Painting the World: Scripture and the Environment in Art

Fleur Dorrell explores three modern paintings that each reveal a different facet of God’s relationship with the earth.

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By Fleur Dorrell

Right from the beginning of Genesis to the end of Revelation, we see that God holds his creation in an eternal embrace. Throughout the Bible, the dialogue of the created cries out at every corner – whether through mountains, prophets, the weather or animals. Yet while nature sings, only the wise seem to hear.

The God who speaks creation into being utters just one word: love. Out of this love, God wills the earth and all that dwells upon it into existence. This is perfect harmony between the maker and the made. Very quickly however, this equilibrium is disrupted by our sin and greed. So to celebrate ‘Creationtide’ this month, we have chosen three modern paintings that each reveal a different facet of God’s relationship with the earth.

Christ in the Wilderness or the Testing of Christ, The Scorpion. 1939.
Stanley Spencer (1891-1959).
State Art Collection, Western Australia.

I don’t know about you but holding a scorpion with bare hands looks pretty terrifying unless you know what you’re doing. British artist Stanley Spencer wanted to create 40 paintings for a Lent cycle with each painting representing the 40 days that Christ spent in the wilderness. Unfortunately, the “Christ in the Wilderness” series never came to fruition since only 18 drawings were made, and just eight paintings completed.

Spencer’s vision was to portray Jesus as a solitary figure but not in the traditional vein, and to focus on different aspects of the wilderness that we read about in the Synoptic gospels.  He was inspired by the following quotation for this grand project: “The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan.  He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him.”  Mark 1:12-13

Spencer included other gospel references to nature in his completed paintings such as hens, lilies and eagles, but with Mark’s account in particular, pared down to the minimum, Jesus is not just alone in the wilderness but the landscape is bleak too. There is very little information in which to imagine Jesus’ perspective on the planet during those 40 days, except through the eyes of Satan in Matthew 4:1-11. Spencer therefore, utilises this textual void for his own purposes. He gives us a Christ, who in spite of extensive fasting has not lost any weight, according to Matthew 4:2 since “He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.”  Here Jesus is not lean as in standard portrayals. What we see is a man with a paunch and chubby fingers delicately holding a scorpion, as if in prayer.

Typical of Spencer, Christ’s long white shift is like a sheet drying in the breeze, long enough to cover him yet still showing swollen ankles as he squats on the earth. Spencer often painted white robes on his figures for the churches where these scenes would hang, the white clothes becoming like clouds in a heavenly ceiling. For Spencer, heaven was where he lived in Cookham, Berkshire, which is generally the backdrop to much of his work.

If we thought handling one scorpion was challenging enough, look again and you will see another at the foot of Jesus (bottom left). “Behold, I give unto you the power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you.” Luke 10:19. Yet here, Jesus is calm, is silent. He does not look like he is about to kill these creatures because he lives in harmony with them. Spencer echoes this peace with a limited palette of muted browns, creams, whites, greys, greens and reds. By enabling the shape of Jesus to merge into the hills behind, this unity between Creator and created is compelling. Nothing diverts us from the scorpion’s path and Jesus’ gaze.

In writings from the Tate Archive, Spencer says: ‘In Christ, God beholds his creation, and this time has a mysterious occasion to associate himself with it. In this visitation, he contemplates the many familiar humble objects and places: the declivities, holes, pit-banks, boulders, rocks, hills, fields, ditches and so on. The thought of Christ considering all these seems to me to fulfil and consummate the life-wishes and meaning of all these things.’ [from Kenneth Pople Stanley Spencer p. 399].

Only in the Garden of Eden, and before the Fall, does man appear in union with the rest of the earth. From then on, the struggle begins. “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion?” Luke 11:11-12. It is hard to accept the years of bloodshed and destruction that ensue when we witness Jesus blessing the earth with such a sweet sliver of serenity.

In this Christ, there is no fear and trembling. In this Christ, we are made whole. This new Adam might not be how we imagine Jesus when we consider Renaissance ideals of divinity, but Spencer’s Saviour is a man we can relate to – we’ve seen this character before, he is one of us. Except, that he is not. The desert where our muddy Messiah dwells – is not just a place of escape: geographically and psychologically. A wild retreat for prayer and fasting. This new Adam might be sitting quietly among the rubble, but his suffering is about to begin. This is the journey from Genesis to Revelation. Our pilgrim carries a scorpion in the palm of his hand, not to kill but to redeem. Where, O death is your victory? Where, O death is your sting? (1 Corinthians 15:55).

The Prophet Fed by a Raven. 2007.
Clive Hicks-Jenkins.
Private Collection.

If all prophets looked like this, perhaps more people would listen to them. Clive Hicks-Jenkins is a contemporary Welsh artist who has painted this wonderful story of Elijah with a modern twist. Inspired by the encounter this great Old Testament prophet has with a raven in 1 Kings 17:4-6, Hicks-Jenkins painted two different versions of it.

You shall drink from the wadi, and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there.” So he went and did according to the word of the Lord; he went and lived by the Wadi Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. The ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning, and bread and meat in the evening; and he drank from the wadi.

Elijah’s magnificent bird beats online deliveries since his food comes straight from God. If you’re going to be a prophet, you need energy. As the story goes, after this raven, an angel takes over the catering in 1 Kings 19:5, so already the natural and the supernatural collide in God’s holy plan. This scarlet pimpernel occupies more than half the canvas as its blazing presence ignites Elijah’s desire to obey God’s words. Mesmerised by form and shape – this Cherith crow was made for show. It’s colossal and ribboned feathers are trimmed with tassels, and a tufted front. Any angel worth its salt will be waiting in the wings…

So far, this all sounds like a day trip to a bird hide, except that ravens are scavengers and the Jewish religion believed them to be extremely unclean. Why then, would God send these pesky polluters to babysit his top prophet? Knowing this, Elijah can’t have been impressed initially. Once again, God does the exact opposite of what his faithful followers understand about him. As if being hidden in a cold cave in the middle of absolutely nowhere with no real plan wasn’t tough enough, to rely on your takeaways from the very carrion you despise just takes the biscuit. No discussion, no extra snacks, two meals per day. God knows what we need even when we think we know better.

In the midst of this mystery, Hicks-Jenkins reminds us that while a prophet might not be welcome in any age his message speaks for all time. So Elijah’s jeans and mug of tea are a classic western trope. Moody in moonlight with his hunk of bread, the prophet has much to mull. The raven might not be as Welsh as the landscape or the beasts of its own myths, but its sapphire eyes and upturned beak comfort its guest as he takes a break. Just as we saw with our first painting, man and nature are working together, and in this way, they are both on the same footing. Neither has the upper hand when they collaborate with creation.

The Bible is full of stories that defy logic and in this prophetic episode, Elijah has to face, not just dependency on the elements for his survival, but on God for his direction. The fact that God will provide through some unusual means only heightens the story further. Usually we observe ravens as hefty black birds, with negative attributes symbolising impending or actual death. Just as the scorpion contradicts our standard notions of safety, this raven offers a considered critique on compassion and companionship. The prophetic perch reminds us that faith is fragile but if we fall, we can still be saved. Those metallic talons know how to catch!

God works with everything and nothing, so our offering can always become something. The earth is not just turning on its axis between night and day, it is tending to its inhabitants both friend and fowl. The cycle of creation is complete in its covenant of care. Hicks-Jenkins’ illustrated Elijah is not old and world-weary. Or gnarled of face with scraggy beard and weathered hands. He is young and muscular, smooth-shaven and pensive. By revising the stereotype, a prophet can appear in any guise and at any time. Sometimes, it is nature that heeds the call, long before humanity has recognised the divine embrace.

Come, Let us go up to the Mountain of the Lord (II).
Robert Wright
Private Collection.

Our final painting is by an Anglican priest, Robert Wright, who seeks to explore spirituality through the medium of abstract paintings. This mystical invitation between God and man takes us to new heights with its interpretation of Isaiah’s prophecy in Isaiah 2:3 –

‘Many peoples shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
    to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
    and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
    and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.’

This text is replicated almost exactly in Micah 4:1-5. Mountains are mentioned more than 500 times in the Bible. Their religious symbolism in both Christian and Jewish cultures points to their proximity to the divine since mountains are physically closer to the God who dwells in the heavens. Immediately, our artist reveals this horizon by not limiting his canvas to its boundaries. By extending the vision of what we can and cannot see, and directing our gaze beyond, Wright is able to show us that the mountain of the Lord is not just a topographical feature. It is where we meet God. The poet Robert Browning touches on this idea in his poem ‘Andrea del Sarto’ where he says:
Speak as they please, what does the mountain care?
Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp…

In the Scriptures, God often reveals himself on top of a mountain or high place. A panoramic viewpoint distinguishes divine perception from the scope of even a seasoned walker. Our capacity to see with our hearts is possible only through faith and grace. It is a tough climb and it will challenge us to the core. So this painting is our guide. Wherever you set out, the colours are your compass. Unlike the majority of representational art, we are permitted the freedom to find our own starting point. Are we travelling up the diagonals or coming round the curves? Do we want to swim inside the purple or lie in lilac seas, float on magenta shimmers or dive for yellow cover? Dare we enter into gold or will the burnt orange consume our feet? Can the blue withstand our vertigo or will the feisty greens resist? Wright illuminates our path but does not direct our way. He suggests: ‘The painting seeks to reflect on the demanding task of scaling the Lord’s high mountain, believing like the Johannine community “that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5), and hoping and trusting that we can catch glimpses of God on The Way.’

In the Old Testament, we read that the mountains of Sinai and Zion are most significant since Sinai is where Moses received the Ten Commandments. Mount Sinai becomes a symbol of God’s covenant with Israel. And later, in the south, Zion is made the location of the Jerusalem Temple. In Mark and Luke’s gospels, Jesus commissions the 12 disciples on a mountain while in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus proclaims the Beatitudes in his Sermon on the Mount. Matthew’s mostly Jewish audience would connect the comparison here between Moses and Jesus. Matthew describes six mountain scenes, with the Transfiguration in 17:1-13 being the most important since it is the moment when the disciples encounter God through Jesus. Jesus, in turn, is seen as the fulfillment of the law (from Moses) and the prophets (from Elijah).

Mountains are also metaphors for our inner and outer lives. The mountain of the Lord that we are studying here echoes not just the earthly terrain in the days of Isaiah, but of a future vision, a heavenly Jerusalem with a church of tomorrow. This mountain has still to be climbed – individually and collectively by all believers. Perhaps our artist is asking us to follow it by a different route and with a deeper gauge.

Thresholds are very common in Wright’s work, the liminal stands for all that is between us and the next room. Do we need courage or peace, strength or silence to place our trust in God? Contemplating our relationship with God is precisely what both Isaiah’s text and this painting require of us. They both begin gently, the invitation is without force – ‘come’ as you are and when you are ready. There may be angles to negotiate within this picture, but all of them are rotating in the round. ‘I am waiting for you’ says the Lord, to all who seek his face. ‘My covenant is this circle without end’, replies our Priest painter.

Fleur Dorrell is the national Co-ordinator for ‘The God who Speaks’ Campaign and Catholic Scripture Engagement Manager for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales and Bible Society.