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The Crucifixion

1946
H2.75m W2.62m (9'x8'7") (framed)
     
 
 

"O my people, what have I done unto thee; and wherein have I wearied thee?"

(Micah 6.3)

Having converted to Roman Catholicism in 1926, from the time of this painting until his death, Graham Sutherland (1903-1980) was deeply involved in religion. Also, from 1940 Sutherland was employed as an official artist in World War II, as part of the War Artists' Scheme. He worked on the Home Front, depicting mining, industry, and bomb damage. These two elements combined to produce this remarkable painting.

Many representations of the Crucifixion in recent centuries fail to convey

the true nature of the event to anyone not already familiar with the story. (Compare, for example, the painting with the figure in the top right-hand window above.) Many of the old German painters produced pictures of enormous power, but were at the same time obsessed with the physical details - of wounds, of blood and flesh.

Sutherland seeks to bring home the horrific reality of death by crucifixion by other means. He has sought to avoid a purely physical obsession and yet to bring home to his generation what the Crucifixion involves - notice the claw-like hands, the elevated ribcage, the deformed shins. This he has done by making the figure to some extent formal, and not naturalistic. There is an intrinsic nobility to Christís sacrifice which Sutherland exploits to convey what human sin has done, and continues to do, to distort Godís image in us, and his plan for the redemption of the world.

For Sutherland the Crucifixion is not just an historical event which took place two thousand years ago. It is also a present reality - the very constructional Cross suggests the present day. But for the greater part the background is simply of unspecified time and space.

A similar idea is suggested by the sharp contrast between the high relief of the figure and the flatness of the rest, reminiscent of the effect of a Greek or Russian icon. The figure is alone, without family or friends, like so many prisoners who die alone through intimidation, torture, through violence in political circumstances. The head is bowed, in death, perhaps, though blood still drains from his hands evoking the crimson of Isaiah, chapter 63. To either side are two pockets of blackness suggesting the two thieves who died beside Christ.

At the foot of the Cross, the suggestion of a brick wall emphasizes the background of civilization against which Christ is crucified. The little railing serves the double purpose of stressing the sacredness of the event and, at the same time, associating the spectator with what is going on.

Initially the picture is best seen from the centre of the nave, or from the north transept opposite. The scale of the picture, set within its cavernous space, powerfully draws the viewer in.

The design and colouring of the picture suggest, particularly on increasing acquaintance, something of the dignity and majesty of the event. This would hardly be a first impression on being confronted with Calvary, but would spring from closer insight and longer meditation. The colour of the background is most satisfying, and enables us to move away from the contorted agony of Christís body when it becomes too much for us. In the blue we find a sense of hope and a hint that there is something more, and that our own darknessess may be overcome.

In 2003 the painting was removed from church for the first time to Olympia, London, to be the focal point for the exhibition commemorating the centenary of the artistís birth. From there it was exhibited at Tate Modern for the duration of remedial works necessitating the closure of the church. During the process of removal it became apparent that the picture was too large to leave the building in one piece, as it were, and that the picture had been framed in church presumably without regard for it ever being taken out.

Graham Sutherlandís depiction of the Crucifixion of Christ was the gift of The Rev'd Walter Hussey, Vicar of St Matthewís between 1937 and 1955. It is painted on boards as canvas of sufficient quality was not available at the time.

Mass is sometimes celebrated under this painting on weekdays, and it is a focus for prayer and devotion during Passiontide and Holy Week in particular.
 

 

"It is only because I can see God entering the darkness of human suffering and evil in creation, recognizing it for what it really is, meeting it and conquering it, that I can accept a religious view of the world. Without the religious dimension, life would be senseless, and endurance of its cruelty pointless; yet without the cross it would be impossible to believe in God."

(Frances Young, The Myth of God Incarnate)

 
  A Proud Past, a Bright Future  
 

Learn about the history of
St Matthew's church and its line of Vicars.
 

 
  Madonna & Child  
 

Read about Henry Moore's Madonna and Child, one of our adored possessions.
 

 
  The Crucifixion  
 

Read about Graham Sutherland's depiction of the Crucifixion of Christ.
 

 
  St Matthew  
 

Discover more about Ian Rank-Broadley's bronze sculpture of St Matthew.
 

 
  Stations of the Cross  
 

Read about David Thomas' Stations of the Cross.
 

 
  The Risen Christ  
 

Learn about the prominent Risen Christ by local artist Malcolm Pollard.
 

 

 

St Matthew's Church

 

 

Read about John Piper's painting of St Matthew's Church.
 

 
  A Spiritual & Cultural Hub  
 

Discover how the church serves as a spiritual and cultural hub.

 
 
 
 

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