The Victory of Calvary or The Crucifixion by Duncan Grant

Images of the crucifixion portray the central redemptive act in the life of Christ. They also convey truths that are central to Christian faith. By submitting himself to this end Jesus embraces suffering and experiences the full impact of sin and evil. He faces death on our behalf in order to make eternal life available. Thus the main message of the crucifixion for Christians is that it shows the full extent of divine love towards humanity. Jesus speaks of this love towards the beginning of St John’s gospel. ‘For God so love the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.’ John 3:16. His sacrificial love has redemptive spiritual power and that the full extent of this power is realised in His death. Similarly Christians should also be prepared to emulate that self-sacrificial love themselves.

The crucifixion is understood in the context of the story of the final week of Jesus’ life. The previous day, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus had accepted, in great agony, that it was both necessary and that it was His Father’s will for him to die in this way. This means that Christians do not see Jesus on the cross in terms of a victim but as an act of willing self-sacrifice. The dead body of Jesus they looked on as His victory over death. Hence the chosen title for this painting is ‘The Victory of Calvary’ and is this positive perspective that Duncan has portrayed. He retains the elements which illustrate the biblical account of what happened and the political dimensions played by the different people in the crucifixion.

In Jesus’ day Jerusalem was under Roman occupation and, having been taken prisoner, Jesus was handed over to the roman governor Pilate for judgment. The soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head…and went up to him saying ‘Hail, king of the Jews.’ John 19:1-3. They mocked Jesus in this way because the accusation made against him by the Jews was that he had claimed to be king of the Jews and therefore a threat to the Caesar. Subsequently Pilate had a notice prepared and fastened to the cross. It read: ‘Jesus of Nazareth, the king of the Jews.’ John 19:19.

Jesus would have been naked on the cross. When the soldiers crucified Jesus they took his clothes, dividing them into four shares, one for each of them (John 19:23). The nudity of the victim was part of the ritual humiliation. The punishment was one of great physical suffering but also involved the cursing and shaming of the victim. In Duncan’s preparatory painting (See Photo Gallery) Jesus is shown naked but in response to criticism from the church, and in line with tradition, a cloth has been tied around his middle.

In Duncan’s painting Jesus’ feet rest on a ledge whereas the only support to the feet in an actual crucifixion was that provided by the single nail which would have pierced through both ankles. The nails to the hands would in fact have gone through just below the wrist to give greater support and the body would have hung down under its own weight.

As Jesus hung on the cross the Gospels record the words spoken by Him. Luke records Jesus praying for God to forgive the people who had crucified him; ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing’Luke 23:34, and in the painting Jesus’ right hand shows two fingers extended in a gesture of blessing or forgiveness.

Jesus’ head is turned to the right and upwards towards heaven as he commits himself to God at his moment of death as recorded by Luke: Jesus called out with a loud voice,

‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit’. When he had said this, he breathed his last. Luke 23:46.

There is no apparent sign of suffering on Jesus’ face: in this painting Jesus is victor rather than victim, he has willingly come to this point and he looks towards to what lies ahead. As Hebrews describes it: Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Hebrews 12:2. The phrase scorning its shame is a sentiment which might well have struck a chord with Duncan’s own perspective on life. Within the Judaeo-Christian tradition the root of all feelings of shame or guilt is the story of The Fall. After eating the fruit forbidden by God, Adam and Eve become aware of their own nakedness and they cover themselves. The nakedness of the crucifixion took away the nakedness of The Fall together with its guilt and shame. Perhaps in relation to his own sexuality and his conscientious objection to war it is said that Duncan had a keen awareness of the way in which shame can diminish an individual’s life and cause them to withdraw and turn in on themselves. The God-given human capacity for joy and delight which is represented by the story of Adam and Eve walking in the Garden of Eden is restored to humanity through the cross. Even in the midst of the horrors of war, Duncan wanted to be affirmative and express the victory of human love and joy over the darkest side of humanity even though he did not embrace that offered through Christian belief. It was a victory expressed also in St Paul’s letter to the Colossians:

He forgave all our sins, having cancelled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it way, nailing it the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross. Colossians 2:13-15.

The Architectural Context

The painting was part of the second phase of the commission. It would have been usual to have had a depiction of the crucifixion because of its central place in the Christian faith and it was therefore the natural choice of subject for an additional painting. The only wall space available was the tower at the west end of the church. However this was considered to be an historic wall which had not been rebuilt during the Victorian restoration and therefore could not be covered in the same manner. The solution was to hang a painting on the wall instead. The font is situated at the base of the tower and so a connection could also be made between the understanding of baptism and the cross. Just as Jesus was raised from the dead, so through baptism a believer shares in his death and in the victory of resurrection.

‘If we have been united with him (through baptism) like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection.’ Romans 6:5

The Painting

Given the fact both Duncan and Vanessa painted from life then it is not surprising that the crucifixion is not ‘realistic’ in the sense that it is devoid of real human agony and suffering. It is said that Edward le Bas, an artist friend of Duncan’s, was tied to an easel as a model for this painting. The head and gaze of Jesus is towards the source of light illuminating the body. Jesus, bathed in light, has the enlightened understanding that he is the spiritual victor rather than the victim. He knows that by the cross he destroys death and that his self-sacrifice will bring him the ‘crown of glory’. He has already told his disciples that through the cross he returns to his heavenly Father. At the same time Duncan could express no shame in his own personal love of the male body at a time when attitudes towards homosexuality were condemnatory.

The proportions of the body are distorted, as they are in ‘Christ in Glory’. The legs and torso appear elongated, perhaps in the manner of ‘El Greco’. He liked to emphasise the contrast between male and female forms, giving his women massively rounded torsos, arms and legs.

The figure is placed on a heavy deep blue cross with broad members. The blue contrasts with the light on Jesus’ body. His arms extend down over the grey border to give a sense of depth by making the body appear to be in front of the frame.

The shape of the outline of the wooden frame is brought out by the grey border. Below the level of arms it resembles a cross-section through a chalice. At the Last Supper Jesus took a cup and gave it to his disciples saying: Drink from it all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sinsMatthew 26:27. Jesus was referring to his crucifixion and giving his followers the way in which they were to remember and invoke the power of his sacrifice. A chalice holds the wine that is shared during the celebration of Holy Communion each Sunday in the church. In this way the chalice outline of the frame makes a link between the sacrifice portrayed in this painting and the way Jesus wanted it to be remembered as the centre of the worship of His community, and how the one is filled by the power of the other.

As one turns from this painting to Christ in Glory the similarity of expression is clear. There is something more daring and fantastical: a sense of boldness, authority and energy that contrasts with the more gentle and tender expression in the paintings of Vanessa. Both of Duncan’s paintings depict spiritual vision and this relates to his tendency to use his imagination more than Vanessa. Something of the different temperament of the artists, which lies behind the strength of their relationship, can be felt through their works.