The Resurrection of the Soldiers

The painting is reproduced in the Sandham Memorial Chapel photo-gallery section of the National Trust website. However, a visit to the Chapel is required to appreciate its full impact. The following is the author's interpretation.

The setting or landscape of the painting recreates the battleground of the Karasuli-Kalinova sector of the Macedonia front in 1917 and 1918 at the time Stanley voluntarily transferred from the RAMC to
serve as an infantryman with the 7th Battalion Royal Berks. The most intense fighting took place in this sector, which is described in the Travoys webpage.

In concept, the painting is a Stanley Spencer re-interpretation of the early mediaeval and Renaissance versions of The Last Judgment, particularly that of Giotto. In these versions, a central Christ sits in Judgment on the resurrected. The saved - the blessed and the saints - assemble round and above Him, but the damned descend into Hell at the lower right. Stanley, however, reluctant as ever to have anyone damned to any Hell, modified his pictorial structure to meet the demands of the metaphysical message he wished to convey. He did so largely by continuing the techniques he had found so effective in composing his Cookham Resurrection, painted in the Vale of Health in London between 1924 and 1926.

As in the Cookham Resurrection, the figures and detail 
reflect or echo (rather than simply depict) the metaphysical or 'spiritual' insights which Stanley construed from the feelings of the experiences he lived through. They combine to form cameos. For example, now that the chapel paintings have been splendidly cleaned (during the invasion scare of WWII the building, near a planned defence line, was used as an emergency ration store, the boxes piled to within a few feet of the paintings), we can see that the figure lower right holding a black book is also holding a red book. We know that Stanley took a Bible with him and constantly read it, but his letters home were also replete with pleas to friends to send him art illustration and reading of a classic nature - Shakespeare, Keats, the metaphysical poets and so on (it would appear that the soldier in the painting shown wearing a winter sheepskin jerkin is drawing our attention to these letters home - or does the cameo recall Stanley's precious collection of Macedonian drawings which heartbreakingly he had to leave behind?) These welcome gifts are presumably symbolised in the painting by the red book. Since it was impossible in action to carry all the material Stanley received, he enlisted the help of comrades willing to carry it on his behalf, even if not interested in reading it. It is interesting that he shows them as fit young men, all clean-shaven, with one exception.
 
The effect is that Stanley is using figures and detail in the picture to constitute cameos which recapture feelings or atmosphere.
Thus the book-holding cameo can be associated with Stanley's actions on active service : as a mark of gratitude to considerate comrades : even as his 'signature' to the painting. But although it may embrace all these, none conveys the feeling of rejuvenation - resurrection - which Stanley obviously intended as the function of the painting. Since a resurrection must be a surfacing, so to speak, of a positive from a negative in thought and circumstance, we can justly deduce that Stanley is introducing the cameo to honour the literature which kept alive for him, in the most adverse of times, glimpses of the creativity so vital for him if he were to transform his war experience from its sterility into a series of up-in-heavens. As at the Beaufort, the achievement of such moments of transformation brought joy or happiness, attributes which may sound unexpected in a pictorial rendering of war, but which, it can be argued, are of essential significance to any interpretation of the painting.

If this concept is accepted, then there are three central cameos which link to offer support. On the left, a soldier is being cut free from entanglement in barbed wire. The cameo recalls a fatigue duty
on which Stanley had to carry a coil of barbed wire over his shoulder to the trenches. On the way, the holding clip broke. The coil collapsed over him, his cursing sergeant had to halt the column, and his comrades laboriously cut him free. There was also an occasion in carrying a wounded man across barbed wire when his uniform was torn and he was issued with replacement puttees which were of inferior quality. A spell in hospital at Salonika was required to cure the resulting abscess on his leg. So the soldier handling a puttee in the centre of the painting (gazing at the soldier between his mules) links this cameo to the more prominent figure winding a puttee on the right of the painting. As already postulated in this website, the more visually striking a subject in a Spencer visionary painting, the more intense for Stanley was the feeling attached to its memory. So we can presume the figure on the right to be in effect a counterpoint to the figure on the left entangled in wire.

The three images combine to act as a theme, imparting the sensation of release from confinement, the very essence of resurrection. S
tretched across the width of the painting, they act together as one of the compositional ripples of imagery, or waves, by which Stanley intended to raise a viewer's eye and comprehension upwards from the stark foreground (mainly lost to view now behind the chapel altar) to the distant horizon, ill-defined because he had no sight of it in the confined trenches round Sidemli and Machukovo.

Release from confinement, sourced from the sensation of emergence so favoured by Stanley, paradoxically
invoked a feeling of emotional surety, as for himself between the baths in Washing Lockers (a child once frightened by nightmares sleeping safe between his parents' bodies) and echoed in this painting by the central none-uniformed figure prone between his mules. Such 'spiritual' protection induced a feeling of homeliness which provided Stanley with creative peace. In this new Stanley-world even the local animals support his thesis. The tortoises on the right become Brother Tortoise to him, plodding their perilous journeys over the broken terrain of Macedonia in search of their best grazing, and so, like us black-backed jackalhumans, doing the most impossible things. The pye-dogs (semi-feral dogs) which on night sentry duty Stanley saw scavenging among the burnt tins of the camp incineration patch in the bottom right (Stanley's substitution for Hell in traditional Resurrections?) are coalesced in his painting into a jackal which he confessed finding troublesome to paint (he seems to have overlooked its tail) so that it could almost be a wild pig or boar (a genuine pye-dog appears on the left wall of the chapel, ferreting among discarded Fray Bentos tins.) Whatever animals they are, they are driven by the universal instinct to survive and even to realise the perfection of their nature, a theme which so applies to the concept of the painting as a whole that the empty tins and rubbish once dumped in the incinerator patch are, in this new 'resurrected' Stanley-world, properly sealed by heaped earth and stones, as they would have been in real-life when the camp moved on.  

But above all, Stanley's empathy is shown in his rend
ering of the mules, struggling to their legs to enjoy the special hay which Stanley tells us is now available to them in this new world, already unloaded on the left towards the top of the picture. Alongside them are the discarded heavy tins of army biscuits they had been carrying. On the other side of the painting their former mule lines can be seen under the sheltering walls of Kalinova in the form of canvas strips pegged to the ground to which they had been tethered. The lines are empty now, the cameos linking to form another of Stanley's waves across the painting. Mules, imported from South America in their thousands to provide a burdened service unnatural to their instincts, replicate for Stanley the soldiers in the painting, who, in the demands of war, were too expected to provide an encumbered service unnatural to their instincts.

The soldiers in the painting should not be
necessarily regarded as physically dead, although one of Stanley's duties as medical orderly at his Dressing Station was to dig temporary graves for those who had succumbed to their wounds. Some form of marker, an outline or cairn of stones or, if available nearby, twigs or sticks tied to make an improvised cross would then be rigged up. One of the deceased's two identity discs, stamped with his number and name and once hung on a string round his neck, would be interred with him, the other, plus the location of his grave, passed down the line to Army Records. After the war, when the bodies could be retrieved and moved to official war cemeteries, their new graves were to be fitted not with crosses, but with the rows of headstones standardised by the War Graves Commission which we see now in their thousands,

In other words, the heavy white wooden crosses Stanley shows in the painting were not a standard army issue. So what, we may ask, do they represent?

A judicious answer is that they represent
the metaphorical state of the soldiers in their military service, dead to their natural instincts as sons, lovers, husbands or fathers (and perhaps dead too to the more imaginative creative life which, in the view of Stanley and his father, should have been their educational inheritance.) But whatever state they enjoyed in their 'real' lives, they have in their patrotism and nobility of purpose sacrificed their normality to a demand which, in Stanley's opinion, not even Christ would have asked of them. So in Stanley's mind, Christ cannot be expected to preside in the painting, as he does in traditional interpretations. Stanley has banished his Christ, in spite of his friend Gwen Raverat's orthodox urging, from His traditional position centre-stage to a small distant cameo towards the top of the painting, where, like Stanley himself as the artist-creator of the scene, He is doing what He can to bring the soldiers back to their real lives. He is accepting their now redundant crosses, acting in effect as a quartermaster.

Now redundant crosses? How have they become redundant, seeing that the painting depicts the consequence of battle? Only of course in the metaphysics of Stanley's imagination. Like his Christ, he is
in the painting bringing his comrades back to their real lives, resurrecting them from their physical circumstance. In his metaphorical language, the painting has taken the musical form of a fugue : the Cross in this Resurrection picture seems to have something of the same relationship as the subject of a fugue in music. The Cross represents the constantly-recurring fugue subject [Stanley's up-in-heaven eternal theme], the soldiers and mules and such are the harmonies [the circumstances of our down-to-earth life] through which the fugue subject - always the same - passes. In doing this it reveals the special nature, identities and meaning of the harmonies which come into contact with it. 

As his soldiers wake into his new world, greeting those they recognise, they no longer need the crosses which symbolised their sacrifice and servitude, the tedium of which Stanley depicts in down-to-earth terms as the soldier on the right engaged in the endless routine of polishing his brass uniform buttons. He is using a button-stick to speed the job, and perhaps in the process
- who knows? - momentarily recapturing for himself a nostalgic recollection of Looking One's Sunday Best at home. Other 'resurrecting' men examine their crosses curiously, or re-arrange them so that they form the window-frames of their cottages at home, or fashion the corners of the Victorian biblical texts still hanging on their walls, presenting them across space and time for us chapel visitors to match to the meaning of the Cross on the chapel altar of today.

Stanley is multiplying himself, enlarging himself, not merely to embrace, but to become, all the soldiers in the painting. Precise as ever, he conveys through his own experience the sacrifice
required by the imperfections of war, with its denial of the instinctive living spirit, and its interruption, its 'parenthesis', to our natural striving for the perfection which is the intimation of our immortality. Sacrifice demands an altar, and Stanley's altar lies across the bottom of the painting, concealed from view now behind the chapel altar, as a long lump of brown rock, the surface raised breast-high to the figures of the soldiers behind it.

As a dedicated Bible reader, it is not too far-fetched to suggest that for his altar cameo Stanley may have turned to the story of Abraham, a patriarch so devoted to his God - his life-conviction - that he was willing to offer even his own son as the ultimate sacrifice (but a cameo highly unlikely meant as a reference to Stanley's own father.) Lighting a sacrifical fire, Abraham raised a knife over the helpless Isaac, until God stayed his hand and substituted a ram caught on a thicket. In Stanley's painting, such a thicket could be the bush in blossom at the left.
And Isaac, the sacrifice? Not easily seen now behind the chapel altar, a solitary beam from a wooden cross lies askew on Stanley's painted altar-stone. Might it not be the one abandoned there by a Stanley/Isaac redeemed too from sacrifice, whom his God has spared from the fire of shelling or bombing and from the blades of hostile bayonets readied to strike? Across it rises the upright of the large white central cross of Stanley's depiction, linked across space and time to the present-day altar cross normally in situ.

A meaning begins to clarify for Stanley's picture. His landscape, battlefield though it is, has become for him a spiritual world, not perhaps as paradisical as his churchyard in the Cookham Resurrection, but certainly more desirable than the Struma front further east, which, despite the shelling and bombing, he found to be a nothing-happening sector (he depicts its boredom in the upper frieze of the right chapel wall, the Camp at Torodova) and from which he was determined to escape back to this Karasuli-Kalinova front. For he had found that only there did creative miracles occur for him, compelling him to return, even if to do so he had to transfer to the infantry and expose himself to the danger of physical death.

The logical mind, by which one supposes most of us live, reels with such artistic and spiritual dedication. Stanley is telling us that he is a man possessed. But by what?

Look above the two large white central mules, their heads turned in synchronism in the way Stanley remembered the oil-man's delivery horses doing when he was later painting the Cookham Resurrection in Hampstead, to where a soldier lies on a wrecked cart. Stanley came across the cart with its dead mules and occupants
among wrecked transport bombed by the RAF during his battalion's 1918 advance up the Kosturino defile. In painting the scene, however, he does not present it as the gruesome sight he saw, but renders it gently, the cart spread out in the dismantled way his brother Gilbert remembered them being delivered to the quayside at Salonika, reminding us that Stanley, unlike most war artists, was less interested in recording the pity of war for its own sake than in the creative means by which it can be redeemed.

For Stanley
it was immaterial that the soldier on the cart was an enemy. He too gazes at his redundant cross, but his cross is a crucifix. Was he a German Roman Catholic or a Bulgar Orthodox Catholic? I like the feel of the Bulgar, Stanley had told himself, having earlier found their letters and family photos from home scattered among the dried burnt shells of dead tortoises in the captured Sidemli ravine. Whether Bulgar or German matters not. Stanley's up-in-heaven, his spiritually imaginative life, embraces all mankind. The figure has become a Stanley contemplating his universal world, a reflection of himself as his alter-ego of Christ, as significant a focus to this painting as was the church-porch cameo in the Cookham Resurrection. Is Stanley in that capacity performing a miracle of imaginative creativity, in awe of some power within him that can see a battlefield as exemplifying a Last Judgment in which all, 'sinful' or not, are redeemed? If so he must seek to find the source of that power. He had begun his search in adolescence by relating his art to the Christian paradigm which was so vital a part of his upbringing. By the time he completed the decoration of the Chapel in 1932, he was on his way to finding his source. It proved to be Love, that indefinable impulse which history tells us has always survived suppression and denial.

The entangled streams-of-consciousness which comprise the masterwork have come full circle. As with this interpretation, it starts with a Bible and ends with the Love of God, taking us, the viewers, on a journey we may not have realised existed, and which only the art of a genius like Stanley Spencer has the resources to convey.