “[Christ] recognises in the soldier’s wound and death a community of sacrifice: his struggle is the soldier’s struggle, and vice versa.”

This image was reproduced in an illustrated newspaper that was popular at the time, The Graphic, in December 1914, and immediately became widespread. Prints were issued, and framed copies were placed on street shrines and in churches. The original was bought by Queen Mary for Princess Beatrice, Queen Victoria’s daughter, whose son had died at the front in 1914. Several stained-glass windows, in both Britain and Canada, reproduce Clark’s painting, or are based on it, such as the 1916 memorial window in St Margaret’s, Mountain Ash, Wales.

It is important to note that death is represented in this piece with significant restraint: there is no blood, no apparent wound, and the young soldier looks as if he could be peacefully sleeping. The ugliness of the battlefield has been left behind, and the focus is on the soldier’s selfless and brave sacrifice, epitomising Jesus’s words “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

It is understandable why this image of Christ and the soldier was so popular at the time, allowing so many bereaved to feel that their loved ones did not die in vain. In the words of the epitaph by John Maxwell Edmonds, “For your tomorrows these gave their today.”


Caroline Levisse teaches art history at the Workers’ Educational Association, and is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Centre for Arts and the Sacred at King’s College, London.

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