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November 04, 2005

Spencer's "praying positions" - an appreciation of Stanley Spencer's The Centurion's Servant

Posted by Roger Homan

Prof. Roger Homan appreciates a great work of twentieth century religious art, Stanley Spencer's The Centurion's Servant - and argues that the painting's religious content should be taken seriously.

Stanley Spencer (1891-1959)
The Centurion's Servant, 1914
Tate Britain, London

The evangelists Matthew and Luke tell of a Roman centurion who approached Jesus in Capenaum seeking healing for a beloved servant who was sick of the palsy and "grievously tormented". Jesus at once agreed to go to the house but the offer was declined in an expression of faith and humility that survives in Christian liturgies as an affirmation by those about to make their communion:

Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof but speak the word only…
Marvelling at his faith, Jesus sent him back home, saying:
Go thy way; and as thou hast believed, so let it be done unto thee.
The servant, evidently, recovered within the hour.

Stanley Spencer's The Centurion's Servant is set in a dark room of the house where the return of the centurion was awaited. It shows three figures kneeling at the side of the bed on which lies the young servant in torment. One of these is evidently the centurion's wife: the model for her was Spencer's own wife. The other two younger figures may be their children – as indeed the models were – or they may be fellow servants. The imminence of death is the tension of the painting: the artist consciously drew upon his mother's account of Cookham villagers praying round the bed of a dying man.

This, at least, is the interpretation prompted by Spencer's title. However, such was the incredulity of early critics and such the ambiguity of the human figures that Spencer’s own title was thought a subterfuge to impress a selection committee. Those who reviewed it could only believe that this was the nightly experience of a London family during the first world war. In the United States it was discussed as "The Bed Picture". The figures were variously described as boys and adults, as sprawling on the bed, as listening to a bed-time story and as lying low during an air-raid. The figure on the bed, it was said, was burying his face in the eiderdown to exclude the sound of the sirens.

Nowadays, Stanley Spencer's 1914 canvas is recognized as a devout study of the biblical narrative. Indeed, it was to have been part of a diptych, the other wing of which would have shown the scene narrated by the evangelists. The completed wing takes us behind the scenes and the other wing would have taken us to the scene that Jesus never got to visit.

Each of the figures has a different attitude to prayer. Spencer reckoned to be featuring his own "praying positions" in church and regarded them to be expressive of peace and contentment. In one respect we have to agree with the early reviewers of this work: the postures of the figures do not convey the sense of contentment. Nor indeed would such a feeling be appropriate alongside the dramatic spectacle of a tormented and dying boy. Rather, we recognize gradations of doubt, anxiety, hope and certainty that are in the nature of religious faith and ever present in intercession.

One child peeps through the fingers of the hands that cover the face. She or he is diverted from the prayer by its very theme. Paradoxically, prayer loses its focus if its subject is visible. That for which she is interceding is somehow too compelling, too violent, for her to concentrate upon her intentions. Sometimes prayer requires solitude, a garden or the corner of that most unfashionable of environments, the quiet church.

The boy in the left of the picture interrupts his prayer to look over his shoulder in the expectation that someone will enter the room. In the present state of the picture we surmise that the boy anticipates the return of the centurion, with or without Jesus. However, the other wing of the diptych was to have shown the centurion's messenger making application for a slot in Jesus' schedule. Keeping watch takes on a literal meaning when the interceder becomes tired or impatient.

And on our right kneels the woman, her face uncovered, her head unbowed, her eyes open. There is a kind of detachment in her body language. Perhaps, like many parents, she wants her children to practise a faith she does not fervently hold. Of course, parents often train their children in habits from which they have lapsed, prayer being one and churchgoing another. Or she is so occupied by the physical spectacle of the tormented boy that she is unable or unwilling to escape into prayer. No more did Jesus expect a man whose ox had fallen into a ditch to keep the Sabbath first and attend to the stricken animal thereafter. Perhaps she has given up hope. Or perhaps, being the manager of this prayer group, she is giving time to ensuring that other participants remain on task. It is often the problem that besets leaders of worship, servers in sanctuaries, ministers who officiate and priests who celebrate: responsibility for stage management is not always conducive to personal devotion.

Or perhaps the mother's mind is occupied in a more philosophical way. She beholds a young boy who is, in St Matthew's words, "ready to die". At a time when infant mortality is high and life expectancy in the trenches is low, a mother is resigned to the inevitability of death while the children, not being prepared for such a conclusion, pray to avert it.

Roger Homan is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Brighton and author of The Art of the Sublime: Principles of Christian Art & Architecture, (Ashgate, 2006).


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This may be the most prosaic thought contributed to SAU, but I have always been impressed by biblical themes painted in contemporary costume, as Spencer has apparently done and as the Dutch did so often. A contemporary painting of the Holy Family, with Joseph heading off to work on the Tube and Mary checking the car's child-seat before taking young Jesus to pre-school, would be regarded either as silly or maybe blasphemous yet it could be neither, piously modernising in order to humanise or vivify the subjects. Thanks to Dr Homan for another interesting piece.

Posted by: s masty at November 7, 2005 01:39 PM
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