“all by himself with leaves, trees, mud and rabbits”

Christ in the Wilderness. Driven by the Spirit. And immediately the Spirit driveth him into the wilderness.” Mark 1:12

Stanley Spencer (1891 – 1959), a great English artist, joined in his work expressionism and primitivism, mysticism and grotesque. The cycle of his paintings “Christ in the Wilderness” (1939-54) literally overturns traditional notion about Christ and his relationship with the Earth.
IN middle age, eccentric British painter Stanley Spencer changed his obsession from religion to sex — with disastrous consequences. He divorced his homely first wife Hilda Carline and shacked up (or tried to) with glamorous lesbian Patricia Preece, who turned out to be mainly interested in his money. The potboilers he painted in the 1930s were done to keep Preece in furs and jewels; and he made the mistake of signing over his house to her. Not long after their wedding, Preece let out the house, making Spencer homeless.The director of the Tate Gallery found ­Spencer lodgings near Swiss Cottage Tube station in north London. It was in this bedsit that the artist embarked on a series of paintings called Christ in the Wilderness, which included this panel, Consider the Lilies.

“Consider the lilies how they grow,” runs the line in the Gospels to which the title refers. “They toil not, they spin not, and yet I say unto you, that Solomon in all his glory was not ­arrayed like one of these.” Like most of Spencer’s works, however, the biblical scene has been transposed to the Berkshire village of Cookham where he grew up, and which he considered a sort of paradise on earth — these are not lilies but daisies and wild grass flowers of the sort that grew on Cookham common in his youth. (from Stanley Spencer confronts the self, alone in Christ in the Wilderness.)

Many dismissed the artist as an eccentric crank. He identified himself with religious figures, dwelling in contemporary village. Still, it’s exactly this very eccentricity that Spencer’s works so powerful, art lovers and art critics alike agree.Christ In The Wilderness: the hen. This painting illustrates Matthew 23:37 ‘…how often would I have gathered my children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings…’ 

Where else in the Bible does man appear in such union with the beasts, with no fear and alienation? Obviously, in Eden, where Adam resided before the fall. Christ, who came to save mankind from the curse of original sin, is the new Adam, as described in the Epistles of the Apostle Paul. Therefore, the desert where Spencer’s Jesus find himself, is not only the place of fasting and prayer, but also the image of the restored paradise, where man is reunited with God and the universe created by him. The desert is the tiny remnant of Eden, which once extended to the whole Earth, and at the same time the foretaste of a new Earth, where humanity will enter through the saving sacrifice of Christ.

Therefore, Jesus peacefully dwells among animals, birds, plants and with childish curiosity he peers at them, for this firstborn Son of God has found his human nature, similarity with earthly being. As a creature “from another planet”, Jesus gets used to this world, delicately delves into it, amused and delighted. (My free interpretation of the excerpt from the Russian article by M. Epstein, an Anglo-American and Russian literary theorist and critical thinker, S. C. Dobbs Professor of Cultural Theory and Russian Literature at Emory University.) 

Christ in the Wilderness. The Scorpion. “Behold, I give unto you the power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you.” Luke 10:19.

There were meant to be 40 panels in the series, one for each day Christ spent in the wilderness. They should have covered the vault of the ceiling of a church, so that the Jesus’ whitish robes would take on the appearance of clouds in a mackerel sky.

Spencer finished only eight panels of the series. Historian Simon Schama described them as “the least elaborate and most affecting things he had ever done”. In 1983, all eight (plus one half-finished canvas) were bought by the Art Gallery of Western Australia for $600,000, the museum’s entire annual budget. It was a wise decision.  Christ in the Wilderness paintings are popular with gallery visitors and much in demand for loans.