In Memoriam - the spiritual journey of a painting

POST BY JHellings

The Last Supper by Andrew White, detail
The Last Supper by Andrew White, detail

Artist Andrew White describes the spiritual journey he took as he painted and shared his epic work In Memoriam, of the Last Supper, which is now displayed at the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham.  This painting was the inspiration behind the “imaginative conversations” between the disciples which we have produced for Holy Week.  

 

 

 

 

It is January 2011. We sit, wracking our brains as to the most profitable way in which to promote our failing art business.

“Why don’t you do a painting of the Last Supper?” my wife said, rather tentatively.
‘A bit random’, I thought. But after a while of mulling it over, I gradually warm to the idea. 

It would certainly be a bit ‘different’, maybe I could get an interesting angle on it; I agreed to give it a go, and set about forming the composition for my 36 inch canvas. Little did I know this was just the beginning of a painting that would turn our little world upside down .

I should have guessed that something was up as very quickly the painting grew from 36 inches to over 14 feet in width. Yes, the figures had become life size, and a painting which I'd predicted taking only a few weeks , would take a similar number of months to finish as its width measurement!

This was looking like a great way to go out of business, which for us wouldn’t need much of a nudge anyway. At this rate it was looking very much as if this would be our last supper.

So the project begins. I am painting Christ with His disciples at the last supper which they shared together before the Crucifixion. This moment was surely one of the most poignant and sacred moments of Christ’s ministry on earth. He had ‘eagerly desired’ this occasion which symbolised the purpose for which He had come.

The agony of Gethsemane and the Crucifixion trial were still a few hours away, and Judas had not yet betrayed the Master. There must have been a deep sense of fulfilment as Christ looked down into the wine, the symbol of His own sacrifice, a supreme moment in history which He now shared with His disciples.

Most of the models who sat for the painting were unknown to me the year I began the work. But as the hours and months passed and friendships grew, the painting became less about the disciples of 2000 years ago and more about Christ among His disciples today.

Months into the painting I remember remarking to my wife how, in spending so long working on one project, really gave the opportunity to understand the subject. In retrospect I see how the tables have turned. Many who now come to see painting express what they see in the picture, discovering further meaningful aspects which I had not previously recognized. In a strange twist of events I often become the viewer and they the artist.

It is strange looking back; in the early 1990’s, my wife and I felt and believed that we should act in faith, start an art business believing God would provide. And He did! Very soon my paintings found a ready market and the work rapidly increased in value. I have to ask this question in hindsight however, did this success take my eyes off God’s original promise? The events 20 years later certainly tested this question of trust and we soon found to our dismay that what we thought was ‘trusting God’ had become little better than a superficial ‘hoping God would turn up to get us out of trouble!’

As the picture developed, I felt a growing need to focus primarily on the work, as opposed to painting pictures to sell commercially.  Each month funds would get less and the deadline for bills come closer, but this process of pain somehow brought us closer to the spiritual realization that God was ultimately in control; unpredictable yes, in the way He would meet our needs, but there nevertheless in a very real way. It became a principle which gradually transferred our fear and ‘hope of deliverance’ into a strange and beautiful expectation or faith that He will appear. God, in His mercy, had sent us difficulty, that we might recognize once again, the Giver, and not just the gift.

Gradually we discovered a stillness growing deep down inside, an affirmation of ‘yes, Christ is here, He hasn’t abandoned ship. Far from it, He is so untroubled in the midst of tempest and difficulty that He is sleeping below deck peacefully’. As each month passed, the point of despair and faithlessness slowly transformed into ‘touching His Reality’ and we noticed God doing a deep work through this turbulent season of our lives. Our ‘expectation’ of how He would bring deliverance diminished. The stepping stones did appear, one by one, even if at times it meant getting our feet a little wet before the next stone appeared!

A painting by Andrew White, The Last Supper

A T h o u s a n d L i v e s

It soon became clear that the painting wouldn’t after all be destined for the commercial market. I had an increasing fascination with the thought of the picture being displayed ‘somewhere’ for the public to view.

We thought about touring the ‘Minsters,’ beginning in our local cathedral of Lincoln.

An old friend, learning of the painting project one day suggested we take a look at a space beneath one of his restaurants, as a possible venue.  The contrast to my vision of the painting hanging in the cathedral couldn’t have been greater!  I proceed down a long fluorescent lit corridor, then down a series of worn steps. The surrounding decaying brickwork resembling a hanging garden of moss and various plant life as I burrow further underground. A plank serves as a bridge over a rather murky, flooded area and we turn to face what appears to be a dark concrete cave.

Resembling a WW2 air-raid shelter, with what appear to be two huge metal clad, double-skinned, sliding blast doors!  The faded paint revealed the original brickwork; it was skeletal, raw, yet unashamedly real. Over  the coming weeks this forgotten space gradually transformed into a most unique art venue.

The final result reminded me  of the unexpected birthplace of Christ, unpretentious, a forgotten location by the standards of the world, certainly no place for a King! In this forgotten tomb, God had chosen the belly of the great fish, for His work. And like Jonah, in a forgotten place of darkness I was able to present all to Him for His will and purpose. My ship to Tarshish had made a serious U-turn. He didn’t need the strength of man’s institutions whether artistic or religious to bring about His purpose. He did His greatest miracle in the grave.

Observing the effects in people’s lives that transpired over the coming months, I realised how my own ambitions had to die and I gradually discovered while in the midst of this ‘death state’ a new, alternative life appear. Sometimes God brings us to a place of desperation, which is really an opportunity for discovering a new thing in our lives. I reflected on the months of coming to terms with how my artistic career had always gone ‘so far’, but never far enough, at least not as far as ‘I’ wanted.

Now it appeared the Lord was opening up a new place of existence through this struggle. And as I wrestled with the Divine for my rights, He mercifully withdrew His financial blessing for a season, so that I might truly see what my motives and ‘trust’ were really based on. For years I’d built on a flimsy foundation, but Christ was giving me another chance -a cross roads. The next 20 years need not be built on the same foundation. I decided to risk the life I had known.

The painting spent a year in the basement -we later discovered the venue was once the old City mortuary. Spending some of my most valuable spiritual moments in that place of the dead, God opened my eyes to see His potential in everyone who entered through those strange rusty doors. In a place of darkness below, with the bustling activity of City life above, my eyes became accustomed to what God had wanted me to see for years. In this quiet sanctuary I witnessed people from all backgrounds carry something away with them from a place of obscurity. Our visitors had come into contact with something through the painting I was not expecting.

From artist now to caretaker in that forgotten stillness, a revelation was taking place. In this simple uncluttered space, God had prepared neutral ground for His purpose. He didn’t need or want all the usual ‘selling’ routes, or for us to shout as loudly as possible. He was waiting for me to surrender my own plan -for He already had His own.

To the world’s eyes God’s opportunity had failed, He could have saved a Nation; but God is not satisfied with saving just one Nation. His plan stretches far across all the Nations, into distant lands and ages, and the lonely Man of Sorrows, acquainted with grief, accomplished more through His solitary obedience and seeming failure, than a thousand lives lived with all the success and riches of the world's greatest and most powerful.

The Last Supper now hangs at the Basilica of Our Lady of Walsingham, the Catholic national shrine of Our Lady in England.