18 January 2012
Christian Faith and Modern Art:
Post World War II Optimism
Professor Rt Rvd Lord Harries of Pentregarth
This lecture focuses on a number of artists who made their reputation in the 1930’s but whose work reached a wider audience after the war, helped by a number of major church commissions.
A line in a poem by W.H. Auden describes the 1930’s as a low, dishonest decade. The attitude of upper class socialites was brilliantly caught by Terrence Rattigan in his 1938 play “After the Dance”. With black clouds filling the sky they spend their time endlessly rehearsing the great parties they went to in the 1920s. But even they began realise something serious was occurring and that a personal response was going to be required. World War II brought about a new seriousness, one which after the war was expressed, among other things, in the creation of the welfare state and which lasted until the end of the 1950s. 1958 for example saw a high water mark of people offering themselves for ordination in the Church of England.
Another important expression of this new seriousness, which for many people resulted in a return or conversion to the Christian faith, was the decision to rebuild churches bombed during the war-the exquisite Wren churches in the City, for example, and above all the building of a new Coventry Cathedral, the epitome of this surge of religious confidence. Designed by Basil Spence, it has been called the last of the mediaeval cathedrals because of its long nave looking up to the altar at the East end. Ironically it was just at that time that the best liturgical opinion was that churches should have a central altar with the people gathered round it. That movement for liturgical renewal, however, has somewhat passed and today Coventry Cathedral, old fashioned in design though it may be, remains a highly impressive building
Artists who had made their reputation with the avant-garde before World War I were called on by the church in the way they had not been before, Chagall for example, for wonderful stained glass windows, and Epstein, whose work has already been considered. His new work for Coventry more obviously accessible than his earlier work, Ecco homo, sculpted in 1934/5 which aroused such antagonism and which did not find a home, until presented to Coventry Cathedral in 1969.
St Michael and All Angels.
Behold the Man,
Coventry Cathedral is however also associated with two somewhat younger artists but who also made their reputation before the war, Graham Sutherland and John Piper, and who achieved wider fame after it, not least through their work for the Cathedral.
Graham Sutherland (1903-1980)
Sutherland was brought up in South London in a not entirely happy professional family, an experience which left its scars in the form of a certain insecurity. He left school early and went as an engineering apprentice to the Midland Railway Works in Derby. Finding he was unsuitable for this, he left to study Art for five years at Goldsmith’s College, but his time in Derby gave him a feeling for the shape of machines which remained. His early work was on lithographs, in which he was much influenced by Samuel Palmer. He was impressed by the way Palmer’s strong emotion could transform the appearance of things. Sutherland’s lithographs sold. Indeed although he only made serious money after the age of 50, he was lucky in always being able to sell at least some of his work, to add to the money he earned by teaching at Chelsea Art College. He was fortunate in having powerful patrons like Alan Clark, who very much believed in him and promoted his work.
Taking up painting more seriously, he first found a distinctive style in 1934-9 in the Pembrokeshire landscape, and it is good that there is now a Sutherland Gallery in Picton Castle, near Haverford West, though the bulk of the work he later donated has been transferred to the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff .In Pembrokeshire he was not interested in trying to represent the landscape in any realistic way, nor was it his method to sit down out of doors and paint. Rather, he liked to walk through the landscape soaking himself in its forms and construction, until some aspect gave him a sense of intellectual and emotional excitement, which he took away with him. He became preoccupied with organic growth, and forms for him could catch the essence of a human figure “The mysteriously intangible must be made immediate and tangible, and vica versa”.
The Thorn Bush
In particular he liked to stop and look at particular objects, a rock soaked by the sea, gorse bush, a twig or whatever, “an individual figurate detachment”. As far as his religious painting is concerned it was above all thorns that became important to him and they found a continuing place in his crucifixions. “While preserving their individual life in space, the thorns rearranged themselves and became something else-a sort of paraphrase of the Crucifixion and the Crucified Head-the cruelty.”
Always interested in developments on the continent we can see some influence of surrealism in his work, especially in his depictions of strange forms, inspired by nature but going way beyond it. Indeed some of his work appeared in an exhibition of surrealistic art. Many of these seem harsh to us, indeed he was accused of having a tragic sense of life, but as he put it, the artist “cannot avoid soaking up the implications of the apparent tragedy of twentieth century civilisation. Subconscious tragic pictures may be painted and without, necessarily, having a tragic dimension.”
Crucifixion, St Matthews, Northampton
Sutherland’s wife was a believer, and no doubt it was partly due to her influence, as well as that of a teacher and fellow lithographer, F.L.Griggs that he became a Roman Catholic shortly before he was married. How deep did this go? Shortly before he died he wrote:
Although I am by no means devout, as many people write of me, it is almost certainly an infinitely valuable support to all my actions and thoughts. Some might call my vision pantheist. I am certainly held by the inner rhythms and order of nature; by the completeness of a master plan.
For a long time he was an observant catholic but he started suffering from claustrophobia when he was in church, and churchgoing became more occasional. There is clearly some truth in his own account of his belief- as mentioned; he received inspiration from seeing a particular form in a landscape or object such as a tree or a thorn bush. But this does not rule out his religious feeling being stronger than that quotation might convey.
Sutherland did a range of work, designing well known posters and china and during World War II he worked as a war artist, drawing bombed buildings. After the war he found it difficult to return to his pre-war work and it may have been the friendship and influence of Frances Bacon, a young and at that time much less well known artist, who was working on shocking crucifixion scenes that helped to get him going again.
Walter Hussey had commissioned Henry Moore to do a Madonna and Child for his church, St Matthew’s, Northampton, and shortly after that he suggested to Sutherland that he did an agony in the Garden, to which the reply came “One’s ambition would be to do a Crucifixion of a significant size. Would that be alright?”
There was no deadline, and at was not long after this that the thorn concept grew in Sutherland’s mind. For two years he was to paint thorns with a passion and intensity and he returned to them sporadically for many years after. They were for him an image of cruelty and, as mentioned, they came to stand for the head of the crucified. It was not until 1946 however that he began to really tackle the crucifixion scene, and it was the photos of the terribly emaciated bodies of people released from Belsen that impelled him. They reminded him of the body of Christ on the cross painted by Grunewald for the Isenheim Altarpiece and his own image became a kind of symbol of the endless cruelty of humanity. Despite this, and the temptation to do something less naturalistic he made a conscious decision to produce a work “immediately intelligible and within the tradition.” The work was a success. He started an enduring friendship with Hussey who saw in Sutherland a deeply religious person, unsure of his faith, yet anxious to keep it. Having found success with this image, Sutherland continued to mine its artistic possibilities and produced a number of crucifixions, experimenting with different forms.
Three other crucifixions, including the one in the Tate
Around this time he also did a Christ carrying the cross, a descent from the cross and a pieta.
Descent from the Cross (Now in the Fitzwilliam Museum)
Pieta( Now in the Methodist Collection)
Portrait of Winston Churchill
Before coming to his most famous work in Coventry, I just note that Sutherland became increasingly successful as a portrait painter, and he himself famous, a fame which was magnified by a row he had with the Tate Gallery, his association with well known people and in due course the fact that Sir William Churchill so disliked the portrait that Sutherland did of him that Lady Churchill destroyed it.
Coventry Cathedral-long view of tapestry
As mentioned earlier, it is often said that Coventry is the last of the Medieval Cathedrals. For at that time the churches were coming to a new understanding of the Eucharist as a gathering of the Christian community, rather than the sole act of a priest celebrating the holy mysteries at a distance East end. The Roman Catholic Cathedral in Liverpool, which is in the round , “Paddy’s wigwam” is a fine example of this new understanding of the liturgy. But in accord with the old style, Sutherland was asked to design a giant tapestry behind the altar on the East Wall, one which focussed on the majesty of Christ as seen by the Book of Revelation, with the four beasts of the apocalypse at the corners and a small Christ crucified below.
It was a major enterprise and involved, on and off, 10 years testing work. Sutherland had been looking at a great deal of religious art in the previous years. He was impressed amongst other things by the wonderful apse mosaic in Torcello on the Venetian lagoon, the Pantocrators in Greek churches and the sculpture of the great French cathedrals. He wanted to convey something of the majesty and otherness of these works, but also something which expressed the power and mystery of nature. The Cathedral was finally finished and the tapestry unveiled in 1962. At the bottom of the tapestry is a fine Crucifixion.In each of the corners there is a symbol of the four evangelists taken from the description of the beasts of the apocalypse in the Book of Revelation. The Lionfor St Mark, and The Oxfor St Matthew.
Crucifix, St Aidan, East Action, and head
There are two other religious paintings of Sutherland which are worth considering. The first is a crucifix in St Aidan’s in East Acton, done at the invitation of the parish priest, his only commission for a Roman Catholic church This is probably the finest of his depictions on this theme. He got down to this in a single burst of activity at the beginning of 1963 but went back to make the colour bolder, having lunch every day with the parish priest who sometimes saw Graham praying in the church.
Noli me Tangere
The final work is a Noli me Tangere commissioned by Walter Hussey, by then the Dean of Chichester Cathedral. It occasioned a certain amount of hostility, including a vandal, as well as praise.
The severity of the squares and sharp, concrete diagonals of the stairs serve to accentuate the bends and folds of the two figures. Indeed so bent is Christ that he is almost hunchback. Similarly Mary Magdalene is so folded over, she looks physically uncomfortable. But the rounded shoulders of Christ and the rounded bottom and breasts of Mary, together with the gentle curves of Christ’s knee and Mary’s neck emphasise the warm and human, in contrast to the impersonal and angular of the architecture. Here is a human meeting. There is a tenderness and intimacy here. Christ looks gently down and reaches out to Mary who is looking up to him with pleading eyes. But all this is set, as it were staged, on an outside staircase on which Christ is ascending. The meaning of the story in John is that Mary is not to cling to Christ in his present, physical form. His promise that he will be with his followers forever, is to be fulfilled in a spiritual manner. When he has ascended, then he will be close to them in an abiding, spiritual way.
This scene, in a brilliant manner, depicts a moment which is at once one of intimacy and withdrawal. Mary reaches out in a desperate longing to touch and grasp the risen Christ. Jesus bends over, towards us, looking down and reaching out with a look and gesture of intimate meeting. Yet this moment is at the same time one of withdrawal, for Christ is ascending the steps. His elongated body and leg, with foot dragging on the ground at the bottom of the stairs, his arms along the banister, finger pointing heavenwards, indicate a movement towards the heavenly. Yet his heaven is not just “up there”. The azure sky can also be seen, as it were through the building. The ochre of the (building) and the blue sky (heaven) are not simply set one against the other. “We can look through earth to see heaven in our midst”, as well as up. Christ, set against the sky behind the building could just as much merge into and emerge from that as shoot into the heavens. Indeed, the palms behind him are almost rays of light. And the whole scene is bathed in the bright sunlight of eternity. Christ in his old gardener’s hat has come amongst us as a human being and a little keyhole at the bottom left of the picture could indicate a sign through him into God. Christ meets Mary in moment of intimate recognition. But this intimacy is at the same time his moment of withdrawal into heaven, behind, beyond and within all things. He disappears into that background in order that he might be in our foreground in a new way: a spiritual presence in our hearts and minds.
Before looking at our next major artists of the period Henry Moore and John Piper I want to point to an intimation of this Post War recovery of confidence in religious art as revealed in a shift of artistic consciousness in the 1930’s. I also want to draw attention to two key figures in the patronage of art in churches, George Bell and Walter Hussey. In the 1930s there was a change of mood and style amongst a group of artists and others, forming what Alexandra Harris termed a group of “Romantic Moderns”. This affected every area of creative human endeavour, including religion. In religion it first took the form of a revival of religious drama under the patronage of George Bell, then Dean of Canterbury and later Bishop of Chichester. Most famously it drew in T.S. Eliot, who wrote “Murder in the Cathedral” for performance in Canterbury. This bringing together of religion and the arts, in particular Anglo-Catholicism and the arts flowered after the war in literature, being associated not only with Eliot but with people like Rose Macaulay and Dorothy Sayers and also found expression, as we are exploring, in the commissioning of works of art by leading artists for churches. As Alexandra Harris puts it, referring to the post war revival, “The beginnings of all this, however, were in that particular turn to the local that marked English Art in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s”. It was one which, as she rightly remarks, is above all expressed in Eliot’s “Four Quartets”.
Henry Moore, 1898-1906
Madonna and Child, St Matthews, Northampton, 1943-4
Mother and child, St Paul’s Cathedral
Altar, St Stephen’s, Walbrook
The first expression of this mood was the commissioning by Walter Hussey of Henry Moore to carve a Madonna and child for his church of St Matthews, Northampton, for which he also commissioned music by Benjamin Britten. At first Moore was uneasy about doing this, as he felt the great tradition of religious art had got lost but he felt his way back into it to great critical acclaim “I have tried to give a sense of complete easiness and repose as though the Madonna could stay in that position for ever (as being in stone she will have to do.)”  I am not going to deal extensively with Moore, as he falls outside the main focus of the theme of my lectures, which is religious iconography. However he did produce one more work for a church, the Altar of St Stephen’s, Walbrook, the church of Chad Varah, the founder of the Samaritans. It caused a huge outcry at the time, and a rare decision had to be made by the highest ecclesiastical court in the land, the Court of Ecclesiastical Causes Reserved to allow it. However, Moore is important for another reason, which we note in passing. The main body of his work, though not drawing on any obvious religious symbolism is both widely appreciated, and seems to have an innate spiritual quality. This is not unrelated to a remark by Moore himself
Artists, in a way, are religious anyway. They have to be; if by religion one means believing that life has some significance, and some meaning, which is what I think it has. An artist could not work without believing that.
That remark could I think be equally true of a number of contemporary artists who may or may not have any orthodox religious faith, but whose work seems, in different ways, to have profound spiritual significance such a Mark Wallender, Anthony Gormley, Bill Viola, and Anselm Kieffer.
Walter Hussy not only commissioned Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland when he was a Vicar in Northampton, when he became Dean of Chichester, he commissioned Sutherland again, Chagall and Cecil Collins which I mentioned in previous lectures, and John Piper.
John Piper, 1903-1989
String Solo, 1934
Seaton Delavel, 1941
Hautbois Church, 1960’s
In the mid 1930’s John Piper was one of the leading British modernists. He was elected to the exclusive “7 and 5”-seven painters and five sculptors, whose criterion for admission and continued membership was abstract, severely abstract and only abstract art. Yet as the thirties progressed he moved gradually and then definitely away from this international modernism, and his post war reputation rested on very different kinds of work and a different style. He was not alone in this. As mentioned, Alexandra Harris showed in her book Romantic Moderns, he was one of a group that rediscovered a native tradition and a native style. This, as she shows, covered not only the high arts, but garden design, cooking and other activities. There are of course explanations for this change of mood which affected a whole generation, but my concern is with John Piper’s personal switch. What is clear in his case is that certain experiences and interests that went into him very early and very deep emerged to shape his whole post-modernist oevre. It was, as has been said, one of the most remarkable trajectories of an artist in the 20th century.
Piper was born and brought up in Epsom and (like Graham Sutherland) went to Epsom College. He early wanted to be an artist, but his father wanted him to qualify first as a solicitor. He did his best to resist this but when his elder brother Charles, who was going into his father’s firm, was killed in the war, John felt he had no alternative but to conform. However, when his father died five years later, he felt released from this obligation and went first to Richmond School of Art and then the Royal College. The key influences however, had already entered his psyche. First, a love of places in all their particularity, and with this, a love of guidebooks about them. On his tenth birthday he was given a guide book to the county of Kent and his earliest drawings are copies of the vignettes in this guide. He cycled around the countryside with his father, developing an interest in both architecture and archaeology. At 16 he wrote his first article for the Architectural Journal and at 17 became the secretary of the Wiltshire Archaeological Society. At the age of 10 he went to France, which not only sparked an interest in French painting but was when he had his first visit to Notre Dame. As he said, “I still remember a thrilling shock at the first sight of the stained glass.”  Later in life he was to say that it was through copying a small 13th century piece of glass that he learned more about colour that he had learned before or since
Another early influence was William Blake, not least his saying “Shall painting be confined to the sordid drudgery of facsimile representation of merely mortal and perishing substances and not be, as poetry and music are, elevated to its own proper sphere of invention and visionary conception." Also influential were the paintings of Rouen Cathedral by Monet and the stage designs of the Ballet Russes. After a very short lived marriage to a fellow art student John and Myfanwy fell in love, married and lived the rest of their lives at Fawley Bottom Farmhouse in the heart of the beautiful Chilterns near Henley. Myfanwy was a significant figure in her own right, as well as a big support for and influence on John. It is right that Frances Spalding’s book should treat them together. An Oxford graduate, Myfanwy edited the pioneering modernist magazine Axis, wrote Libretto’s for Benjamin Brittain operas, was a highly perceptive critic and reviewer, and kept a wonderful house, always full of interesting visitors for whom she cooked innovative and beautiful food. Their life was full and ebullient, and all the while John’s work took many forms, from popular designs, to major opera sets.
Slopes of Glyder Fawr, North Wales
The Round Tower from the roof of St George’s Chapel, 1941-4
Coventry Cathedral, 1941
Then, at the height of his fame as a modernist, John Piper in the late thirties started to head elsewhere. Partly it was because he felt that severely abstract art had nowhere else to go, that this particular seam had been exhausted, or was undernourished, to use his phrase, but above all it was the emergence of his early most fundamental experience, his love of the distinctiveness of a particular place. He began to be excited by painters like Cotman, Samuel Palmer and Turner. At this time he also began photographing Romanesque carvings, and was drawn to paint the sea and mountains, especially the mountains of North Wales, which remained hugely important to him for the rest of his life. He was commissioned to do paintings of famous country houses and also a series of views of Windsor Castle. These he continued to produce with his characteristic dark skies, despite being urged to lighten them a bit for the Queen. When the Queen saw them she made some appreciative comments but King George VI looked at them in silence for some time before remarking “You seem to have had very bad luck with your weather, Mr Piper”. Although John Piper made a radical change of direction in his artistic style, it is important to stress that he was not a representational artist. A remark of Blake which meant much to him has already been quoted. He also much admired a remark of Pissarro to his son “I am more than ever for the impression through memory, it renders less the object-vulgarity disappears, leaving only the undulations of the truth that was glimpsed, felt. As Frances Spalding puts it “Because his work is culturally conceived and carefully observed, we find him searching for the new while fully conscious of the tradition.” During World War II Piper, like Moore and Spencer became a war artist, focusing particularly on bombed buildings. It was at this time that he drewthe bombed Coventry Cathedral, a scene which became iconic.
Oundle School Chapel Windows, 1954
The Way, The Truth, The Light
The True Vine, The Living Bread, The Water of Life
Judge, Teacher, Shepherd
During the war, as already mentioned, the perceptive Vicar of St Matthew’s Northampton commissioned work from both Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland for his church. This led in due course to Piper being commissioned on the recommendation and prompting of John Betjeman, to design some new stained glass windows for the chapel of Oundle School. Taking the theme of the great New Testament images of Jesus as the Vine, the Bread of Life, the Judge and so on, he produced windows of strong colour and line which clearly owed much to the 13th century windows he so much admired, as well as the elongated figures of Romanesque and early Gothic sculpture. The windows were judged a great success, and this set the scene for a final triumphant phase of Piper’s career. Working with Patrick Reyntiens, who often made important contributions to the work, he then produced windows for Eton and numerous other churches. John Betjeman, a good friend, was a very devout Anglo Catholic. He wrote to John and Myfanwy to say “Will you both seriously consider joining the C. of E.” They did and in 1940 were confirmed by the Bishop of Oxford. John remained in the Church of England, though becoming disillusioned somewhat after the ordination of women and changes in the language of the liturgy. After the war Piper played a key role not only in designing windows for churches, but saving churches from inappropriate alteration or conservation. In 1950 he became a member of the Diocesan Advisory Committee of the Diocese of Oxford, with its 500 or more churches, two thirds of them listed, which is charged with the responsibility for innumerable design issues, minor and major. He remained a member for 38 years. He was not a conservative in the usual sense, anxious to preserve all that was old. He recognised that churches are there first for the use of a worshipping congregation, and this meant he shared the familiar tensions that this sets up with preserving the best of what is already in place.
He took a major interest in all aspects of the church and the arts, both writing on the subject and being consulted for advice. It was a time of liturgical renewal, with a recovery of the more holistic view of the Eucharist as celebrated by the early church. There were interesting developments on the continent inspired by Father Coutourier. Nationally 283 churches had been lost during the war, though due to shortages of material only 41 Anglican churches were consecrated in the period 1945-56. Nevertheless there was more than enough work to keep Piper fully occupied. The highly influential Kenneth Clark, who had been an opponent of Piper in his abstract phase now became an enthusiastic supporter.
Baptistery Window, Coventry Cathedral
Of Piper’s post war work the best known is the Baptistery Window in Coventry Cathedral. A major piece of work, 85 feet by 65 feet, it took five years to produce. Moving away from the idea of a detailed iconography, the great burst of life surrounded by vibrant colours it was then, and is now, regarded as a success.
The Lantern of Liverpool’s Roman Catholic Cathedral
Another major work was the lantern in Liverpool’s Roman Catholic Cathedral, “Paddy’s wigwam”. Built in the round, with the altar in the centre, in accord with the recovered understanding of the Eucharist as an act involving the whole congregation, the light from the lantern above the altar is again regarded as a success.
The Altar Tapestry, Chichester Cathedral, 1964-6
Piper’s work was not confined to stained glass. Walter Hussey, who had become Dean of Chichester and who had commissioned glass by Chagall and a painting by Sutherland, commissioned Piper to do a large tapestry for the altar. Following the advice of a clergyman friend whom he much respected this is a symbolic rendering of the Holy Trinity. He designed vestments for Chichester as he had done for Coventry. He also designed the tiny but exquisite chapel for Nuffield College, Oxford, a graduate college associated with the social sciences.
Christ in Glory for East Window of Chapel of The Hospital of John the Baptist without Upper Barres, Lichfield, 1984
The Light of the World, Robinson College, Cambridge, 1978-80
The Road to Emmaus, Mosaic in St Paul’s, Harlow, 1959
Benjamin Britten Memorial Windows, Aldeburgh, The return of the Prodigal and the Burning Fiery Furnace
Christmas Carol, Iffley.
Piper continued to receive commissions for stained glass windows and other church work. For example, in a hospital, college chapels and a mosaic in a church. There are the fine memorial windows to Benjamin Britten in Aldeburgh. There are a number of windows in the churches of Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire, the area covered by the Diocese of Oxford, my favourite being the one in St Mary’s Iffley, based on a Christmas carol and a mediaeval mural about which Myfanwy had written.
The theme of these lectures is how modern artists have responded to the challenge of Christian iconography whilst retaining their artistic integrity. In this respect John Piper, through a combination of his early of enthusiasm for the particularity of places, his period as an abstract expressionist and the changing circumstances and mood of the time he lived through, was able to produce work that resonated with what people wanted after the Second World War . First, it is important to remember that despite the radical shift in his art in the mid thirties, he remained a modern artist and his abstract modernism remained a fundamental to him. His paintings of buildings and landscapes are fundamentally different from those of earlier centuries, reflecting not just his love of them, and his sense of their history and prehistory being carried over into the present, but with a modern feel for configuration and colour. Above all of course, we can see how in his work in stained glass, his love of colour and his use of abstract or semi-abstract forms, which owes something to the 13th century which he loved, come together with his modernism. In this work his modernism came into its own in a way which was both entirely natural to the medium and which made it accessible to the public.
Ceri Richards, 1903-71
Sacrament Chapel of Liverpool Roman Catholic Cathedral
Ceri Richards was born in a village near Swansea, into a highly cultured working class home. His father ran one of the finest male voice choirs in Wales, and all the family were taught musical instruments. His father, a devout chapel goer wrote poetry in both Welsh and English. There was no tradition of the visual arts in this puritan home, but when Ceri showed an interest and aptitude his parents were thoroughly supportive. Ceri had began work as an apprentice electrician but also took art classes won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art in 1924. Inspired by modernism on the continent he was particularly influence by the later Matisse who, as has been written “opened a door for him into a room of his own.” His work very much belongs to that period of later modernism, but reflecting always Ceri’s intense interest in Music and an interaction with the poems of Dylan Thomas and Vernon Watkins. His work appears in the Tate and other major collections. His major work in a church is in Sacrament Chapel of Liverpool’s Roman Catholic Cathedral.
The Supper at Emmaus
The story of the appearance of the risen Christ to two disciples falls into two parts. There is first the actual journey on the Road to Emmaus, when Christ expounded the Hebrew Scriptures to them. The second part of the story concerns the actual Supper, particularly the moment when the two disciples recognise the stranger to be Christ. At the time of the counter-Reformation when the Eucharist became subject to renewed attention, this scene became particularly popular amongst Christian artists. A famous example is the painting by Caravaggio. This modern rendering by Ceri Richards, is no less striking. Commissioned by the Junior Common Room of St Edmund College, Oxford, as part of a competition amongst major artists of the time, it was put in the Chapel to celebrate the transition of the Hall to a recognised college of the University. It was well received at the time, receiving good reviews in both the Sunday Times and the Observer and it continues to arouse appreciation.
Luke records that “Their eyes were opened and they recognised him; and he vanished out of their sight”. This moment of recognition was most dramatically caught by Caravaggio in his great shaft of light across the picture and the startled faces of the disciples. In Ceri Richards’s portrayal, Christ is seated against a great yellow cross of light which at once outlines him and allows him to melt into it. In the Sacrament Chapel in the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Liverpool both in the painting behind the altar and in the glass, yellow light plays a crucial role. In this painting again, the light is crucial. Here it is not shining on Christ but behind him forming the background out of which he emerges; the light of eternity in which he is momentarily figured as a human face and form.
The two disciples react to the revelation of Christ in different ways. One rises awkwardly, pushing the chair aside. The other, seated at the side of the table is “disturbed but uncomprehending; his clasped hands are pressed to his mouth in the gesture of a slow man gaining time to readjust his mind.” It is a powerful icon in which the sudden apprehension of one disciple and the delayed recognition of the other are juxtaposed.
The most unusual feature of the painting, however, is the large hands and feet of both the disciples and Christ himself. Narrowed wrists and ankles make them unusually prominent. The moment of recognition of the risen Christ is also the moment of realisation that Christ’s work continues through human hands and feet. The hand that raised to bless and teach is a hand that will henceforth work through those large, ungainly yet beautiful extremities of flesh and blood. As has been written, “It is the imaginative, centrifugal movement of the hands and feet that serves to interrelate the figures and gives them a buoyancy half suggestive of resurrection”. Christ in his risen body gives them the blessed bread, his body broken for humanity, that they might become his risen body in the world.
©Lord Harries, Gresham College 2011
His approach to landscape was very different from that of John Piper, see Alexandra Harris, Romantic Moderns, Thamesand Hudson, 2010, p224-4
The quotations in this and the next paragraph are from Sutherland’s own notes on his painting of the crucifixion in the Tate Gallery.
Letter to Roger Berthoud, quoted in his biography, Graham Sutherland: a Biography, Faber, 1982
For a good note on one of these see The Evill/Frost Collection, Sotheby’s, 2011,p.44
This description appeared first in Richard Harries, The Passion in Art, Ashgate, 2004, p.124
Alexandra Harris, Romantic Moderns, Thamesand Hudson, 2010, p.201
Henry Moore, Writings and Conversations, ed. Alan Wilkinson, Berekelely: Universityof California Press, 2002, p.267-69
Quoted in Frances Spalding John Piper and Myfannwy Piper, OUP, 2009,.p.14
J R Hale, quoted by J N D Kelly in The St Edmund Hall Magazine, 1958-9