Sunday, February 15, 2015

Into the Wilderness

The gospel reading for Lent 1B comes from Mark's gospel (1:9-15). It is remarkably more succinct than other accounts of Jesus' wilderness experience. A mere six verses move us from Jesus' baptism with descending dove and voice from the heaven to forty days in the wilderness (with wild beasts and angels) to the arrest of John and Jesus' proclamation to Galilee of good news. Other gospels expand the details we associate with the forty days: temptations, stones and bread, the pinnacle of the temple, mountain heights. But not Mark's gospel. For Mark the forty days pass in a blink. The days are important - note that it is the Spirit who drives Jesus into the wilderness - but no details are included.

British artist Stanley Spencer sought to give some form to the forty days that Mark passed by in the blink of an eye. In the 1930s and 1940s Spencer set himself the project of creating forty paintings, one for each day Christ was in the wilderness. The series, called "Christ in the Wilderness", never came to full completion. Eighteen drawings were made and eight paintings completed. Each of the designs explores the solitary figure of Christ interacting with various elements of the wilderness - a hen, a scorpion, lilies, eagles. The painting titled "Driven by the spirit into the wilderness" was inspired by Mark 1:12.
"Driven by the spirit into the wilderness." 1942. Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth. http://www.artgallery.wa.gov.au/collections/documents/spencer_conv.pdf

In the painting Christ strides through a sparse landscape grasping tree trunks and branches as he pulls himself up a hill. Nothing overt in the paintings speaks of Christ's forty days in the wilderness, a choice that echoes Mark's lack of narrative detail. The figure of Jesus is not the slim figure commonly seen in paintings. The bulky figure and billowing garment are common to all the finished paintings in the series. Spencer envisioned the pictures hanging as a group on the ceiling of a church. In such a position Jesus' garments would be perceived as billowing clouds. Interesting that part of the earthy reality of a wilderness experience was designed to be perceived as something as ethereal as clouds.    

The series of paintings conflates various gospel texts with Jesus' forty days. Paintings are based on the "consider the lilies" passage as well as 'foxes have holes", "the power to tread on snakes and scorpions" and others. All of those sayings, of course, came after the forty days. And yet the forty days are a foundation for all the days of ministry that came after. Perhaps Spencer's paintings and their scriptural pairings may offer opportunities for our own study during the forty days of Lent.









The image at left is a Last Judgment (Giotto, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua). It helps link the themes of Lent with the Lent 1B Genesis reading about the covenant God made with Noah. See how it does that by clicking on the link to the Art&Faith Matters Facebook page below. 

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