Introduction by The Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, Bishop of Chelmsford
The catalogue of the exhibition can be purchased here.
‘Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. After fasting for forty days and forty nights, he was hungry’. Matthew 4. 1-2 (NIV)
One day God will ask us to give up breathing. We don’t know when that day will be. But it is waiting for us in the calendar, and passes silently every year, uncelebrated. All life’s little renunciations are preparing us for this day. We don’t give up biscuits in Lent because God likes us to do without, but because each chosen denial, however small, is a preparation for that moment when we discover complete dependence on God. And of course this step can never be simply ‘a moment’. It is the entering into a life without chronology, a life as vast and limitless as the horizons of the desert. But the glorious paradox of this stepping into eternity is that we also discover that everything is gift. Each meal. Each moment. Each breath.
These paintings can also be a preparation. They take us into the wilderness. Or at least to its edge, where through the imagination of the artist we gaze upon its troubling immensity. And if we choose to contribute our own imagination as well, then these are paintings that invite us to step inside the desert and see ourselves from its harsh and unflattering perspective. We need to give up a bit of control when we look at these images. We need to let them look at us for a while.
In Christian theology the wilderness is always a place of discovery. It is a place where we are stripped back, where we discover vocation, and where we encounter an emptiness that can only be filled by God. Everything else is secondary. Everything that is deemed necessary becomes provisional; and so we learn to be dependent on God and thankful for the giftedness and beauty of the life that for a time is put on hold. In the wilderness nothing grows, but our own determination to be fruitful. In the desert we find an emptiness inside ourselves that can only be filled by God.
But there are other things on offer. The devil’s larder is always full. Temptations crowd into the wilderness. They muscle their way into our imaginations and flash their goods. Jesus himself, as some of these paintings depict, was tempted in the wilderness to find other ways of living. The devil lays before him the transient but seductive comforts of power, wealth and influence. But in the end none of them work, and so none of them appeal.
In the wood print by Daniel MacCarthy, The Devil may Care; Jesus appears to stare upon the reflection of what he could become if he allows himself to be so ensnared. There is a challenging and troubling ecstasy in Mandy Pritchard’s painting Exquisite torture. The stripped back suffering of privation and temptation is met by the promise of that new tomorrow which the wilderness prepares for. Some of the paintings, Lois Hopwood’s, Dwr dwfn…Deep water, for instance, just lead us to meditate the vast depths of space which make up a wilderness and its empty, bleak horizons. This seems to me to also be true of Carolyn Blake’s, What remains?
In Julienne Braham’s , A voice calling in the Wilderness, that other figure so associated with the wilderness, John the baptiser, appears as a ghostly shadow across the landscape. He is calling to us. Get ready, the day is coming. Prepare.
- Stephen Cottrell
Bishop of Chelmsford