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Beneath the outward sign

23 February 2018

In the second article of our Lent series, Martin Warner reflects on moral beauty

Watts Gallery, Compton

The Irish Famine, by George Frederic Watts, c. 1848-50, Watts Gallery Collection

The Irish Famine, by George Frederic Watts, c. 1848-50, Watts Gallery Collection

THE IRISH FAMINE, by G. F. Watts, is a painting that alludes to the representational nature of Jesus Christ as the revelation of God in time and space.

It is the second work of art being considered in this series, “A violent beauty”, which explores how two qualities — violence, and the attraction of form and appearance — are used by artists to explore the mystery of our redemption.

The collision of beauty and violence is not an arbitrary one. It has roots in the scripture that is applied directly to Jesus in the narrative of his Passion.

Isaiah 53 speaks of one who has “no form or majesty” in appearance, but who is allotted a portion with the great, bearing the sins of many, making intercession for the transgressors. He experiences violence and is crushed with pain; and yet from him a moral beauty emerges that makes many righteous.


PAINTINGS that depict the crucifixion can sometimes convey a sense of serenity which obscures the violence. In the National Gallery, in London, the Mond Crucifixion by Raphael, sets the scene of our redemption against an exquisitely intense expanse of blue sky.

By contrast, the relentlessly dark background of the same scene in Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece, painted about a decade after Raphael’s, spares no detail of the visible effects of physical violence in the body of Jesus on the cross.

In both cases, the artist seeks to show the viewer an image of moral beauty in the painting that has the capacity to transform life.

Raphael does this by drawing elements of the beauty of creation into artistic relationship with the dominant and powerful vertical beam of the cross. Grünewald relates the physically painful condition of the body of Christ to the patients being cared for in the chapel for which his altarpiece was painted.


THE image of crucifixion is an outward sign of what Isaiah describes: the death of one who is identified with the many, and, specifically, with the many whose beauty is distorted by the violence of sin.

The Irish Famine was completed around 1850. Watts was enraged by the appalling social conditions in Ireland and their devastating impact on the poor and vulnerable. The painting explores what is beneath the outward sign of bodies that have had dignity taken from them, and it imposes on us, in their name, the moral claims of justice, beauty, and truth.

Between 1845 and 1849, the blight on potato crops in Ireland resulted in the death of a million people, and the emigration of a similar number. Absent landlords living comfortably in England combined with the punitive effect of the Corn Laws to cause unprecedented misery and to deepen hatred for British rule.

Watts never visited Ireland, but in this period he was very close to the Irish writer Aubrey Thomas de Vere, whose English Misrule and Irish Misdeeds was published in 1848. This was also a time of considerable social turbulence in England, fuelled by Chartist demonstrations and a growing fear of republicanism.

De Vere was agitated about other things, apart from the Irish potato famine, and spoke at great length about his concerns when he stayed with Watts in London. De Vere had been heavily influenced by John Henry Newman, and was wrestling with the decision whether to become a Roman Catholic, which he did in 1851.


THE Irish Famine shows a destitute family, set in a dark, empty landscape. The child in its mother’s lap reaches to be fed, but the woman’s pallid complexion suggests exhaustion and despair. Her husband sits immobile, aptly described by words from de Vere’s poem, The Year of Sorrow — Ireland, 1849: “In horror of a new despair His blood-shot eyes the peasant strains With hands clenched fast, and lifted hair Along the daily darkening plains!”

Although there is no explicit biblical reference in Watts’s painting, an allusion to the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt is hard to resist. Orazio Gentileschi’s version of this subject, in the Louvre Museum, in Paris, similarly presents a linear composition, in which Joseph sleeps in exhaustion and the child seeks food from Mary.

We do not know whether, in conversation, Watts and de Vere might have discussed the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt as emblematic of the plight of many in Ireland. Certainly, the use of allusion and allegory was something that Watts explored throughout his artistic life.

It seems, in this painting, that the family has a timeless quality. The violence done to the beauty of childhood is shocking, both in its enormity and its universal occurrence.


WE CAN join the dots of its recent history with frightening ease. In doing so, we connect Mary, Joseph, and the Christ-child with exiles from Ireland in the 19th century with exiles from Nazi Germany in the 20th century, and with exiles from Syria in the 21st century.

What this reveals is the very specific — as well as the universal and representative — character of Jesus, who is both God and a man. He is born into a politically powerless family. The location of our Redeemer in that context tells us that political power is not the medium through which the beauty of the Kingdom of heaven is most obviously revealed.

He is the exile in every age of history. This tells us that the architects of human progress have neither the will nor the capacity to develop a narrative about belonging to a common household of humanity, in which people from East and West could feast together, as the gospel promises.

He embraces obedience: to parents, to daily life in Nazareth, and to his heavenly Father’s will. In this way, an obligation of love is newly constituted as the recovery of freedom by those who might otherwise be bound by rule and retribution in the transactional and commodified processes of a godless world.

These connections emerge from seeing an allusion to the Holy Family in Watts’s painting of a poverty-stricken Irish family. A link is thus forged between the life of each unique human being in every time and place, and the unique revelation of God in Jesus Christ.


THE IRISH FAMINE represents an aspect of Watts’s artistic work which profoundly disturbed the people of Britain when this painting was finally exhibited in 1881. The Spectator warned that it was bad policy: “You come too close to home, Sir, to our consciences to be agreeable.”

One contemporary commentator, Henry Scott Holland, saw Watts’s imaginative output as an artistic expression of truth about the incarnate God who, bearing the light of truth, would disturb and judge the nation’s conscience.

Scott Holland was a Christian socialist and a Canon of St Paul’s. His hymn “Judge eternal, throned in splendour” articulates the longing for solace, justice, and peace which comes only from God: “Still the weary folk are pining For the hour that brings release.”

Scott Holland understood that hymnody could sustain this longing, just as art could inspire it.


A WORK of art can enable us to see not just formal beauty but moral beauty, too. It can communicate truth and justice, even when what we see — like the Irish famine, or its modern equivalent — uncomfortably prompts in us a sinful indifference to the needs of others.

The victims of famine, poverty, and exile “along the daily darkening plains” still stare silently at us.

If we can learn to see Jesus in them, we may, in that recognition, learn to come closer to the Lord who can also see himself in us.

Dr Martin Warner is the Bishop of Chichester.


This series originated in a series of talks given in Lent 2017 at St John’s, Catford.

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