Stanley Spencer: Artist of the Sacred

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Earlier this year, the Tate British gallery in London mounted a magnificent exhibition of the work of the English painter, Stanley Spencer (1891-1959). A quick consideration of Spencer as an artist of the sacred will give some idea of the concerns of this site.

It is easy enough to say that Spencer was an artist of the sacred. But what does that mean exactly? Consider one of Spencer's last works, The Crucifixion (1958). This depicts the crucifixion of Christ as taking place in a contemporary setting, in the High Street at Cookham, the Berkshire village where the artist was born and where he spent most of his life. Spencer had been producing comparable pictures throughout his career. A 1935 example is the St Francis and the Birds [1] in which the saint is represented by the artist's aged father out in the village in his dressing gown and slippers. How are we to understand such works and the personality behind them?

The Conventional Sacred

The conventional take on the sacred does not apply to Spencer. In this perspective, the sacred is about the supernatural manifesting itself in the natural world, but strictly in the context of ancient and exotic religions. This usage derives from Protestantism: basically, Protestants have used sacred when talking about other religions and holy when talking about their own.[2]

This has passed into English language popular culture: the adjective sacred gets used for example in horror films about Egyptian mummies and in tourist literature about the Mystic East. The connotations are of magic and shivers down your spine.

The Mediated Sacred

Apparently much more promising in relation to Spencer is what we can call the mediated sacred. In this perspective, the sacred is paired with the profane: the sacred is represented as the localised manifestation of the supernatural - mediated by religious institutions - in an everyday world which is profane. This sort of understanding is chiefly associated with the influential historian of religion, Mircea Eliade (1907-1986), though the basic dualism had appeared previously, notably in Emile Durkheim's The Elementary Forms of (the) Religious Life (1912).

Eliade's Religious Man

In The Sacred & The Profane (1957), Eliade made a radical distinction between religious man of pre-modern cultures and non-religious man of modern culture. One of his points was that religious man had needed to feel that his world was thoroughly imbued with a sense of the sacred and had devised all kinds of ways of making it so. An appealing perspective on Spencer would be to see him as an anomalous instance of religious man popping up in the modern non-religious world, driven by some kind of inner compulsion to make his profane world sacred and using his art to accomplish the task.

However, this sort of perspective doesn't fit the facts. Spencer undoubtedly recognised that the people around him felt something of the essential Christian experience of this world as profane, as fallen and in need of redemption. But we do not get any impression of him sharing that experience personally. On the contrary, what we get is a very strong sense of the artist himself experiencing himself and his world as already sacred. For example, many of his paintings and comments make it clear that, far from experiencing the usual Christian unease with sexuality, the feeling that it somehow degrades the individual and makes the world profane, he gloried in it.[3]

Obviously, in paintings like those referred to initially Spencer makes use of Christian imagery. But that does not have to mean he was expressing the Christian experience as his own, merely that he was using Christian visual language. Thus for Christians the Gospel stories signify a sacred past; but the artist's depictions of these stories as happening in contemporary Cookham can surely best be read as signifying his belief in a sacred present, a present that he is already living and in which he would like other people to share. Similarly, the General Resurrection signifies for Christians a sacred future; but in Spencer it again must mean a sacred present to be shared.

Sacred Episodes

To accommodate this sort of perspective, we need to understand the sacred as a matter of some kind of personal experience. However, no suitable options are available in our culture. This is because our culture understands personal experience of the sacred in terms of discrete episodes involving supernatural entities, as in visions and encounters with them.

On the one hand, supernatural religion cannot by its very nature admit the possibility of experience of the sacred here below being other than a matter of fleeting moments, hints at heaven to come. On the other hand, reductionist science, in aiming to discredit religion, restricts itself to the same territory, interpreting visions etc as a matter of brain function: of hallucinogens, of sensory deprivation, of the presence in the brain of some kind of a God spot or whatever.

But no matter how discrete episodes are interpreted, they do not correspond to what we know of Spencer. His experience was of his life as sacred, not of sacred moments in his life.

The Innate Sacred

This leaves us with the only option that fits Spencer's life and art and his comments on them. It is that his was in some sense a case of the prolongation of childhood, of the continuance of the young child's experience of life into adulthood. As far as we can tell, it is normal for a young child to live a life of intimate attachments: to itself, its family and its home. It seems that, while for most people those ties are fairly quickly loosened and transformed, for a minority of individuals like Spencer, they remain relatively intact throughout life.

We can call this sort of understanding of the sacred as continuing attachment to oneself and one's roots the innate sacred. We may pair it not with the profane but with alienation, that feeling of estrangement and of even of threat from oneself and from one's roots that to a greater or lesser extent seems to take over in most people's lives.


1 St Francis and the Birds

This was not part of the exhibition, though it does normally hang in the Tate, I believe. There is a reproduction of it in Phaidon's The Art Book. [Back to Article]

2 Holy ~ Sacred

This distinction is apparent in The Idea of the Holy (1923), the English translation of Rudolf Otto's key Protestant work, Das Heilige (1917). The German heilig can be rendered as either holy or sacred and the translator felt that the former was right. For Otto, Protestantism was the culmination of religious evolution and, while it would have been possible for the Protestant translator to render heilig as sacred for intimations of the divine in other religions, only holy was appropriate for those in Protestantism itself.

Clearly, the situation has changed a bit in recent years with the rise of World Religion: the sacred nowadays is quite often simply a glamorous synonym for the supernatural. In addition, it gets used as a synonym for Otto's numinous. In general, confusion reigns, with writers referring to Otto and Eliade without apparently having read either of them. [Back to Article]

3 Sex and the sacred in Stanley Spencer

This discussion of Spencer as artist of the sacred should not be taken to indicate approval of his apparently tantric attitude towards sexuality, as expressed in his art and life. From the point of view of this site, the artist was misguided in the connection he made between sex and his experience of his world as sacred: certainly, the repercussions in his life were unfortunate.

Note the contrasting case of Ann Lee, the c18th prophetess who took Shakerism from Manchester to America. She made a totally different connection between sex and her own experience of the world as sacred. Where Spencer seems to have concluded that sex could bring people to the experience of this world as sacred, Mother Ann believed that it had the opposite effect: she preached total rejection of one's sexuality.

This site does not assign sexuality any significant role at all, either positive or negative, in the personal experience of the world as sacred. However, it should be instructive to explore at some stage the views of both artist and prophetess. [Back to Article]

(c) John C Durham, 2001 - 2003