IN 2018, Pete Codling won a highly prized award at the recently formed Chaiya Arts Awards for his charcoal-on-paper drawing Where is God in the 21st Century?. It portrays the Holy Family in modern Middle Eastern dress surrounded by aggressive political figures, sacrificial lambs, pigs, cows, Death itself, and Father Christmas carrying a lamb, overflown by great winged angels.
This award financed further work on a series of large charcoal-on-paper works, “Naivety”, in which the characters of the nativity are given a modern philosophical or political portrayal. He endows each one with a gold-leaf halo based on tradition. It is a personal response to the horror and strife going on in the world today.
Codling has chosen his modern equivalents carefully. The shepherds appear in the form of Nelson Mandela as a young man in tribal dress, carrying a black lamb over his shoulders, and Mahatma Gandhi in his sari, with the Egyptian god Anubis as their sheepdog. “I chose them because they were of the people and gave their lives to serve them with no ambition for power and riches,” he said.
© pete codlingMary
In separate panels, his modern wise men are Stephen Hawking in a modern suit suspended in black-hole space, for his contribution to science; Sir David Attenborough because of his lifelong dedication to communicating his love for, and learning about, the planet; and Malala Yusafzai in Muslim dress resembling the Statue of Liberty, standing on a pile of books and holding up a light. She defended to the death the right for girls to be educated, and her large halo is composed of bullets and pens.
Mary is something of a surprise. Based on Michelangelo’s Pietà, the young lovely head of the Virgin is cast on to the ground and replaced by “Mother Teresa”, while Joseph is portrayed as a kindly Father Christmas.
Codling takes a boyish delight in his riot angels, inspired by Giotto. The angels of the nativity are portrayed as riot police, protected in full armour and halo helmets, taking control over situations, although Gabriel seems to be suspended like a marionette manipulated by God.
The innkeeper is represented as a pope guarding his material interests and property against the intrusion of simple spiritual truth. He holds out his mitre upside down like a begging bowl for money. Herod also comes out rather badly, with President Trump’s head on a naked body with a bird tweeting in one corner, the dreaded Klu Klux Klan high pointed headdress in another, and barbed wire round his head instead of a halo.
Codling has also added the massacre of the Holy Innocents, perhaps inspired by Picasso’s Guernica, focusing on a large close-up view of the confused innocent children being torn mercilessly from their grieving parents.
He also added Adam and Eve: Adam portrayed with a sheep’s head, and Eve with a cow’s head and teats, to suggest original innocence and naïvety.
“Naivety: A Contemporary Nativity by Pete Codling” is at Jack House Gallery, 121 High Street, Portsmouth, Hampshire, until 12 January. Phone 07503 152848.