The Deposition: exploring Christ’s burial

Rev Graham Kent explores the beauty and intricacies of Graham Sutherland’s painting, the deposition and the value of human creativity at Catalyst Live in Manchester.

The Deposition, a mid-20th century painting by Graham Sutherland, is a piece that resembles art from both the Orthodox Church and Western traditions. “It is the moment when Christ is laid in the tomb,” says Secretary of the Methodist Art Collection, Rev Graham Kent. “In this light and in certain daylighting, this picture also has the beginnings of the resurrection.” 

Graham Sutherland was deeply influenced by photographs from the Holocaust and images of survivors from the concentration camps. Painted in 1947, The Deposition shows Jesus’ lifeless and apparently emaciated form, resembling the victims in the photographs of the time, being lowered into a tomb that is set against surroundings evocative of a concentration camp.

Below the cross is what Kent describes as “the body which could be androgynous but is beginning to become abstract,” being lowered into the tomb by his followers. His figure, pale and lifeless, has developed a “spikiness” that can be found in Sutherland’s other paintings as his style developed. The sharp points of his shoulders, knees, hip and ribs emphasize the suffering that Jesus and the Holocaust survivors endured before their lives ended.

Set behind the tomb, a chalice shape fills with water, represented by the blue lines, while Jesus’ blood flows down the cross and mixes with the water. Here, Sutherland presents imagery of the blood and water mixing together as a reference to what happened when Jesus’ side was pierced by the spear.

Kent also described the signs of “diaconal ministry.” This is shown by Jesus’ followers cleansing his body with the bowl and towels as Christ is lowered “into the double sacrament of altar and font.” A devout Roman Catholic, Sutherland uses the altar and font from this tradition in the painting. The altar is covered with a simple frontal that goes all the way around the structure. It also serves as the font, the basin that is used as Jesus’ “baptismal tomb.”

Behind the tomb sit the bars for the gates of Hell, similar to a style that can be found in Renaissance paintings. “[Some] believe that Christ descended into the depths of hell,” says Kent. The figure is not just descending, but is also about to spring up in resurrection. Jesus’ form appears to be either going into the grave or slowly rising out of it, both lifeless and lifelike. “This shows a real image of descent into death and then resurrection,” he says.

Kent, in his address to the Catalyst Live audience, related the depth and power of Sutherland’s work to the importance of having creative ministry and engaging with those who paint. “We, as human beings, respond to creating things because we are created beings and have creative natures.

“Engage with all people who are creative, who agonize over the work they produce,” he encouraged the audience. “They may tell us something about the character and the nature of God. The God who loved us so much that he became one of us.”

Rev Graham Kent is the Secretary of the Methodist Art Collection

Words: Vickey Casey

Image: Graham Sutherland/The Deposition from the Methodist Modern Art Collection, © TMCP, used with permission.

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