A Letter to Hebrews by Colin McCahon

Colin McCahon

A Letter to Hebrews, 1979, Synthetic polymer paint on unstretched canvas, 187 x 240 cm, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington; Gift of anonymous donors with assistance from the Willi Fels Memorial Trust, 1981, 1984-0004-1, © Colin McCahon Research and Publication Trust; Photo: Museum of Te Papa Tongarewa (1981-0004-1)

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Yet To Come

Commentary by
Read by Richard Ayoade

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.

 

References

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]


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