Stanley Spencer

Resurrection Finds Us

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Stanley Spencer, Resurrection, Tidying (1945)


Stanley Spencer’s church cemetery visitors find themselves surprised by being found! They experience being found through a resurrection encounter with those who have gone before.

The resurrection of Jesus is not usually something we go looking for. The risen Jesus comes and finds us. This is the pattern we see in so many of the stories of Jesus’s first resurrection appearances to his friends and followers. The disciples and others don’t go looking for him except at first, when they go to the tomb. And even then, they are seeking Jesus’ mortal remains rather than his risen presence. He comes and finds them, just as he finds us, often in the context of fellowship. And like them, we are always surprised.

We don’t find the resurrection just as we don’t find God. Neither God nor the risen Jesus are lost, even if we may be. And so, we are found by both, and then we find ourselves as persons who have been found. This is instructive, for it corresponds with our apprehension of and encounter with beauty, which we also misleadingly credit ourselves with ‘finding.’ Really, beauty finds us. For our perception and recognition of beauty depends not on a ‘power’ that we possess to pursue and attain it, but rather on our ability to receive and recognize what is, and what is given. The same is true in our apprehension of and encounter with the grace of the resurrection.

Motivated by our sense of need, we seek to find something or someone to fill the hole at the center of our lives. Though it is a challenge for many of us, being open to being found by the Risen Lord not only meets our need, but can fill us with great joy.

Alleluia. Christ is Risen!


Stanley Spencer’s, Resurrection, Tidying, is one of a large series of paintings based on the theme of Resurrection, which span the years of his mature work.

Beauty in Holy Week

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Stanley Spencer, The Crucifixion (1958)


During this Holy Week I find myself reflecting on the paradox at the heart of Jesus’ Crucifixion. In it we perceive a dramatic juxtaposition of serenity with antagonism, of beauty with its dark opposite, and of moral good with apparent evil.

We can see this in a remarkable parallel between two paintings that were completed some 500 years apart: Hieronymus Bosch’s (attributed), Christ Carrying the Cross (1510-35), shown below, and Stanley Spencer’s, Crucifixion (1958). Both portray the tranquil visage and peaceful heart of Jesus, even in the face of vicious hostility.

Like Bosch, Spencer helps us see what the beautiful One in our midst sometimes provokes. Especially when the shining light of his presence exposes the dark shadows within and around us. For his light sometimes prompts fierce anger and envy, as well as a callous indifference to cruelty and suffering. Things of which we are all capable. And we are likely to have much invested in denying that ugly truth. Strangely, when confronted face to face with a divinity that is the opposite of our perversity, we will either fight the light that we encounter, or surrender to it. The Passion narratives give us examples of those who resisted and even fought against the Light of the World. Especially against the disturbing possibility that Jesus might conquer their pervasive ungodliness.  And so, they sought to do away with his godliness.

An encounter with true beauty can be unsettling and troubling, especially if we have already settled for so much less. It may be our sensitivity to the same juxtaposition of opposites I have noted, and their apparent lack of resolve. We often hope for the triumph of good over evil, that beauty will overcome darkness, and serenity displace antagonism. But we cannot find it within ourselves to do more than hope. We cannot achieve the redemptive resolution for which we haltingly reach out with our feeble hands and hearts.

It is not an accident that the Christ figure in Stanley Spencer’s painting recedes visually in the foreground, while those who oppose and crucify him grab our interest. Spencer, after mastering traditional realism, adopted what he called a neo-primitive style. He was a gifted colorist, and highly proficient with composition. And so, as Spencer has rendered him, Jesus’ skin tone and color roughly match that of the wood of the cross, as well as the clothing of the man with the hammer swung over his head. Spencer’s rendering of the Lord’s skin tone and color also matches much of the sky and the ground below, including the tunic of Mary Magdalene, prostrate at the foot of the cross. This forms a compelling visual symbol of Jesus’ total identification with us, in his Incarnation and in his Crucifixion. It symbolizes his complete joining with us, and with our world of tearing hurts and suffering.

In fact —as we see in Spencer’s composition and coloring— it is precisely because Jesus blended in so well with everyday life, that those who opposed him could literally gain the upper hand, ultimately with hammers and nails. But this is the marvel of the incarnation of our God in Jesus, that the fullness of divinity could be so thoroughly joined to our fallen humanity. As the Gospels attest, this joining was so complete that many did not notice or have regard for his divinity. When we do notice his total identification with us, when we come face to face with the truth it represents, we have either one or the other of two reactions. We throw ourselves down in humility before him. Or, we seek to throw him down, to humble him before us.

Spencer at work on his Crucifixion