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Samuel Palmer

The Magic Apple Tree, c.1830, Pen and Indian ink, watercolour, in places mixed with a gum-like medium, on paper, 349 x 273 mm, The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge; Given by A.E. Anderson in memory of his brother, Frank, 1928, 1490, © Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge / Art Resource, NY

David Jones

Flora in Calix Light, 1950, Graphite and watercolour on paper, 570 x 768 mm, Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge, DJ 5, © Estate of David Jones / Bridgeman Images; Photo: © Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge / Anthony Hynes 2010

Samuel Palmer

Coming from Evening Church, 1830, Tempera, chalk, gold, ink, and graphite on gesso on paper, 302 x 200 mm, Tate; Purchased 1922, N03697, © Tate, London / Art Resource, NY

Unfolding a Triptych

Comparative Commentary by

One way of allowing these three artworks to converse imaginatively with Romans 12:1–8 is to think of them as a triptych, and in particular as an altarpiece. To imagine these three works located at the place where we ‘present our bodies as a living sacrifice’ (12:1), the place where all things, both people and ‘these thy creatures of bread and wine’ (Book of Common Prayer) are presented so that they may no longer be conformed to this world, but rather transformed and renewed. If we were to unfold this triptych on our imaginary altar, David Jones’s Flora in Calix Light might be the central panel. Samuel Palmer’s The Magic Apple Tree could unfold to the left of it, with his Coming from Evening Church to the right.

So, centrally, we would see in the three glass chalices with their abundance of flora, their translucency, and their constant invitation to see through and beyond them, an icon of the mystery of transformation itself. The vases, the flowers, the window, the distant tree, even the table, are all of ‘this world’, as are the elements we might place on the altar and the people who come to receive them, but all are here transformed, transfigured. In and through these chalices we see, as Anne Price-Owen has observed, ‘Crucifixion and Resurrection’, ‘the mercies of God’ to which Paul is making his appeal in Romans 12:

…the three crystal glasses reference the crosses on Calvary. … Light, signifier of epiphany, and flowers, tremble and clamber over the whole picture, infiltrating it with divine beneficence. (Price-Owen 2010)

Viewed as a triptych in this way, we can then see the ‘calix-light’, the light of transformative grace, flowing from the central scene into the two on either side. On the left, in The Magic Apple Tree we see nature transfigured, a shadowed world seen for a moment in the light of Eden:

These colours seem to fall from Eden’s light,

The air they shine through breathes a change in them,

Breaking their sheen into a certain shade

Particular and unrepeatable.

Some golden essence seems to concentrate

From light to air, from pigment into paint

In increments of incarnation down

To burn within these apples and this bough…

(Guite, ‘The Magic Apple Tree’)

But this is no mere aesthetic transformation, the church spire, the shepherdess and sheep, and the paradisal tree all locate that transformation within the salvation story.

As we look from the central image (Jones’s chalices) to the right, we see the ‘calix light’ of Eucharistic grace informing the moonlight of Palmer’s painting and the redeemed community leaving the altar, themselves transformed, and ready to discern and work that same transformation in the world. Coming from worship, the procession that winds towards us seems transfigured, giving as much light to the scene as they themselves receive from the moon.

We can also read our triptych sequentially, moving through the pictures as through the Romans passage, beginning with The Magic Apple Tree as an image of ‘the mercies of God’ (v.1) then looking at Flora in Calix Light as both the locus in which we ‘present our bodies’ (v.1) and the place in which we move from being conformed to being transformed (v.2), and finally turning to Coming from Evening Church as showing us the ‘one body’ all ‘members of one another’ in movement and action (vv.3–8).

 

References

Guite, Malcolm. 2012. ‘The Magic Apple Tree’ in The Singing Bowl (London: Canterbury Press Norwich), p. 20

Price-Owen, Anne. 2010. ‘Materializing the Immaterial: David Jones: Painter-Poet’, www.flashpointmag.com, 13, available at http://www.flashpointmag.com/priceowen.htm

 

Next exhibition: 1 Corinthians 3:10–17