THE day that is painted least often in the unfolding drama of the Triduum is Holy Saturday. It is a day of obscurity, of “darkness visible”; a day of seclusion and waiting; and the day on which, traditionally, Christ enters the very depths of hell in hidden activity, to drag up towards his Easter light those who have lain long dead.
It is a day that lies beyond the terror of the Cross, and before the terrifying events of Easter Day. On the Saturday, we think of solitude and of unknowing, of the awful destruction of the hopes of the disciples. It is a day caught between death and life, between dark and light; a day to be in the cold stone tomb with our Lord, at the very limits of our capacity to understand.
The violent beauty of Good Friday grasps us from the light, and plunges us, through blood and agony, down into the darkness of death; and the contrast between the darkness of unknowing and the light of revelation have been key themes for some of the greatest religious painters.
BELLINI’s St Francis in Ecstasy stands out in this tradition. It is a canvas diagonally divided: in the lower section is the isolated figure of St Francis, struck open-mouthed by the cold light of revelation. He is pictured having emerged, startled, from the dark of the hermit’s cave into the frightening brilliance of the light of knowledge in which he is bathed; the darkness of the cave is temptingly open behind him, and is marked at its entrance with a skull.
Death lies behind him now, as it lay behind Jesus on Holy Saturday — he already has sight of what lies beyond his earthly vision; what lies outside of his power to perceive fully. St Francis is open-mouthed and open-armed, displaying the stigmata that so closely bound him to the sacrifice of his Lord and master.
In the upper half of the picture, the world is seen to be almost out of sight in the distance: a world from which St Francis has withdrawn, but in which a lonely farmer stops his labour to wonder at what the prophet is looking at. It is a world which has animals to the fore, unflustered by the interaction between the divine and the human, save for a cheeky rabbit stealing a glance through a natural squint in the broken-down wall at the limit of the rocky outcrop on which St Francis is perched.
The world is bathed in a warm light; it is inviting and golden, a place of attractions, whereas the stone surrounding the saint is turquoise-grey, a cold invitation to the bare-footed holy man, his sandals discarded in haste on responding to this call.
THE manner of the death of Jesus forces us to view the horrors of the world in the cold light of God’s calling to us: the light that lays bare the barren stone of our hearts — the hearts capable of war and torture; the hearts able to hurt even the little children and the unborn; the hearts guilty of neglect and of following orders that trample over the dignity that God invests in each person as his creation.
It forces us to repeat that we must not believe easily, or hope casually, but only through a willingness to see as we are seen, and to be pulled beyond the warmth of the world which we use to cloak our sight.
There is an utter stillness to what follows on after life, a darkness akin to being alone at night and outside, a being-alone that is not lonely but is exposed and vulnerable. There is a darkness that we know only God can illumine; for “the darkness is no darkness with him,” as the Psalmist teaches. The darkness of God’s silence is yet a place where we can find welcome and a beautiful softness, a murmur in the stillness that only just reassures.
I HAVE spent a significant amount of time painting at night, in the darkness of the street, the darkness of the forest and the lake, and the darkness of mountains; and it is, for the Christian, an accompanied darkness: one with the rumour of day about it, but a day that will come in its own time.
In seeking the darkness of the Cross, I painted West London Stations [of the Cross] at night. In it, I try to show the ordinariness of violent beauty; the catching of the breath in the moment that we perceive we are encountering tragedy and loss; our inability to encompass this knowledge — a knowledge “too wonderful” for us.
PILGRIMS who travel to Jerusalem can walk the Via Dolorosa (the Way of Sorrows), recalling Jesus Christ’s journey from his sentencing before Pilate to his entombment and place of resurrection. Churches have used devotional art to mark this sequential story since medieval times.
I find that, as we engage with these painted stories of the life and death of Jesus, they meet our own life-story. This encounter can be revelatory: it can force us closer to that cold light experienced by St Francis.
These West London Stations are images from all around my home in Ladbroke Grove, in west London. I hope that there is a great sense of immediacy; the colours are atmospheric, full of pathos. I take the “old, old story” right into the heart of a city and a community. Injustice, betrayal, judgement, suffering, redemption, and love become visible in our midst, in our time.
The paintings were commissioned at the Millennium. They were painted for Suffolk in late 1998 and early 1999.
BREWSTER GARDENS is a quiet, unspectacular road of red-brick terraces. At night, the street lights become dispersed markers of sodium orange, between which the darkness thickens. Christ is hung on a lamp-post, and there is a play on the Light of the World’s being extinguished as the metropolitan lighting comes on. It is a domestic crucifixion that could happen around any corner, in any town.
This station caused me more disquiet than all the others: it remains the first and last that I pass on my way to the studio. In praying the Stations of the Cross, one is invited to imagine walking with Christ. I frequently find myself thinking: “Oh, that’s the lamp post where he was crucified.”
THERE was a 13th-century belief that, if you went to the Holy Land and walked the very streets that Christ walked, at the afternoon hour at which he was reputed to have done so, Mary would accompany you. The performative act of walking the same route at the same time caused time to collapse, or wear sufficiently thin for the pilgrim to be present with our Lady.
I like and deeply believe in this sacramental magic of the power of the unities of time, place, and emotion in making and looking at art. These outward signs do, indeed, release an inward transformation, through linking us in an eternal imagination. William Blake talked of Christ as God’s imagination, or the imagination eternal. The first lamp-post in Brewster Gardens is talismanic for this reason.
THE violence of the cross is all around us, on every street corner; but so is the possibility of revelation. If we can allow ourselves to enter the darkness of the Cross, we begin the possibility of being taken beyond our normal perceptions of dark and light towards a colder revelation in the turquoise-blue light that washes St Francis of his ignorance: the light that shines in my heart as I pass that ordinary lamp-post on Brewster Gardens. “Oh, that’s the place he was crucified — and there, and there. . .”.
This series originated in a series of talks given in Lent 2017 at St John’s, Catford.