Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share on Tumblr Share on Google Bookmarks Share on Reddit Share via e-mail
Bloomsbury Navigation Bar Shop

New Book:
The Bloomsbury Group in
Berwick Church
CLICK HERE

Christ in Majesty

By Duncan Grant c.1942.

Perhaps Duncan gave Vanessa the subjects of ‘The Annunciation’ and ‘The Nativity’ because they were smaller and more manageable, but it certainly seems fortuitous that she should have painted the scenes relating to motherhood and family life. In ‘Christ in Glory’ Duncan tackles the largest and grandest of the paintings in the church and also the one which portrays the more traditionally masculine themes of authority and governance through the depiction of Christ's enthronement, the Church and war.

After being raised from the dead Jesus appears to his disciples (see Supper at Emmaus) and he is then taken up into heaven before their eyes. Another name for Jesus is ‘Christ’ which, in Greek, means ‘The Anointed One’ and refers to his kingship. It is referred to in a number places in the biblical texts. They all describe how, by virtue of his death, suffering and resurrection, Jesus has attained ultimate spiritual authority over all things and is the head of his body, the Church. It is a position that cannot be usurped by any individual on Earth and the painting serves to remind the congregation of this authority.

Associated with this image of kingship is that of the worship and adoration by his Christian subjects and angels. The Book of Hebrews describes Jesus as: ‘heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe... sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs.’ Hebrews 1:2-4.

As well as representing sovereignty and authority the throne also represents the seat of judgment. On the last day, at the end of time, everyone will be held personally accountable and be presented before the throne of God to be judged. In worship the believers are reminded that all will be accountable and also of the forgiveness and salvation that Jesus offers. The throne was not something to evoke fear but confidence: ‘...let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.’ Hebrews 4:16

The Architectural Context

In the position at the top of the chancel arch Christ occupies the highest focal point in the church. He oversees the congregation in a manner typical of a depiction of ‘Pantocrator’ or ‘Christ in Majesty’ in a Byzantine church. The Chancel Arch and Screen symbolically represent the division between heaven and earth in Orthodox churches. In worship the congregation pass through the screen to receive the bread and wine; a re-enactment of the Last Supper at which Jesus told his followers to remember his sacrifice in this way. The meal is also a foretaste of the heavenly banquet in which they shall share (see Wise and Foolish Virgins).

In the biblical account of the Crucifixion the curtain in the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, which separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the temple, is torn in two, symbolically showing The Cross to be the means by which a way into the heavenly world has been opened. Through his resurrection and ascension Jesus takes humanity with him into the Kingdom of Heaven. The movement through the Chancel Arch and Screen symbolically represents the way in which Jesus gathers believers with him into the kingdom: to pass through the arch is to pass under the judgment of Christ and to be forgiven and to come into the Kingdom and under the reign of his love.

The Painting

It is not known who posed for the figure of Christ, maybe Leonard Woolf, or perhaps Edward le Bas who features in the Crucifixion.

In Duncan's painting the head of Christ is rather diminutive relative to the rest of the painting - quite unlike traditional Byzantine images of ‘Christ Pantocrator’. But in other respects it is typical. Jesus is bearded with long flowing long hair. The hair is painted as flowing waves or lines of energy. The emphasised forehead expresses his heightened consciousness and intellectual capacity; he is embodiment of human understanding and divine wisdom. Strong eyes gaze out across the church and in traditional pictures have a probing and searching quality which expresses his capacity for insight into the hidden things within the soul.

Jesus’ arms are outstretched and the hands echo those of Jesus in the stained glass behind. Both have fingers held in a gesture of blessing and authority, as they would be also in depictions of the Last Judgment. His upright body is draped with a heavily folded voluminous garment (the early Byzantine images were thought to be derived from that of a Roman emperor to emphasise the divine authority of government) which gives the figure a sense of mass and stature. There are white highlights bringing a fresh feeling of brightness to the fabric. His legs and knees are clearly accentuated by the folding of the fabric. Looking at his feet the right one is set back. The posture indicates a sense of balance and movement. It is as if Christ may be about to step forward out of the painting.

Duncan has painted a perfect circle surrounding the enthroned Christ. Perhaps the circle, like that in a Celtic cross, or of the orb that Christ is often depicted as holding in images of Christ in Glory, represents the World or the Cosmos in which Jesus sits as Lord and King.

The painting is really dominated by the group of worshipping angels, the circular arrangement of which reinforces the circle around and central focus on Christ. The angels perform a kind of aerial dance holding their realistic wings at unlikely angles. The fact that these dancing figures dominate the painting suggests that they are central to what Duncan wanted to express. The dance motif was an early theme in his work and one he had used several times. Duncan had visited Matisse when he was at work on La Danse in Paris. The dance suggests energy, music and joyful celebration. The model for the angels was a friend of Angelica's, Salaman Chattie who also posed for the Virgins and for the angel Gabriel.

In contrast to the garments on Christ those of the angels are relatively smooth and cling to their bodies. They reveal little above the knee. Each angel fills them like air. Typical of Duncan's portrayal of the female form their clothing reveals that they are rather generously proportioned and well-rounded. The angels on the far right and left have their hands together in prayer; the two central ones hold a garland of laurel and of flowers.

As one moves down the painting on each side of the Chancel Arch one reaches the real world. The arch breaks through the Downs from the earthly world into the spiritual conveying the sense in which the church is a space where the divide between this world and the next can be broken through. The folds of the escarpment of the South Downs pick up on the smooth dresses of the angels. To the left of the arch, kneeling in a very static manner, are three local men representatives of the three forces: a sailor (Mr Weller), an airman (Mr Humphry) and a soldier (Douglas Hemming, son of the local station master). Mr Hemming was killed at Caen in 1944 and so the painting takes on the role of a war memorial. The three servicemen ground the paintings historically in the Second World War. Beneath them is a meadow full of flowers which include poppies, symbols of remembrance and of resurrection.

The servicemen gaze across to the clergy on the opposite side of the arch. Revd George Mitchell, the Rector of Berwick at the time of the commissioning of the paintings, stands behind the patron of the scheme, Bishop Bell. In one hand Mitchell holds a four-cornered biretta hat. In the other hand he holds the Bishops crozier. In front of the Rector Bishop Bell kneels at a prayer desk, with an open book, probably the Bible, before him. He is wearing a beautiful and colourfully embroidered cloak called a cope. Resting on the ground by his side is the bishop's mitre. Bishop Bell visited Charleston to pose several times and both Duncan and Quentin painted his portrait. He is remembered for his slightly protruding eyes and strong gaze which Duncan has captured. In the foreground beneath the clergy Duncan has painted wild flowers including poppies to match that beneath the servicemen.

Christ in Glory by Duncan Grant c.1942