Like Stanley Spencer before him, the English artist Roger Wagner has a gift for seeing the Bible in everyday life. When Jesus walks on water, it is on the River Thames, beneath the shadow of the Battersea Power Station in London. And Golgotha is defined not by a hill, but Didcot Parkway’s mammoth cooling towers in Oxfordshire. In fact, power lines—physically and metaphorically—run throughout Wagner’s work. When he first imagines Genesis 18, Wagner sets Abraham and the angels at the edge of a wheat field in his native Suffolk. The scene is far from bucolic, though. In the background, the hulking facade of the Sizewell nuclear power station glows eerily, reminding us of its toxic contents. In the artist’s words, this is ‘a picnic on the edge of doom’. In the biblical text, the angels are agents of destruction, on their way to Sodom and Gomorrah. In Wagner’s image they look more like potential victims, pleasantly chatting while a man-made catastrophe looms.
Sixteen years later, Wagner painted another image of Genesis 18. This time he found inspiration during his travels through the Middle East. According to Wagner, the picture ‘grew directly out of the experience of Bedouin hospitality’ in a desert encampment. And yet there is still an ominous edge to this composition. The nuclear power plant is replaced by the belching smokestacks of a cement factory, which he observed during a trip through Syria. Here too, there is little suggestion that the assembled angels are on a mission of vengeance. With humanity content to execute itself under a cloud of sulphur, who needs angels to supply the fire and brimstone? If human destruction lies on the horizon, however, hope remains in the foreground. Abraham’s winged visitors remind us of our own better angels. In the end, what is most divine in this picture is Abraham’s generosity: his boundless concern for strangers.