A Letter to Hebrews (Rain in Northland) by Colin McCahon

Colin McCahon

A Letter to Hebrews (Rain in Northland), 1979, Synthetic polymer paint on 6 sheets of paper, each sheet: 730 x 1102 mm, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; Presented through The Art Foundation of Victoria in memory of the Reverend Stan Brown by the Reverend Ian Brown, Fellow, 1984, P6.a-f-1984, © Colin McCahon Research and Publication Trust

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To Walk Past

Commentary by
Read by Richard Ayoade

This painting, composed of six sheets of paper, layers the whole of Hebrews 11 ‘across a brooding sky and sea in New Zealand’s Northland’ (Artwork labels 2019). The work offers ‘schematic evocations’ of landscape. Long black strips in the upper sections suggest a rain-swept terrain, viewed from a distance across an expanse of sea filling the lower three quarters. From the sky ‘muted shafts of sunlight’ shine through ‘washed-out cloud formations and slanted sheets of rain’ (Smythe 2019). In the lower sections, the text shimmers like ripples on the Northland waters. In the top right, the reflected fall of light below the narrower strip of land forms one of Colin McCahon’s trademark Tau crosses.

In evoking a challenging landscape through which to journey, Rain in Northland seems symbolically charged with the ‘travels and travails of Christ’s Hebrew forebears’ in their search for the promised land, as Hebrews 11 documents it.

McCahon’s artistic vision was grounded in landscape. He became aware of his ‘own particular God’ driving over the hills from the Taieri Mouth in southern New Zealand to the Taieri Plain, seeing a splendour and beauty ‘belonging to the land and not yet to its people’. He wrote that his work as a whole had ‘largely been to communicate this vision and to invent the way to see it’ (McCahon 1988: 76).

Four months spent in America during 1958 marked a watershed in that artistic outlook. Subsequently, he worked on a monumental scale creating ‘pictures for people to walk past’ (Smith 2001: 2). These include his Northland Panels and other series exploring doubt and faith. By combining minimal marks and dense text, Rain in Northland makes it hard for us to distance ourselves from the work, suggesting that this combination of faith and doubt, as seen in sun and rain, wants to immerse us in the picture so we walk the landscape of faith with the Hebrew forebears of Christ.



‘Colin McCahon Letters and Numbers: Artwork Labels’. 2019. National Gallery of Victoria, available at https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/Colin-McCahon-Labels.pdf [accessed 14 April 2021]

McCahon, Colin. 1988. ‘Artist’s Statement’, in Colin McCahon: Gates and Journeys, (Auckland City Art Gallery)

Smith, Jason. 2001. ‘Essay: Colin McCahon’, in Colin McCahon: A Time for Messages (National Gallery of Victoria)

Smythe, Luke. 2019. ‘Review of Colin McCahon: Letter and Numbers at National Gallery of Victoria, 31 December 2019’, www.memoreview.net [accessed 14 April 2021]

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