Victory Over Death 2 by Colin McCahon

Colin McCahon

Victory Over Death 2, 1970, Synthetic polymer paint on unstretched canvas, 207.5 x 597.7 cm, The National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; Gift of the New Zealand Government 1978, NGA 79.1436, © Colin McCahon Research and Publication Trust; Gift of the New Zealand Government 1978 / Bridgeman Images

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Faith and Doubt

Commentary by
Read by Chloë Reddaway

This painting, overwhelming in scale, typifies Colin McCahon’s painterly struggle to explore the space between belief and doubt. It is a direct response to Jesus’s inner conflict as he faces death and questions how his life might glorify God.

McCahon is New Zealand’s most well-known artist, having garnered an international profile. He is admired for his painterly calligraphic style and handwritten texts. In his lifetime, he was an artist driven by a theological interest in visualizing faith and its absence. Through affirmations and negations McCahon explores the ultimate horizon of existence. He dares to explore the role of the artist as theologian.

The vast surface of the canvas is structured by the architecture of the divine affirmation; ‘I AM’. The ‘I’ appears like a crack of light that both illuminates the composition and breaks it in two. To the left there is a darkly shadowed ‘AM’ that emerges out of the darkness, turning the affirmation into a question. ‘AM I’? Like a delicate filigree the text of John 12:27–36 shivers through the in-between spaces, evidencing erasure and re-inscription. There is no final or definitive edit. We see all the changes, and the jostling of words as they compete for importance in conveying a clear meaning. There is no comfort here in finding a black and white declaration, but rather a moderated surface that evidences the history of questions and answers, affirmations and negations, faith and doubt.

Metaphorically speaking, this enormous text work teeters under the precarious weight of its construction. Here is the universal human search for understanding rendered in the only thing we have available: humble and fragile phrases. McCahon delineates the intense drama of this passage from John, by giving material and visual expression to the contrast between light and darkness, life and death, doubt and faith. Given its size (207.5 x 597.7 cm), there is an invitation for viewers to inhabit this space and to feel the weight and significance of each gesture as it forms itself into words, phrases, defining and redefining what we understand God to be, the ‘I AM’.

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