My latest Top Lot is this extraordinary painting I saw recently at York Art Gallery: Stanley Spencer’s ‘The Deposition and Rolling Away of the Stone’ (1956).
Spencer was a devout Christian and often used biblical scenes as the subject for his paintings. He believed God resided in all things and that the miraculous could be found in everyday objects and places. Many of his paintings are set in his home village of Cookham on the bank of the Thames – even if their subject matters were irrelevant to that particular location – and so often foster personal associations. What struck me most about ‘The Deposition’ was the way in which he creates ‘real’, characterful people out of a traditionally theological and idolised subject matter.
At once realistic, eccentric and filled with intense religious meaning, this piece is probably one of the most unusual depictions of the crucifixion I have ever seen. I couldn’t quite get my head around it. The subject is of course Christ, who is not dead – as commonly conveyed in church frescos or Renaissance paintings – but awake, alert and awaiting his fate. There is also a jarring absence of gore (his wounds have no blood) which builds on the unusual effect that Christ is alive… omnipresent.
Look on and the curiosity grows greater. The three men who are nailing Christ’s hands and feet are not the usual superficial props of the Renaissance scenes but are instead full of character. One, for example, is conscientiously checking under Christ’s foot that his positioning of the nail is correct, another seems to be working out how to best use his tool and the other is posed in such a way that really accentuates the force he is applying in order to complete the task at hand. Such conscientiousness is a strange distraction from the crucifixion itself, but again conveys these men as ‘real’ people… it’s as if the scene could be found at any time and place; not just the idolised scene in the bible.
Perhaps most arresting, however, are the red thongs Jesus and some of the other men are wearing. The colour signifies or foreshadows blood, danger and death – as one would expect from the crucifixion story – but the bizarre presence of this provocative underwear could suggest an unorthodox sexualisation of this most sacred of Christian scenes. Again, it transforms the subject and peripheral figures into some more human. John the Baptist, pictured on the left in a blue starry gown, is also believed to resemble the artist himself – again bringing in that element of personal realism and religious omnipresence.
While the top section of the painting has a claustrophobic feel, with figures dominating the length of space, the bottom part depicts a less chaotic atmosphere. The disciples are curled into tight balls in a physical display of their grief, almost reflecting the circular tomb, whilst two angels attend, foreseeing his redemption. By incorporating the more traditional aspects of the scene of the crucifixion with some quite unusual elements, Spencer introduces a very important and probably often overlooked aspect of Christian art: that of the omnipresence of Christ.