Roger Wagner: Menorah
Roger Wagner: Menorah, 1993, oil on canvas, 157.4 x 195.9 cm; Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, on permanent loan to St Giles’ Church, Oxford. © Roger Wagner
Roger Wagner is unusual among contemporary Christian painters in tackling biblical stories head-on. Like early Italian artists such as Giotto and Duccio he transposes them into modern-day settings. In one image Jesus and Peter walk on the water with city docks and high-rise buildings in the background. In another, Abraham entertains the angels in a landscape dominated by a cement works. In Menorah Wagner has set the crucifixion against the backdrop of the Didcot power station, an unmissable feature of the landscape near Oxford, where the painter lives.
The painting does not dwell on the sufferings of Christ. Instead it invites us to reflect on the meaning and purpose of the crucifixion. It is a beautiful, rich, properly ambiguous and thought-provoking image.
In the foreground forlorn individuals and small groups seem aimlessly stranded in the sodden fields. Some huddle together; others are isolated in apparent despair. They remind us of the images of concentration camp survivors at the end of the Second World War, too weakened to fend for themselves. However, the artist has drawn these specific figures from a related, but different photographic source – figures in the Crimea in 1942 searching for loved ones among bodies strewn across the ground. Thus the painting bravely conflates Jewish and Gentile suffering.
In the background the power station stands in for the Menorah, the seven-branched lamp of the Old Testament, which symbolised the presence of God. With power stations, as with so many things, beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. Didcot was once voted the third ugliest construction in Britain by readers of Country Life magazine. The smoke speaks of the pollution and corruption of the industrial age that power stations make possible.
But to others the sight is awe-inspiring and overwhelming. That was, apparently, the artist’s first reaction to this sight and it appears to be the primary intended metaphor. And yet, with the foreground figures evoking memories of concentration camps, the towers also remind one of their terrible ovens, and the hideous crimes of human beings against one another.
Here is the confrontation that haunts so many minds: in the foreground the misery of broken humanity, suffering beyond belief or reason. In the background the power of God, awe-inspiring and yet apparently impassive and uninvolved. ‘Why,’ we so often ask, ‘does God not intervene? Doesn’t he care?’
Wagner does not preach, but he offers us the answer that Scripture gives: between the Menorah and the misery of the human condition stands the cross of Jesus. Here are in fact two images of the power of God, so radically different in their manifestations: the awesome power of God who creates and sustains the universe and the equally awesome power of God who conquers sin and death through humility, weakness and self-sacrifice on the cross.
Sin has made an inextricable mess of the world. Evil is piled on evil. We are all sinners and sinned-against. Are those figures in front of the cross pointing to Jesus in hope or jeering at him? Above all, God himself is always the most offended party. The crucifixion is the culmination of God’s brilliant plan of salvation, by which God himself, against whom all the rebellion of sin is ultimately directed, cuts through the mess of sin by taking on himself the weight and consequences of evil.
We often struggle to articulate quite how the cross ‘works’, but we understand full well that God is anything but impassive and uninvolved. He has sacrificed his own Son to do for us what we were powerless to do: to roll back the frontiers of Satan’s kingdom, to overcome evil, to liberate captives and ultimately, to make all things new again.
The dark sky and muted colours, quite characteristic of Wagner’s work, create an enclosed, oppressive atmosphere. But the atmosphere also enhances the unnatural clarity of the depiction and reminds us that there is a deeper meaning at hand. Despite the darkness of the sky and the foreground figures, a powerful clear light from the right brings hope to the scene.
I have wondered from time to time why Wagner has chosen to put the fields under water, especially on the right-hand side of the picture. I have no certain answer, but it reminds me of a similar device in Piero della Francesca’s Baptism of Christ in London’s National Gallery, where the reflection of the sky in the river seems to represent ‘heaven on earth’. When Jesus was baptised, it symbolised his identification with mankind – God and man together. In Menorah it also reminds us that God is present with us: Jesus reflects God’s glory in the midst of our broken and suffering world and gives us hope.
[First published by ArtWay, 23 March 2014. To subscribe to the weekly ArtWay visual meditations, or view other articles in the series, go to www.artway.eu.]