Tree of Life by Mark Cazalet

Mark Cazalet

Tree of Life, 2014, Oil on oak panel, 3.5 x 6 m [approx.], Chelmsford Cathedral, © Mark Cazalet / Chelmsford Cathedral / Bridgeman Images; Photo: Courtesy of the Chelmsford Cathedral

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‘He Repented’

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Here is a massive Gospel oak dying on one side and flourishing on the other. The work was commissioned as an ‘eco monument’ by Chelmsford City Council and is sited in Chelmsford Cathedral. Its aim is to confront the viewer with the fruits of the Industrial West’s exploitation of the planet and its people, signified by the landfill site in the lower left corner, on the tree’s dying side. In contrast, on the flourishing side, is a scene of rural peace and plenty, occupied by St Cedd reading passages from the Gospel in the shade of the oak. His mission to this part of England in the seventh century is re-presented as part of the redemption of the land.

The surface question posed by the work is ‘can death be transformed to life?’; the deeper question is ‘can humanity be redeemed?’. These are focused on the fate of one individual: Judas. The dead body of Judas hangs from the lower dying branches, his discarded silver tumbling into the landfill, as if to say, ‘This is where love of money has got us’. But in the upper, living branches, populated by birds and butterflies, we find Judas resurrected, eagerly climbing higher and higher, fortified on his journey with a thermos and sandwiches.

For the artist, Mark Cazalet, Judas is ‘everyman’. Similarly, the analytic psychologist Carl Jung understood Judas’s story as signifying humanity’s shadow-side: ‘the expression of a psychological fact, that envy does not allow humanity to sleep, and that all of us carry, in a hidden recess of our heart, a deadly wish towards the hero’ (1922: 38–39). Indeed, Matthew’s account of the Last Supper indicates an awareness among the Twelve that any of them could have been the betrayer (26:22).

On this reading, if Judas is not redeemable then nobody is redeemable; if Judas is redeemed then there is hope. Matthew’s detailed description of Judas’s repentance opens the door to this redemption. It presents Judas as feeling remorse (metamelomai; v.3), acknowledging guilt and, in throwing down the pieces of silver, ritually re-enacting a noble prophetic action (Zechariah 11:13). This is an upward trajectory from death to life, interrupted but not necessarily ended by suicide.

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