My chapel team was in charge of morning worship this morning, and we did something a little experimental. We projected a painting associated with the reading of Ezekiel 37, the painting Resurrection of the Soldiers
by the English artist Stanley Spencer (1891 - 1959). The work presently covers the entire wall behind the altar of the Sandham Memorial Chapel, Oratory of All Souls Church, in Burghclere, UK. Here is the full image (click to enlarge):
I would be interested in hearing any theological reflections that you might have on the painting (you can post a comment below). Spencer spent the entire First World War as a private soldier. His painting depicts actual soldiers who served in the same war that he did. I overheard some talk after the chapel service relating the soldiering in the painting to the current fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan (and also to those loved ones who had died in previous wars). Spencer's image may give hope in the midst of the death and suffering of our wars and the loss of lives that they entail.
The image of a battle-field is appropriate to Ezekiel 37. Before God explains to the prophet what the scene he is viewing really stands for, Ezekiel automatically assumes (wrongly) that he is walking around an ancient field of battle, with soldiers' bones lying on the field. [The prophet does not at first know that the vision is a "symbolic" resurrection. For most of the chapter, he has in mind a real physical resurrection of the dead!]
My colleague Peggy Parker graciously gave me some notes on this painting. One of the things she noted to me is the high level of particularity in Spencer's depictions of the Resurrection. This painting depicts Spencer's own day and the people he himself knew. As Peggy says, "All this is concrete and specific, in contrast with so many other Resurrection images in which the dead are unclothed and unidentified: everyman and everywoman. Spencer’s specificity shocks us into the recognition that the Resurrection will come among real people in a real time."
Here is a detail image from the painting, showing Christ receiving the crosses of the soldiers as they hand them over to him:
In Ezekiel 37, God operates powerfully in the positive mode of deliverer. The judgment of Jerusalem's destruction is over, and it has sunk the exiles into despair. God acts with creation energy and authority to bring Life, to bring God's Yes, to God's people. In Spencer's painting also, Christ sits in a welcoming stance to receive the soldier's crosses, which they bring to him from the sites marking their graves. There is little or no sense that Christ is in a mode of judgment here. What the folks in this painting need is God's "Yes," God's "Life." Someone else put the crosses on their graves. They did not themselves perform any atoning work on these crosses, although they may have laid down their lives in battle for their comrades. No, the crosses link them all in gratitude to Christ, and link them all together in filial love (some of the soldiers clasp hands with their comrades).