Simon Morriss, 2016, Acrylic on Canvas, 270 x 140cm
The painting was commissioned to commemorate and celebrate the moving of Cirencester Baptist Church from its former premises in Coxwell Street to this new building. The brief was that it should be thought provoking and sufficiently complex to sustain interest over repeated viewings.
In response I did not want to produce a traditional ‘religious’ painting but to think about the way Christians (and indeed others) relate to the world and to try and explore this on a number of levels.
The starting point is the everyday presented in a way that is not alien or hostile. Anyone can look at the picture and see things they relate to and recognise whether it be the mop fair, a boy playing football, a stream flowing through a landscape or things from the news, TV or home. The former Coxwell Street Church is included as well as a detail of its coloured glass window.
Secondly, by placing these things in a painting within a Church building, a tentative dialogue is set up. The context about how these things relate to faith encourages questions. Protest, for example, is a common currency of the times: does the nature or object of protest change when seen from a faith perspective? Why is there a bombed out building shown and what does it say about the nature of suffering? Could a walk in the countryside be a spiritual experience and does it tell us anything about creation and the nature of God? These things are part of the baggage that accompanies us when we come to this place.
Thirdly, there is a thread of Christian symbolism that runs throughout the picture reflecting the thread of God woven through life in all its complexities.
Finally, the painting arranges these things in a series of panels each with the potential to create a narrative set up by juxtaposition but without prescribed meaning. The narratives in the panels are then themselves thrown against each other to create the bigger picture.
It is from these series of juxtapositions that the painting’s title derives.
The word parable derives from the Greek ‘para’ which means alongside and ‘bole’ which means to throw. A parable throws one thing alongside another thing and in so doing sees what happens when one thing speaks to another thing. Meaning is created by placing two things together. What do we place alongside the parable to make sense of it? The painting, like a parable, is not intended as an explanation but rather as an invitation to participate.
During the activity of painting I was often asked what the painting meant and I tried to answer without fully answering because I did not want to close down the possibility of interpretation. Here, however, I will set down some of the thoughts and questions which prompted aspects of the painting for me.
Each of the panels has a working title. Working from left to right these are:
- ‘Prayer and Protest’
- ‘Taking Sides’
- ‘Seeking and Searching’
- ‘Heaven and Earth’
- ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ (the Son of Man)
- ‘Darkness and Light’
- ‘Home but not quite’
‘Prayer and Protest’
The statue is intended to represent prayer. The window sheds a little light. The crowd are protesting and represent a generic protest: their placards unreadable. Within the crowd though are two figures that are not protesting but were the victims of protest in 2016: the MP Jo Cox and the French Catholic priest Jacques Hamel.
Which is most effective – prayer or protest? What are we most likely to protest about – evil in the world or things which offend us: genocide in the Middle East or the choice of songs on a Sunday morning? Faced with bad situations what do we pray for and does that lead to action? But protest can have two sides. Protest led to the dismantling of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany but protest against an oppressive regime in Syria has made life worse for many millions of citizens. What was the difference?
Prayer or protest – what do we really care about? What are God’s priorities?
The boy in the foreground has placed the ball as if to kick off a game. Although he is barefoot maybe he imagines he is playing as the football star named on his shirt. The graffiti on the wall behind gives the date of the painting ‘2016’ and also the colours of Brazil where the Olympics were held that year. In the background is a bomb damaged building: it could be contemporary Syria but is equally generic for conflict anywhere. In between sits the former Coxwell Street Church representing the wider church.
Taking sides can be fun; competing in sport or supporting a team is good. Taking sides can be dangerous and destructive and can escalate to civil war and armed conflict. Where does the Church sit in this – as a source of conflict or as a peacemaker resolving conflict? Accepting Christ is not neutral but a form of taking sides. In the bombed building a piece of damaged concrete frame forms a cross: Itself a symbol of suffering but also of redemption – a reminder that God is present with us in suffering.
‘Seeking and Searching’
We are all looking for something. Perhaps we are looking for love, entertainment and escapism, all the fun of the fairground or the romance of a musical. Where do we look? Flags may sign the way. Maybe we go where seems popular and join the queue. Some people look to the stars and others, like the girl in the queue, may find answers on her mobile phone. This panel reflects on our need for something beyond ourselves and ultimately for God.
‘Heaven and Earth’
Here a river flows through a rich landscape under a blue sky with trees containing fruit ripe for the picking. It celebrates the beauty in creation. And if this represents the Earth then the stars might represent a heavenly realm. The firmament between separates the waters above from the waters below: its thinness thinner than the width of a line.
Perhaps like David in Psalm 23 we long to rest in green pastures and be led beside still waters. Or we might reflect as the Psalmist in Psalm 1 that those who delight in the law of the Lord are like trees planted along a riverbank, bearing fruit in season. There is peace here and the promise of a new heaven and a new earth. But peace comes at a price. The two fruit trees could symbolise the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life in the creation story in Genesis 2 and 3. The fruit of the first forbidden and the fruit of the second made inaccessible on the far side of the stream. On the hill there are three trees representing Calvary. The hill itself is loosely based on a painting from 1485 by Filippino Lippi referring back to a time when this symbolism would have been readily understood. With Calvary, the work of restoration begins but we live in in-between times and the curtain demonstrates that the new heaven and new earth are not yet fully revealed.
‘Jacob’s Ladder’ (the Son of Man)
This picks up again the idea of thinness between heaven and earth. In Genesis 28 Jacob dreams of a ladder connecting earth and heaven on which angels ascend and descend. The painting uses imagery of this from the wonderful carvings on the front of Bath Abbey.
Drawing a parallel with Jacob’s dream, Jesus says with reference to himself in John 1:51 “Very truly I tell you, you will see heaven open and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” We now live in a different world where Jesus is the point at which heaven and earth meet.
‘Darkness and Light’
The setting here is prison-like, maybe from a TV drama, but into the darkness there is a shaft of light and a ladder leading up into it. Another Jacob’s ladder? The floor is chequered black and white: darkness and light. How do we think of prison? A rightful home for transgression perhaps but prisoners may face appropriate justice or be falsely accused. Is there a sense in which we have our own personal prisons maybe brought about by circumstances or because we falsely accuse ourselves? We live partially, we see imperfectly but in questions of justice we have a friend at court, ‘an advocate with the Father’.
The words of Isaiah 61:1
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners
are fulfilled in JesusCBC in Luke 4:18
The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free
‘Home but not quite’
Home should be a place of comfort and safety, a place to relax with a cup of tea by an open fire perhaps. But home is not like that for many around the world. In our apparent comfort, what do we allow in, what book are we reading, what do we watch? When we can relax and be ourselves do we feel God closer or further away? In the picture there is an apple as a reminder of the Fall (the Latin for apple is Malus meaning bad or evil). The candle has been burning but is waiting to be relit. The red roses on the wallpaper are a symbol of love but in Christian tradition the blood red rose can also be a symbol of martyrdom.
What of the clock on the wall without hands? Maybe it is indicating that there is no time like the present or a reminder that eternity is not so much endless time as timeless.