Sermon - 17th July 2011
Seeing Salvation: 5
The Resurrection, Cookham - by Stanley Spencer
Scripture - 1 Corinthians 15:1-28
The theme of today’s sermon is resurrection. I hope very much that you will enjoy reflecting on the painting we are looking at this afternoon. It is by Stanley Spencer and is entitled, ‘The Resurrection, Cookham’. It is an imaginative piece, firmly rooted in the faith of the artist and a real favourite of mine.
Before I talk a little about the painting, let’s hear again some words from Saint Paul which we have just listened to in our scripture reading from the First Letter to the Corinthians:
‘Now I should remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received.’
Straight away Paul makes it clear that he is going to be reminding us of something. Whenever we receive a reminder about anything we know that it must be something important. And what Paul is reminding us about is really important. It’s also ‘Good News’.
He goes on, ‘For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures’. Later on he adds, ‘in fact Christ has been raised from the dead’.
So, Paul is telling the people of Corinth, and us too, about the meaning of the Resurrection - the significance of the victory of Jesus over human sin and death itself.
Stanley Spencer’s painting, ‘The Resurrection, Cookham’, allows us to see, through the eyes of the artist, just how wonderfully the resurrection of Jesus impacts upon humanity.
Stanley Spencer was a British artist who lived most of his life in Cookham on the banks of the Thames in Berkshire. It is a lovely place and well worth a visit if you are in that part of the country.
The picture was painted between 1924 and 1927. His vision was formed by his early life in the village. There he spent a childhood and youth of tremendous happiness to the extent that it appeared to him that the village must be a kind of paradise and that everything in it had a mystical significance. This led him, in the early part of his career particularly, to paint a series of pictures in which he imagined biblical events taking place in his village. His feelings and the events of his own life were incorporated by the artist into paintings such as the one we are reflecting on today.
This picture is the largest and most detailed of these and marks the highpoint of this phase of his art.
The painting caused a sensation when shown in his one-man exhibition in London in 1927 and was bought immediately.
Let’s now look at the significance of this painting and celebrate, along with the artist, in the joy of the personal meaning of resurrection for each one of us. The setting for the painting is Cookham Churchyard with the River Thames in the background. Jesus, with children in his arms, appears enthroned in the church doorway in the centre of the painting, whilst God the Father leans over the back of the throne. Along the wall of the church is a row of prophets including Moses, with a dark beard, holding the tablets of the Ten Commandments. The rest of the churchyard is filled with people resurrecting from their tombs and graves. Spencer's conception embraces the whole of humanity, a special joy for us to see.
The painting is full of the ordinary and the extraordinary. To create an impression of the next world he used images of this world, especially the parish he was used to. The people are those Spencer knew and were painted as he knew them. Their behaviour is both familiar and extraordinary; some are even reading their epitaphs! The beauty of the painting is that it makes the resurrection relevant to people everywhere. It is wonderful, yet, at the same time, familiar.
Spencer wanted the painting to communicate peace and happiness. The lives and loves of the old world are renewed in the next. Spencer wanted to evoke a particular atmosphere of joy. Christ sits under beautiful roses and holds babes in his arms. The central place of God, including Jesus, in the painting is a way of showing that God is the source of the new life that is ours.
'The Resurrection, Cookham' was painted at a turning point in Spencer's life, as it was started about a year before his marriage in February 1925 to the painter, Hilda Carline. The central nude figure supporting himself on two gravestones is Spencer himself, as is the clothed figure lying on the brick tombs in the lower right corner. The kneeling nude figure is his new brother-in-law the painter Richard Carline. Hilda Carline appears at least three times: most notably, she is the half-hidden figure in the ivy covered tomb in the centre foreground, surrounded by a spiked fence. At the top left, risen souls are transported to Heaven in the pleasure steamers that then ploughed the Thames. It is such a happy way of illustrating the new and eternal life which is at the heart of our faith in the risen Jesus.
Stanley Spencer said that whenever he looked at this painting he experienced "spiritual exultation". I certainly hope that you have enjoyed this brief introduction to Spencer’s painting. It is filled with promise and the wonderful reminder that we are all held in God’s everlasting arms of love.
Link to image of painting here.