Colin McCahon writes in white text on a black ground. Black is for earth, the ground from which new things emerge and potentiality is actualized (Brown n.d.: 5). The white text—though McCahon’s own (human) writing—points to the creative (divine) word which calls life itself into being. Fashioned by the Word of God, the visible comes forth from the invisible and it is by faith that we perceive it. The text, at points, is clear and elsewhere is faded. It is emergent and—as faith not certainty—encompasses doubt.
McCahon set Hebrews 11:1–16 around a central Tau Cross and alongside a golden triangle. He began with verses 4–15 which recount stories of faith, then returned to the beginning with verses 1–3, including the question ‘What is faith?’, before ending with verses 15–16, which look towards a promised land yet to come.
In Christian tradition, the Tau Cross was associated with the Passover, being linked to the symbol made in blood on the door lintels of the Israelites in Egypt when the angel of death passed over (Exodus 12:7). A symbolism that can be read as both Christian and pre-Christian is appropriate for a letter which reveals Christ as fulfilment of the Hebrew Scriptures. Seeing the Tau Cross as a sign of Christ suggests that all McCahon’s ‘religious pictures are typography; or maps with Christ as their hidden incarnated key’ (Leonard n.d.).
Gordon Brown, a close friend and biographer of McCahon, suggested that the golden triangle ‘thrusting in from the edge’ toward the cross represents ‘a future Trinity’ (2010: 172). The revelation of the Trinity, which will happen long after the recorded histories of the ancient Israelites, is anticipated here amidst Hebrews’s roll call of the Old Testament faithful. The Trinity, present in splendour, points to the cross, the symbol both of Christ with us and the pathway to the ‘better country’ (v.16) up ahead.
Brown, Gordon H. 2010. Towards a Promised Land: On the Life and Art of Colin McCahon (Auckland University Press)
Brown, Judith. n.d. ‘‘And Darkness Came over the Whole Land’: Some thoughts on Colin McCahon and the Colour Black’, unpublished article, www.academia.edu [accessed 14 April 2021]
Leonard, Robert. n.d. ‘Colin McCahon, Toi Toi Toi, Kassel and Auckland: Museum Fredericanium and Auckland Art Gallery, 1998’, www.robertleonard.org [accessed 14 April 2021]
11Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 2For by it the men of old received divine approval. 3By faith we understand that the world was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was made out of things which do not appear.
4 By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he received approval as righteous, God bearing witness by accepting his gifts; he died, but through his faith he is still speaking. 5By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death; and he was not found, because God had taken him. Now before he was taken he was attested as having pleased God. 6And without faith it is impossible to please him. For whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. 7By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, took heed and constructed an ark for the saving of his household; by this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness which comes by faith.
8 By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place which he was to receive as an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was to go. 9By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. 10For he looked forward to the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God. 11By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised. 12Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.
13 These all died in faith, not having received what was promised, but having seen it and greeted it from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. 14For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. 16But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.
17 By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, 18of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your descendants be named.” 19He considered that God was able to raise men even from the dead; hence, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back. 20By faith Isaac invoked future blessings on Jacob and Esau. 21By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, bowing in worship over the head of his staff. 22By faith Joseph, at the end of his life, made mention of the exodus of the Israelites and gave directions concerning his burial.
23 By faith Moses, when he was born, was hid for three months by his parents, because they saw that the child was beautiful; and they were not afraid of the king’s edict. 24By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, 25choosing rather to share ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. 26He considered abuse suffered for the Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he looked to the reward. 27By faith he left Egypt, not being afraid of the anger of the king; for he endured as seeing him who is invisible. 28By faith he kept the Passover and sprinkled the blood, so that the Destroyer of the first-born might not touch them.
29 By faith the people crossed the Red Sea as if on dry land; but the Egyptians, when they attempted to do the same, were drowned. 30By faith the walls of Jericho fell down after they had been encircled for seven days. 31By faith Rahab the harlot did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had given friendly welcome to the spies.
32 And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— 33who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, received promises, stopped the mouths of lions, 34quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. 35Women received their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, that they might rise again to a better life. 36Others suffered mocking and scourging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, ill-treated— 38of whom the world was not worthy—wandering over deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.
39 And all these, though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised, 40since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.