I so love it when an artist from one discipline interprets, in his or her medium, an artwork from another discipline. The result is often more engaging, more enlightening, even, than an art historian or critic’s prose analysis.
In classical times, teachers of rhetoric devised for their students a practice known as ekphrasis, in which they were required to compose a vivid poetic description of some finely crafted object so as to bring it before the mind’s eye of the listener. These passages were meant not just to recall physical details or content but to share the emotional experience of having encountered the object. For example, in the Iliad, Homer famously “ekphrasizes” the shield of Achilles. The synergy of visual and literary forms enhances the impact of the original work.
Ekphrastic poetry flourished during the Romantic era with poets like John Keats (“Ode on a Grecian Urn”) and, a little later, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (“For Our Lady of the Rocks, by Leonardo Da Vinci”), and has continued into the modern era, some famous examples being Edwin Markham’s “The Man with the Hoe,” W. H. Auden’s “Musée Des Beaux Arts,” and Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo.” (For an extensive list of ekphrastic poems, see Robert D. Denham, Poets on Paintings: A Bibliography [McFarland and Co., Inc., 2010].)
As a blogger on Christianity and the arts, I’m particularly interested in poetry that responds to religious artworks—like “Nick Mynheer’s Simon and Jesus,” written by Jonathan Stockland in 2015 after a visit to the home of one of today’s leading sacred artists in the UK. “[The sculpture’s] pathos and simplicity made an instant deep impression,” he told me in an email.
Nick Mynheer’s Simon and Jesus” by Jonathan Stockland
They do not stand apart, those two;
like conjoint twins,
one leans to the other
as the hate-full,
slanting slab of that cross beam
pins them together from above,
in their shared yoke of love.
Hand on bare shoulder
above the flayed ribs
re-membered in the deep gouges of cloth;
the bare nipple exposed and tender
as the Spirit’s dove;
one mouth opens in a gasp of pain,
the other closes his lips in the strength
of His love.
washed clean by wind and rain
where the mark of the scourge remains—
the sculptor’s tool marks the crime;
both seem utterly involved
in one passion, one in a unity
of person, place and time.
Simon’s hand and arm clasp
His shoulder, as they both stare ahead,
inward eyes seeing the cross, above
the bone mound of the dead,
the towering tree of Love.
Their eyes are drawn down in pity
for all the love to be spent
for generations to come;
for the grief of mothers’ calls
for dying children in tents
of desperation, and in streets
of demolition, on borders of despair.
In this one embodied moment
is the pain of the world
they share, and take
for Love’s sake.
“Nick Mynheer’s Simon and Jesus” guides us in looking at the sculpture it takes as its subject, and I mean really looking. As poetry is wont to do, it slows us down, urging us to notice the details, to imagine the physicality of the artist’s process of making, and to open ourselves to the possibility of spiritual encounter as we consider the two figures and what they might be calling us to in the present day.
“Love” is the keyword in Stockland’s poem, present in the last line of each of the four stanzas. The crossbeam is a “yoke of love” binding Simon and Jesus together “in one passion.” (And in fact, the sculpture is carved from a single stone block.) God’s love empowers Simon to lend his aid, to journey with Jesus to Golgotha, “the bone mound of the dead,” an execution site outside Jerusalem, where “the towering tree of Love,” the cross, will be planted. While their physical eyes are cast down in grief, their inward eyes see ahead to what will be accomplished on that hill—and even further, to future eons of human suffering, all the weight of which Christ bears at this moment. His sorrow is not self-focused but others-focused, empathetic.
The final stanza plods through heavy consonance: “dying,” “desperation,” “demolition,” “despair.” These words describe the reality of many today. Simon’s willingness to help shoulder Christ’s burden is an example of love in action that we would do well to emulate. What crosses are crushing those around us? How can we help relieve the weight?
Victoria Emily Jones lives in the Baltimore area of the United States, where she works as an editorial freelancer and blogs at ArtandTheology.org. Her interest is in how the arts—visual, literary, musical, and performing—can stimulate renewed theological engagement with the Bible. In addition, Victoria serves as assistant editor of and writer for the Christian web publication ArtWay and as a board member of the Eliot Society in Washington, DC. You can find her on Twitter @artandtheology.
Nicholas Mynheer is a painter, sculptor, and glass designer from the small Otmoor town of Horton-cum-Studley in Oxfordshire. His work can be found in churches and homes throughout the UK, including Southwell Minster, where his Great War Memorial Window, a Deposition scene, was installed in 2016. He regularly participates in religious exhibitions, working in a style that blends medieval, expressionist, and primitive influences. For more information, visit http://www.mynheer-art.co.uk, and see also the artist profile at Transpositions.
Jonathan Stockland was born in 1934 to Jewish parents in London and converted to Christianity as a teenager. After studying English at Oxford, he spent four years in pastoral ministry in the Church of England. He ultimately declined ordination and became deputy director of education at Oxfam, through which he set up the importing of crafts from developing countries and opened a shop to sell them, one of the first in England to do so. He also worked as a consultant to the United Nations and, from 1990 until his retirement in 2000, directed a company of mentally and physically disadvantaged people in Oxford. He has long been an avocational poet, whose theology is heavily influenced by the apophatic tradition and his spirituality by Richard Rohr.