Wall of Light Sky by Sean Scully

Sean Scully

Wall of Light Sky, 2000, Oil on linen, 243.8 x 365.8 cm, Dublin City Gallery; Presented by Patrick and Margaret McKillen, 2005, Reg. 1992, © Sean Scully

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A Fragile Harmony

Commentary by
Read by Ben Quash

Visually, the three-panelled triptych format—especially popular for altarpieces from the Middle Ages onwards—offers a stabilizing cohesiveness. The Irish artist Sean Scully turned to this comforting framework to structure a series of works that he undertook in the wake of a difficult bereavement (his son Paul died in 1983).

Wall of Light Sky was acquired by the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin in 2006. Three conjoined vertical canvases each contain three rectangles, comprising two, three, or four stripes loosely painted with a vulnerable ‘skin’ of paint. The rectangle format focuses and contains their complexity. The central panel is the most complex with its total of eleven differently-aligned stripes, but the simpler flanking ‘wings’ have an equal charge. The loosely painted texture (or ‘painterly’ quality) of the coloured stripes, with their imprecise edges, gives them an endearing frailty—perhaps one can sense the vulnerability of the artist behind this apparently large and stable artwork.

In John 17, sometimes known as the ‘Consecration Prayer’, Jesus repeatedly prays that his disciples may be one as he is one with the Father (vv.11, 21, 22, 23) through their being ‘consecrated in the truth’ (v.19). Earlier, in chapter 16 verse 13, it is the Holy Spirit—the Spirit of truth—who, Jesus promises, will lead the disciples to the complete truth into which Jesus prays they may be consecrated, and who will glorify Jesus. John 17 is therefore a remarkable meditation upon the Trinity: Jesus—the perfect revelation of the Father (v.6)—prays that his disciples may be united in their consecration in the Father’s truth revealed by the Spirit. In this unity they in turn will become living signs of the Trinity.

The panels of Scully’s triptych are almost flesh-like, partly on account of the tone of their colours, but mainly in the texture of their painted surface, which suggests vulnerability. In their fragile harmony they present an icon of the unity for which Jesus prayed on behalf of sinful yet redeemed Christian believers, praying that despite their brokenness and rough edges, believers might model the powerfully dynamic and yet stable unity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

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