A Scullion at Christ Church College, Oxford by John Riley

John Riley

A Scullion at Christ Church College, Oxford, After 1682, Oil on canvas, 99.7 x 60.5 cm, Christ Church College, Oxford, JBS 263, Christ Church, University of Oxford

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I Have Need of You

During the global pandemic of 2020 it was bin (wo)men, supermarket staff, public transport and delivery drivers who kept society clean, fed, and moving, often at great personal risk. The renewed attention and respect these roles subsequently received might seem in stark contrast to the abuse that many faced before and even during the pandemic: threatened, attacked, bearing the brunt of frustrations and prejudices. Alongside doctors and nurses, they were acknowledged as ‘key workers’.

Paul reminds us of the vital role played by everyone in the community, particularly those whose roles might not be recognised or respected: ‘The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you”, nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you”’ (1 Corinthians 12:21).

In John Riley’s seventeenth-century portrait of a scullion, or college servant, at Christ Church College, Oxford, the viewer is asked to pay renewed attention to a person who might have been overlooked before. His dark clothing melds into the background, as it no doubt did with the shadowy corners of the halls and staircases where he served dons who were more usually the subject of the college’s portraits. But Riley illuminates his sitter’s careworn face with a radiant light. The portrait is sensitive, dignified, even sacred in its atmosphere, presenting the hard, manual labour of this man with leather protective gloves, who carries a heavy pewter dish, almost as a holy act.

It reminds us, as Paul does, that each person has different gifts, and a different role to play in society, and that each is valuable. Duties—like parts of the body—which might be considered ‘weaker’, ‘less honourable’, or ‘unpresentable’, are in fact ‘indispensable’, having ‘greater honour’ and ‘greater modesty’ (vv.22–23).

There is no doubt that a society’s enthusiasm for honouring these roles—whether through a weekly clap, or a sanctifying oil painting—can easily stray into the realm of lip-service, using superficial acknowledgment to avoid addressing deeper questions of ingrained economic and social inequality. Yet, as Paul suggests, no society—whether the microcosm of an Oxford College, or the macrocosm of a nation or Church—can function without the harmonious activity of all its members.

 

References

Thalmann, Jacqueline and Christopher Lloyd. 2008. 40 Years of Christ Church Picture Gallery: Still One of Oxford's Best Kept Secrets (Oxford: Christ Church Picture Gallery)


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