Crucifixion by Graham Sutherland
I’m looking at the faces in most of the art we’re looking at over Holy Week .
In Graham Sutherland’s Crucifixion, it is hard to see the face of Jesus and what you
can see is not comfortable viewing.
A few words about the painting itself. You can see this version of the painting in
Tate Britain, but the larger version, of which this was a preliminary, hangs in the
Church of St Matthew, Northampton. Sutherland was a convert to Catholicism and
a devout man. His Christ in Glory dominates Coventry Cathedral’s nave. He was also,
for a time a war artist, working on the home front with images of mining, industry
and bomb damage. You can perhaps sense that in this work of the late 1940s.
Unlike the other pictures we’ve been looking at this week, this one is not so
realistic or naturalistic. It’s somehow more formal, almost like an icon. The cross
itself seems almost industrial in its design, as if shaped by a piece of machinery.
But there are points of connection with the earlier pictures. One thing that strikes
me is the physicality of Sutherland’s Christ. True, he may not have the beautiful
physique of a Velázquez, but there is something monumental and imposing about his
figure of Christ. Instead of focusing on the wounds, the blood and th e flesh of Jesus,
I think Sutherland wants us to see the horror death by crucifixion in another way.
There is no physical obsession, but then again, look at the claw-like hands, the
elevated ribcage, the deformed shins. Perhaps Sutherland is wanting us to see the
deforming power of evil and sin, the way the human form of Jesus is bent, broken
and battered by it. Perhaps we are being invited to come face to face with the
consequence of our own sin: the way it disfigures God’s image in us, the way it
bends out of shape God’s purpose for the world. In a week where, this time in
Brussels, we see people broken and literally ripped apart by evil, we are looking
what we can do to each other and, by extension, what happens the image of God as
Anyone painting after 1945 would have to take into account the horrors of the
Second World War and the Holocaust. I think this painting invites us to see the
crucifixion of Jesus not just as something that happened then, but also a present
reality. The very abstract nature of the painting’s background – perhaps a brick wall
behind or some industrial landscape – reminds us that this cruelty can happen even
in the most advanced cultures. This Jesus is not surrounded by crowds, looked on
by his mother and St John. He dies alone, without family or friends, like so many
prisoners who die alone through intimidation, torture, through violence in political
circumstances. The head is bowed, in death, perhaps, though blood still drains from
And yet, the more I look at this painting, which I love, the more I sense not just pain
and suffering, but dignity and majesty. The blue of the background is somehow
hopeful, and draws our eye away from the agony of the body. Perhaps there is
something more, something which can overcome darkness.
In the light of the postwar generation, theologians Jewish and Christian had to ask
themselves whether God’s purpose, God’s goodness, God’s existence even, could
be sustained in the light of what human beings had done to each other. Some
concluded that God was dead; others that theology and Christian understandings of
the world, suffering and God’s purposes needed to be rethought or at least
reshaped. That seems to me what Sutherland is suggesting here.
I agree with these words of the theologian Frances Young, “It is only because I can
see God entering the darkness of human suffering and evil in creation, recognizing it
for what it really is, meeting it and conquering it, that I can accept a religious view of
the world. Without the religious dimension, life would be senseless, and endurance
of its cruelty pointless; yet without the cross it would be impossible to believe in
Which brings me to this contorted scream of a face. It’s difficult to know what is
going through Jesus’ mind and heart at this moment. Is he dead already? Is he crying
out in agony, as the bared teeth imply? Or is he simply weighed down, utterly
downcast and exhausted by the sins of the world? There is paradox here and one
that we should not avoid or seek to escape from. The paradox of Good Friday itself
is one of suffering and redemption, of agony and hope, of love and sacrifice.
In a few moments, we shall be invited to kneel in the face of that paradox as the
cross bleeds its questions to us, questions that cannot be simply answered, but can
be responded to with our own questions and our own faith, all mixed up together.
The truth of Jesus on the Cross is that he carries all of this, out of love for us, and
invites us to cast all our burdens on him, for in his divine love, only he – not you,
nor I, nor the world around us, can in truth bear its weight. Only he can. And for
that we give thanks, today and in all eternity. Amen.