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Book review: Majesty by Richard Harries

by
08 September 2023

Jonathan Evens reads a drawing together of royal word and image

MAJESTY has four main strands enabling meditation on its theme. First is the use of quotations about Jesus from Queen Elizabeth II, taken from her Christmas broadcasts. Second, 50 iconic paintings on the life of Christ from the Royal Collection and a variety of renowned museums around the world are included. Third, there are Gospel passages linked to the images chosen, and, fourth, reflections from Richard Harries, musing on both the images and the Gospel passages.

In his writing on art, Harries has picked up the mantle left by Sister Wendy Beckett of writing popular reflections that combine art history and Christian contemplation. This is a vital task, as much that is written on the visual arts in a church context is primarily geared to an academic audience, and images such as those chosen by Harries deserve to be more widely appreciated than that context makes possible.

The great strength of Harries’s writing on the arts is the succinct and apposite summaries that he provides of art history. These are combined here with theological reflection to create contemplation on the life of Christ through the insights of the images.

The book is published today to commemorate the first anniversary of our late Queen’s death, and there will be many who will appreciate the collection of quotations from her Christmas broadcasts, particularly as these provided a regular opportunity to speak about her Christian faith. Inevitably, owing to the format of their original context, they mainly use the trope of highlighting an aspect of Christ’s life to commend compassion more generally.

Harries’s use of images from the Royal Collection sets lesser-known artists and images alongside better-known images from other collections, while finding new reflections on familiar images and highlighting interest in that which is less familiar.

There is, of course, an unacknowledged irony in using the words and collections of those who possess wealth to explore the life of One who turned the concept of majesty on its head by giving up the privilege that he possessed for the good of others. Christ’s choices and actions are noted and commended, but in terms that don’t address the challenge that he presented to the rich young ruler.

The book ends with William Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World alongside Revelation 3, and a statement from our late Queen that the teachings of Christ served as her inner light. Harries titles this reflection “Christ close to every human heart”, ending the book with the thought that Christ’s majesty is for one and all.
 

The Revd Jonathan Evens is Team Rector of Wickford and Runwell in the diocese of Chelmsford.

 

Majesty: Reflections on the life of Christ with Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
Richard Harries
SPCK £19.99
(978-0-281-08947-5)
Church Times Bookshop £15.99

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