Thursday, April 12, 2007

An Image of Ezekiel 37 by Stanley Spencer

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):

Resurrection of the Soldiers [Ezek 37]

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:

detail of Spencer painting

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).



Blogger All Saints Episcopal Church said...

I heard this read today as part of the tributes to Kurt Vonnegut. It's a passage from Slaughterhouse Five, where Billy Pilgrim watches a WWII movie in reverse. It made me think of swords beaten into plowshares, and the images in this painting brought it back to mind.

"Billy looked at the clock on the gas stove. He had an hour to kill before the saucer came. He went into the living room, swinging the bottle like a dinner bell, turned on the television. He came slightly unstuck in time, saw the late movie backwards, then forwards again. It was a movie about American bombers in the Second World War and the gallant men who flew them. Seen backwards by Billy, the story went like this :

American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.

The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.

When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.

The American fliers turned in their uniforms, became high school kids. And Hitler turned into a baby, Billy Pilgrim supposed. That wasn't in the movie. Billy was extrapolating. Everybody turned into a baby, and all humanity, without exception, conspired biologically to produce two perfect people named Adam and Eve, he supposed."

Thu Apr 12, 08:53:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger Allen said...

What really struck me about this image, as we talked about in class today, was the way in which it seemed that the soldiers were taking their crosses and laying them on the figure of Jesus. These crosses, which had been laid upon them after they succumbed to death, which were the very symbols of that death; and they were giving them to Jesus.

Christ overturned their death, overturned their reason for bearing those crosses, and is now bearing them himself. That is a simple but powerful image in the midst of a rich and multi-layered painting.

Ezekiel is full of such moments: we find simple images in the middle of grotesque and overblown stories (which contain their own fair share of truth). I appreciate the opportunity to explore these images.

Thu Apr 12, 09:27:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger S and C said...

Wow! Amazing comments. ---S.

Fri Apr 13, 07:57:00 AM GMT-5  

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