Romans 12 moves from a contemplation of God’s mercies, through a call to transfiguration, to a consideration, beginning here in verses 6–8, of the church itself as a transformed community of grace.
In this painting, the church is central both to Palmer’s composition and its meaning. The spire of the church, exaggerated and elongated for effect, sets and guides the strong vertical lines that dominate the composition. Palmer disregards naturalistic conventions of proportion and perspective, suggesting instead that the order of nature has been transformed so as to conform to the order of grace. The hills have a peculiarly distorted steepness that is echoed in the cone-shaped gables of the buildings; the boughs form a natural arch; the trees and bushes take forms that echo the church’s architecture. All are transfigured in the numinous glimmering moonlight.
But arguably more significant than either the natural or architectural beauties are the people. Again Palmer shuns naturalism in order to suggest instead what is spiritually significant. Though they are painted in detail and variety, painted in their place and context, there is an archaic quality about them that means they seem to transcend any single historical moment. Young and old together, they are individual in their forms but—together—they constitute a single arc from the recesses of the painting to its foreground. They are in deep organic sympathy with the larger composition.
It seems a significant decision that the congregation is represented coming from the church rather than going into it. Having ‘presented their bodies as a living sacrifice’ (Romans 12:1), these figures are now re-presented to the world as a spiritual body, united in Christ and yet all the more clearly manifesting their integrated differences. Paul speaks of the different gifts given ‘in proportion’ to faith (Romans 12:6), and Palmer’s remaking of both proportion and perspective in this painting may help us to imagine, to glimpse in an outward and visible form the inward transformation of perspective, and the sanctification of the body itself which is bestowed in worship and is part of the transformation so central to this passage in Romans.
12 I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
3 For by the grace given to me I bid every one among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith which God has assigned him. 4 For as in one body we have many members, and all the members do not have the same function, 5 so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. 6 Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; 7 if service, in our serving; he who teaches, in his teaching; 8 he who exhorts, in his exhortation; he who contributes, in liberality; he who gives aid, with zeal; he who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.