09 March 2014

Art for Lent (5): ‘Driven by the Spirit into
the Wilderness’ (1942), by Stanley Spencer

‘Driven by the Spirit into the Wilderness’ (1942), by Stanley Spencer (1891-1959)

Patrick Comerford

This is the first Sunday in Lent [9 March 2014], and the readings in the Revised Common Lectionary are: Genesis 2: 15-17, 3: 1-7; Psalm 32; Romans 5: 12-19; Matthew 4: 1-11.

The Gospel story tells of how Christ was led by the Spirit in the wilderness. There is he fasts for 40 days and 40 nights, and at the end of his fast he is tempted three times: to turn stones into bread, to throw himself down from the pinnacles of the Temple, and to fall down before the tempter:

Matthew 4: 1-11

1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3 The tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ 4 But he answered, ‘It is written,

“One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God”.’

5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,

“He will command his angels concerning you”,
and “On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone”.’

7 Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test”.’

8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour; 9 and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ 10 Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! for it is written,

“Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him”.’

11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

In this reading, Christ is tempted three times with words from the scriptures, and three times Christ responds with words of wisdom from the scriptures:

● One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God (verse 4; see Deuteronomy 8: 3).
● Do not put the Lord your God to the test (verse 7, Deuteronomy 6: 16).
● Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him (verse 10, see Deuteronomy 6: 13).

This morning, I have chosen as a painting for our continuing series of Lenten meditations, Driven by the Spirit into the Wilderness (1942), by the English painter Stanley Spencer (1891-1959).

This painting, inspired by a parallel text of this morning’s Gospel reading: “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness” (Mark 1: 12).

It is one a series of beautiful and compelling paintings, Christ in the Wilderness, produced by Spencer between 1939 and 1945, portraying the forty days Christ spent in the wilderness.

Stanley Spencer was born in Cookham, Berkshire, in 1892, one of 11 children. His grandfather was the village builder. His father William was a professional musician and organist at a nearby church, with a passion for reading and discussing the Bible out loud with his family each evening.

In 1916, Spencer served in the Royal Army Medical Corps with the field ambulances in Macedonia. This experience had a profound effect on him as an artist, and the memories of war infiltrated his spirit.

Spencer became well known for his paintings depicting Biblical scenes occurring as if in Cookham, the small Thames-side village where he was born and spent much of his life. The best-known of these works must be The Resurrection, Cookham (1923-1927), which is clearly set in the village and with actual villagers portrayed taking part in Resurrection on Easter morning in the parish churchyard.

In 1938, Spencer moved to London and he started working on the Christ in the Wilderness series bedsit in Swiss Cottage. In the 1950s, many of the paintings in the series Christ in the Wilderness were exhibited in Spencer’s parish church in Cookham.

Spencer died of cancer on 14 December 1959.

In this morning’s painting, Spencer shows the massive figure of Christ striding through a bleak and desolate land. Yet we can see the promise of resurrection in the figure of Christ.


Almighty God, whose Son Jesus Christ fasted forty days in the wilderness,
and was tempted as we are, yet without sin:
Give us grace to discipline ourselves
in obedience to your Spirit;
and, as you know our weakness,
so may we know your power to save;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

Lord God,
you renew us with the living bread from heaven.
Nourish our faith,
increase our hope,
strengthen our love,
and enable us to live by every word
that proceeds from out of your mouth;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Tomorrow: ‘Gethsemane’ by Iain McKillop.

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