Book review: Christ in the Wilderness

Christ in the Wilderness: Reflecting on the paintings by Stanley Spencer
Stephen Cottrell
SPCK, 2012
978 0 281 062089

Bishop Stephen presents us with five Stanley Spencer paintings taken from the Christ in the Wilderness series. There is a little more detail on Spencer, his life and faith within the introduction to help contextualise the pictures.

This is a book intended to be read slowly and contemplatively, absorbing the scriptures that Spencer used as the basis for his art and letting the images soak into our souls and minds. Bishop Stephen recommends his readers find stillness and quiet.

As ever, though, I was reading at breakneck speed in the middle of a busy commuter train and then a city coffee shop, feeling for the overall shape of the book. It’s possible I might meet this as a Lent course at some point too so I didn’t necessarily want to ‘do’ the book ahead of time. Nonetheless there were still a couple of times I was briefly granted insight and one or two ‘ah ha!’ moments. I imagine, therefore, that given due consideration and proper careful reading this series of reflections could be enormously powerful.

The text is based on a series of previous talks and each chapter functions as a self contained reflection. Paragraphs are short – allowing time for thought between ideas. I liked this – it even slowed me down – made it easy to stop and think about what had been said, or suggested. We consider the wilderness existence – with its space, its trials and its testing – how do we fit that sense of space into our lives? We are also cautioned to consider our relationship to our present moments – not to rush off looking for the next thing, or an external source of joy, but to live out who we are, being open to God and accepting of His love for us. These are not new or groundbreaking ideas but they are things I think we all benefit from being reminded about, and reflecting upon. Love, home, acceptance, welcome, vocation, suffering, salvation, humanity.

“We need to strive to dwell in the presence of God who is forever breaking into the ‘one after another’ chronology of all the separate moments that make up our lifetimes. In this we can be challenged to see and delight in God in every person and in every moment itself and all that it holds.” (p53)

This kind of art-based reflections, which sometimes feel as if they’re veering off into speculation about what either the artist or Christ himself was thinking or intending, can sometimes frustrate me. I am ridiculously practical – and sometimes find this kind of analysis intrusive – I’m wondering how the writer can be so sure about their interpretation. But Stephen Cottrell is not overly analytic, knows his artist well, and does not attempt to tell me what to see without good evidence or reason. It sounds simplistic but it was reassuring where I found the words I’d hurriedly scribbled about the different paintings were those used in the text – my thoughts not a million miles away after all.

I will definitely return to this book during Lent 2013.

BBC iPlayer has a discussion on The Resurrection, Cookham

Stanley Spencer Gallery

Sandham Memorial Chapel

Tate biography

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