The Resurrection, Cookham, Stanley Spencer, 1924-7
This is a slightly unusual one for Easter Sunday as it is not specifically about the resurrection of Jesus at Easter. However I was inspired to use this one for a few reasons. It is a very well known one of Spencer's but in particular, it was one of the first of his that I ever came across.
While Spencer was greatly inspired by the everyday and his own village, the war was also another significant time of his life and greatly influenced many paintings. The war showed him a side of life he hadn't experienced before and he never regained the innocence he had prior to it and questions of life, death and resurrection continually reoccur in his work.
This scene is of the Cookham church and cemetery and features his friends and family from the village. It is a quiet but joyful scene, and one that would not be possible without the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday. Jesus is depicted right in the centre, seated in the entrance to the church with God the Father standing behind. Jesus is holding three small children - the one that is most visible could be slightly elongated (as though they were a small adult) which is often how a baby Jesus is depicted traditionally with Mary. While I may have missed it, the Holy Spirit doesn't appear to be depicted as visibly as Jesus and the Father. However I do still see symoblisations of the Spirit in the Trinity.
The first is in that Jesus is holding three children. Father, Son and Spirit are sometimes shown as three identical or near identical persons in art. Secondly, above Jesus to the right are three decorative eves, each with three points. Finally, the roof over Jesus and the Father is covered by what I believe to be white roses. White roses are traditionally the symbol of purity, so to encase the Trinity in them would be significant.
While looking at flowers we can also see some daisy's to the right of centre and lilies a bit below them. Lilies and daisies have both been used to depict purity, which is again, very appropriate.
The naked man in the centre is I believe, Spencer himself, and his fiancée lies in the bed of ivy near him. Ivy has been symbolically identified with fidelity and eternal life, as it is always green. The way the ivy clings to and climbs around the structures it covers have also meant it has been used to symbolise attachment and undying affection. That Spencer is nude also seems significant - nudity can symbolically cause us to remember that we are born with nothing and die with nothing and so should pursue righteousness, faith, love, perseverance and gentleness (1 Tim 6: 7&11).
Contrastingly though, nudity has also been used to symbolise the absence of virtues, lust and vanity, not just purity and innocence. To combine all this may point towards a number of things. I think most assuredly Spencer is symbolising his love for his fiancée and their affection for each other, as well as the more general indication of love of God for us, us for God. To depict himself nude may symbolise his necessity to rely on God, OR his own experience and struggles with temptation. Given that this painting is about the resurrection, the first would appear to be more appropriate. But it may be that it is an indication that even with our struggles and temptations, we are not simply banished from the resurrection, rather that because of Good Friday and Easter Sunday and Jesus' sacrifice, we too can be a part of the resurrection to come. At Easter each year we can not only look back and remember what has been but also look forward towards the resurrection to come.
The beautiful book 'Journey into Christian Art' quotes Spencer as writing, 'No one is in a hurry in this painting...In this life we experience a kind of resurrection when we arrive at a state of awareness, a state of being in love, and at such times we like to do again what we have done many times in the past, because now we do it anew in heaven.
I hope you've enjoyed my short Easter series with Stanley Spencer. There is always more that can be found in art whether the artist initially intended it, or it is something that you bring to it. The only trick is to take the time to see it, to feel it, to find it.
What do you see? What do you feel?
The Lion companion to Christian Art by Michelle Brown