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.
17 When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify thy Son that the Son may glorify thee, 2since thou hast given him power over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom thou hast given him. 3And this is eternal life, that they know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent. 4I glorified thee on earth, having accomplished the work which thou gavest me to do; 5and now, Father, glorify thou me in thy own presence with the glory which I had with thee before the world was made.
6 “I have manifested thy name to the men whom thou gavest me out of the world; thine they were, and thou gavest them to me, and they have kept thy word. 7Now they know that everything that thou hast given me is from thee; 8for I have given them the words which thou gavest me, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from thee; and they have believed that thou didst send me. 9I am praying for them; I am not praying for the world but for those whom thou hast given me, for they are thine; 10all mine are thine, and thine are mine, and I am glorified in them. 11And now I am no more in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to thee. Holy Father, keep them in thy name, which thou hast given me, that they may be one, even as we are one. 12While I was with them, I kept them in thy name, which thou hast given me; I have guarded them, and none of them is lost but the son of perdition, that the scripture might be fulfilled. 13But now I am coming to thee; and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves. 14I have given them thy word; and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. 15I do not pray that thou shouldst take them out of the world, but that thou shouldst keep them from the evil one. 16They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. 17Sanctify them in the truth; thy word is truth. 18As thou didst send me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be consecrated in truth.
20 “I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, 21that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. 22The glory which thou hast given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, 23I in them and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that thou hast sent me and hast loved them even as thou hast loved me. 24Father, I desire that they also, whom thou hast given me, may be with me where I am, to behold my glory which thou hast given me in thy love for me before the foundation of the world. 25O righteous Father, the world has not known thee, but I have known thee; and these know that thou hast sent me. 26I made known to them thy name, and I will make it known, that the love with which thou hast loved me may be in them, and I in them.”