14 April 2014
Art for Lent (41): ‘Mary anointing Jesus’
Feet’ (1998), by Dinah Roe Kendall
The Revised Common Lectionary as used in the Church of Ireland provides readings, collects and post-communion prayers for each of the days in Holy Week. The readings for today, Monday in Holy Week [14 April 2014], are: Isaiah 42: 1-9; Psalm 36: 5-11; Hebrews 9: 11-15; and John 12: 1-11.
My choice of a work of Art for Lent this morning illustrates the Gospel reading:‘Mary anointing Jesus’ Feet’ (1998), by Dinah Roe Kendall.
This Gospel reading brings us back to the home of Lazarus, Mary and Martha after Lazarus has been raised from the dead, and during dinner Mary anoints the feet Christ with costly perfume, to the chagrin of Judas. Christ rebukes Judas, and talks about his death and burial:
John 12: 1-11
1 Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2 There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3 Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5 ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ 6 (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7 Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’
9 When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 10 So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, 11 since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.
The artist and her painting
Dinah Roe Kendall was born in Bakewell, Derbyshire, in 1923 into a family of professional artists. Her grandfather and great-grandfather were both well-known artists. Her great-grandmother was the daughter of the Victorian sculptor whose statue of Lord Nelson stands in Trafalgar Square, London.
Her father planned for her to proceed to full-time training, but World War II and his early death occurred before these hopes could be realised. After her wartime nursing, she attended Sheffield Art School and was then received an ex-service grant to enable her to study at the Slade School of Fine Art in London (1948 to 1952).
There Lucien Freud asked her to sit for him, Stanley Spence’s daughter Unity was a fellow-student, and Dinah learned from Jacob Epstein, Stanley Spencer and many other artists.
The nostalgic world of primitive painting is far removed from her vibrant Biblical scenes, placed in modern contexts and painted in modern materials. Although the influence of her teachers can be seen in her work, she has moved on from them, developing a style that is distinctly her own.
Her paintings are drenched in colour, reflecting five years of living in Cyprus and the influence of modern artists she has admired, including Peter Howson and Ana Maria Pacheco.
She usually paints in acrylic on board or canvas, mixing the paint with thickening media. Her angels wear robes built up of thick knife and brush strokes flecked with gold. She paints the cross as a visual sermon: no mere philosophical concept, but a hunk of wood along which, as Francis Schaeffer used to remark, one could have run a finger and got a splinter.
Despite changing fashions and much pressure to explore abstract art, she has always remained a figurative painter. Her biblical scenes are cast in modern contexts: Christ visits a school in Sheffield; Lazarus is raised from the dead from an alcove in a wall borrowed from Chatsworth House; Jairus’s daughter wakes up upstairs in a modern home, surrounded by modern neighbours as an abandoned teddy-bear on a chair in by the window watches on in amazement; the infant Christ presented in the Temple is looking right at the viewer; in the case of the Woman taken in Adultery, Christ’s finger writing in the dust points out of the canvas and at the viewer.
Her ‘Entry into Jerusalem’ is set in the playground of the Porter Croft School in Sheffield, where the painting now hangs, and the Baptism of Christ takes place in a swimming pool.
Her paintings constantly engage the viewer, but show intimacy too. At the ‘Supper at Emmaus,’ Christ sits at the head of a table, with two disciples whose hands reach out towards his. He is holding a loaf of bread; wine and glasses stand ready. His pose recalls Stanley Spencer’s 1939 painting of a lonely Christ in the Wilderness, cradling in his hands a scorpion.
There is social comment and humour too in her work: the Good Samaritan is a black man; ‘The Marriage at Cana in Galilee’ is a witty footnote to a famous painting by Breughel; and ‘Jesus visits Bethany’ is a delightful depiction of an off-duty Christ, even though the crowds are pressing in at the door. Inside the house in Bethany, Lazarus sits apart from the others in a curtained alcove as if the shadow of the tomb has not quite left him. His eyes are fixed not upon Christ but upon some faraway place, as if contemplating a landscape that only he has seen.
At the opening of an exhibition of her paintings in Winchester Cathedral some years ago, Dinah Roe Kendall said that she wants to show that meeting Christ is an unsettling and life-changing experience that could happen at any point in time.
Many of her paintings were included in Allegories of Heaven: an artist explores the greatest story ever told (Carlisle: Piquant, 2002), drawing on texts from The Message text by Eugene Peterson.
Writing about her paintings in her preface that book, she said: “I try to remove them from ‘religious unreality’ and endeavour to convey the sense that it could happen at any moment amongst us today!”
She now lives in Sheffield. She has two studios in her home, where she is constantly at work. Her personal faith in Christ and her reading of the Bible have provided persistent stimulation that has directed her to visualise many of the Bible stories in contemporary form.
The Revd Tom Devonshire Jones, Founder and Director Emeritus of ACE (Art and Christianity Enquiry), has commented: “Dinah Roe Kendall’s fresh, sassy and devout paintings are breathing new life into religious art at the start of the third millennium. Already receiving the grateful attention of worshipper and enquirer alike, they are finding a secure place in the world of faith and of art.”
whose most dear Son went not up to joy,
but first he suffered pain,
and entered not into glory before he was crucified:
Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of his cross,
may find it none other than the way of life and peace;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Post Communion Prayer:
Lord Jesus Christ,
you humbled yourself in taking the form of a servant
and in obedience died on the cross for our salvation.
Give us the mind to follow you
and to proclaim you as Lord and King,
to the glory of God the Father.
Tomorrow: ‘Pythagoras’ (1989), by Nikolaos Ikaris, Pythagóreio, Samos.