March 2017 – English Spirituality (from the “Called to be” website)

Ash Wednesday – 1 March; Christ in the Wilderness (Stanley Spencer)

Stanley Spencer (1891 – 1959) was an English painter especially known for his paintings of biblical scenes set in the Berkshire village of Cookham, where he lived. The Wikipedia entry for him describes his Christian faith, as illustrated by his art,  as “fervent if unconventional”, which some might consider an understatement.  Here are two of his paintings of Christ in the Wilderness. Spencer originally planned forty images, one for each day of Lent, but in the end he painted only eight.

This first painting refers to Mark 1:12 – “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness”. Are you shocked by the depiction of Christ, so different from the iconography with which we might usually pray? Is he too fat, too coarse-looking, too ordinary, too human? But as the writer to the Hebrews says, “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” If we are unwilling to contemplate the sheer earthiness of the Word made flesh, Christ’s forty days in the wilderness will have little meaning for us, and offer us little comfort.

Here again is Christ in the wilderness, this time holding a scorpion. The reference is Luke 10:19 – “See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you.” But here Christ is cradling the scorpion, not treading on it. The commentary provided by the Art Gallery of Western Australia, which acquired the paintings in 1983, says that “Spencer marvelled at the empathy between such dangerous creatures as the scorpion and the power of love.” Can we, this Lent, learn to love the dangerous parts of ourselves and place them in the Lord’s loving hands, instead of trying to suppress them?

Antonia Lynn

Images from


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