February 20th 2021

“Christ in the Wilderness – The Scorpion” , 1939, Stanley Spencer, (1891 -1959), Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth (?).

In a bleak wasteland, Christ sits on the bare earth and looks down at the scorpion which he holds on the palm of his right hand.  He holds the scorpion most carefully, with one hand under the other.  His downward gaze suggests sadness, rather than  fear or panic.  There is a stillness about Stanley Spencer’s Christ.   Everyone knows the sting of a scorpion can kill.  In Luke’s Gospel,  Jesus says is there anyone who…. if the child asks for an egg, will give the child a scorpion (Lk 11.12).”   Perhaps the implication is that God is the Father who gives just such a thing to his Son.  The hand that holds the scorpion is slightly swollen, suggesting that the scorpion may have already stung its host and yet he goes on gently holding it.  There is another near his bare foot.  

It is likely that Spencer’ wilderness draws on the rough terrain of a battle-scarred Macedonia where he had served in World War I and that his experiences of war inform this painting.  This painting is one of a series showing Christ in the wilderness, which the artist began around the time of  the outbreak of  World War II.  It was also a time of personal crisis.  He had lost his marriage and had left the family home because of a relationship with another woman.  This second relationship failed as well.   He intended to paint 40 scenes, one for each day of Lent.  In fact,  he completed just 8.  Spencer said that by undertaking this project he hoped to find himself once more.  Each painting was to depict Christ relating to some aspect of the natural world and draws on his sayings and parables.  He said, “I felt that because you have not anything much in the actual life in the wilderness except the temptation, that one has an excuse for imagining what his life might have been like.”    

It is clear then that the artist took as his starting point the Gospel accounts of Christ in the wilderness, but that he is not trying to depict the temptations.  It strikes me that this particular work may draw on Mark’s brief account which we have in today’s Gospel.  In particular, he may have had in mind the statement,  “he was with the wild beasts”.  One interpretation of this line is that it suggests  Isaiah ’s prophecy of God bringing about a harmonious co-existence between the predator and its prey, as in the wolf and the lamb, the calf and the lion of (Is 11:6-9). However,  like the landscape behind Christ, which is scarred by the hostility of war,  in these scorpions, Spencer presents the hostile side of natural world.    Despite Isaiah’s prophecy, most often in the Old Testament wild animals were a source of danger from which God protected his faithful.   For example, you can find this in the beautiful Psalm 90 which we pray at Compline.   To those who take refuge in the Lord, the psalmist declares : “On the lion sand the viper you will tread/and trample the young lion and the dragon”.   In the Psalm it is God’s angels who give the promised protection.   Ministering angels are mentioned in today’s gospel.    But in this image Christ does not call on his angels,  Actually, Stanley Spencer may be evoking the crucifixion in that Christ lets the scorpion sting him, just as he will let himself be taken and crucified.  If so, the sadness of his downward gaze would not be about scorpion’s hostile nature but rather humanity’s fallen state and the hostility he will encounter.   In this way of reading the painting, Stanley Spencer is evoking Christ’s obedience, “even unto death on a cross” (Phil 2:8).  Perhaps, in his sorry circumstances, Stanley Spencer was pondering the sting of sin and Christ’s forgiveness for a sinner.  Perhaps he had taken to heart the words of today’s passage,”repent and believe in the gospel.” 


Edinburgh Catholic Chaplaincy

The Catholic Chaplaincy serves the students and staff of the University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh Napier University and Queen Margaret University.

The Catholic Chaplaincy is also a parish of the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh (the Parish of St Albert the Great) and all Catholic students and staff are automatically members of this parish.

Read more