Rev. Bror Erickson
I was introduced to the work of Stanley Spencer in the late 90’s while visiting the Hirshhorn museum on a day off from my duties at Bowling AFB. They had on display that day many of his paintings, and the intense Christianity of them intrigued me. “Crucifixion” held my attention for the better part of an hour with its grotesque distortion of time and space in the death of God. At the time I remember contemplating the almost empty room, and wondering where all the detractors of “Piss Christ” were now that a national museum was exhibiting an artist with overt Christian sympathies. Here was a man who understood the meaning of the death and resurrection of God, and hence the meaning of life.
Stanley Spencer (1890 -1958) was an English painter who grew up in the town of Cookham in Berkshire, England. He was for the most part homeschooled until attending the Slade School of Art before enlisting in the military to fight in World War I. At first in the ambulance core, he would later see combat in Macedonia fighting against both German and Bulgarian forces. He is recorded to have said that he buried so many of his fellow friends and soldiers that he could not believe death was the end. After the war he found it a bit difficult to paint as he had before. Yet, “In 1922 Spencer had journeyed with the Carlines to Munich and Vienna, and his encounters there with the work of Northern masters such as Cranach and Breughel helped reconcile him to a less idealized reality.” (Source: tate.org.uk).
The Crucifixion caused almost as much controversy as the violence shown in the Breughelian faces adorning its canvas. It was not well received at the Aldenham School that had commissioned it, a school funded by the red capped brewers shown to be nailing Christ to the cross. Stanley helped matters even less by explaining the meaning of the painting to the students. “It is you govenors and you that are still nailing Christ to the Cross.” Echoing the words of Peter “you killed the author of life” (Acts 3:15). It is as true of each and every one of us as it was to the council before which Peter spoke. It is our sins that caused the death of God to be necessary, it is our sin that pound the nails home. And though the events of Christ death and resurrection belong to the historical record of time, they are eternal realities of an ever present and loving God who gave His life for you. Or as Stanley Spencer himself puts it:
“When I lived in Cookham I was disturbed by a feeling of everything being meaningless. Quite suddenly I became aware that everything was full of special meaning, and this made everything holy. The instinct of Moses to take his shoes off when he saw the burning bush was very similar to my feelings. I saw many burning bushes in Cookham. I observed the sacred quality in the most unexpected quarters.” (Source: gresham.ac.uk).