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Spencer, Stanley - Symbolism 05 - The Nativity



Type of Spiritual Experience


The nativity is a symbolic story and it appears that Spencer decided to layer symbols upon symbols.  It must have been rather a fun thing for a 19 year old to do.

The Art and Vision of Stanley Spencer - Kenneth Pople

The title - the Nativity - was the subject set for the Slade Summer Composition Competition for 1912. The students were free to interpret it as they wished. In Stanley's version, the right background shows a chestnut tree ringed with its blossom 'candles'. In the top left background, a meadow slopes down to the Thames, and beyond are the wooded slopes of Cliveden.

It is apparent that Stanley's picture is not a direct re-working of the traditional original. The season is spring or early summer. Patently the concept - the 'message' - sources from an amalgam of Stanley's feelings about his Cookham locality, his depiction of nature, and the annual period of animate rejuvenation.

The figures in the painting meet on a path, recognisably Mill Lane in Cookham. The location shows the spot where the public lane ends at a detour round one of the big houses of Cookham and becomes a path through a private park. In Stanley's day there was a right-of-way access through the park to a rowboat ferry across the Thames to the grounds of Cliveden. Stanley's choice of the setting is intriguing in that it images the point on the Lane where the switch from 'public' to 'private' reflects a change in atmosphere, to use Stanley's terminology, always suggestive in his visionary art as the two 'separates' of a potential counterpoint.

If the purpose of a counterpoint is to show a 'marrying' between 'separates' - a unity from duality - it will help the viewer if it contains imagery indicating the separation point or 'barrier'…… In The Nativity a fence of a design common then in Cookham gardens marks the division between the 'public' and 'private' sections of the Lane. There seems to have been a metal railing there originally, no doubt with a gate or stile, but Stanley has imported his garden fence from some other Cookham spot as a substitute 'barrier'.

To the right, in the 'public' or 'universal' part, is the Holy Family, the up-in-heaven, the eternal group. They are the subject of what will become his fugue. To the left, in the 'private' or 'personal' part, are two couples embracing. They are the down-to-earth group….. Visually the separateness of the two groups is further emphasised by distinction of costume.

How then does Stanley 'marry' them? He does so by asking us to see the barrier as metaphysical, not as the actual metal railing it probably was. When we, the viewer, comprehend - or at least glimpse - what the painting is 'about', then the garden fence, the barrier, will 'disappear'. We will have been transferred into Stanley's thought-world. We will have expanded a 'private' percept to 'public' concept. We will be 'listening' to his fugue.

In real-life Stanley's brothers and sisters were, like himself, thoroughly versed in the Bible. Ma, a convinced Methodist and local secretary of the British and Foreign Bible Society, had insisted on daily Bible reading by her children when young. So they were all familiar with the meaning of the Virgin Mary in her Christian rôle as Mother of God. But, through their patriarchal Pa's more searching humanistic outlook, they also knew her as emblematic of the Creatrion, the archetypal Great Mother.

So it is odd that here, in Stanley's painting, the lovers do not see Mary, although she is gazing at them intently (one of his cousins, Amy Hatch, was persuaded to model for her.) They cannot recognise her beyond the fence because in the context of the picture Stanley is presenting her as an abstraction; that is, she represents an invisible, if eternal, entity in our conceptualisation, counterpointing his corporeal brother and sister on the other side of the fence.

Since Mary is an abstraction, most artists might depict her imaginatively. But we know that Stanley cannot or will not do this. She must somehow be given a palpable down-to-earth form to match that of his siblings and the rest of the physical detail from which he has constructed his composition. So he tells us elsewhere that he has given her the form of a public monument, a statue to someone important standing in a public place. This maybe is why she appears so masculine, for such statues in Stanley's day were mostly of martial or political heroes. His reasoning is that as a public statue she offers a characteristic of most monuments in that they are permanently there but unnoticed by those who pass preoccupied in their down-to-earth lives. In other words, in the ethos of the painting she is a prototype for something ethereal or spiritual  - the recurrent eternal of the visual fugue he is composing - which, like the air we breathe, is always accessible as part of our existence, even if only intermittently thought about. If we can begin to appreciate the implications of the imagery Stanley is using here, we can begin to draw near the heart of his painting.

There is, however, one figure in the composition who can see Mary and the Babe, a strangely ecstatic figure kneeling by the fence in worship. Stanley once described him as the third of the Three Wise Men who are worshipping baby Jesus (the lovers no doubt represent the other two in his analogy.) For that figure, the barrier does not exist. The figure must surely be Stanley himself in a visually odd - and therefore pinpointedly significant - up-in-heaven persona.

For a nineteen-year old art student such a combination of art, poetry and drama was a remarkable achievement. It won him a deserved Slade prize.

As with all geniuses, Stanley appeared on the artistic stage already fully-formed, so to speak. And like all geniuses, he continued throughout his life not so much to develop his early promise as to amplify and fulfil it.

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