Out of Great Tribulation
Painted by Cicely Mary Barker, 1949
Now hanging in St Andrew’s Church, Croydon
The essential meaning of Out of Great Tribulation would appear to be clear at first glance: after the suffering and trials of the Second World War, there is a reconciliation with Christ. The Cross and rainbow, two Biblical symbols of salvation, dominate the top half of the painting and the figure of Christ is both central and radiant in white. On either side of Christ are ordinary men, women and children, who have come through the tribulation. The overall effect is of a tableau, making the sort of simple, conventional statement one might expect from a devout, Christian artist in the mid-20th century. This major work by Cicely Mary Barker deserves, however, a closer analysis.
It is worth analysing the composition.
There is a very obvious symmetry in the arrangement of the figures. Christ is central, with both arms spread to echo the arms of the Cross behind him. There are two young people in the foreground. In the groups flanking Christ, there is one person on each side with hands clasped at waist height, another with an obvious bandage, one man in the uniform of a combatant (with others too from the uniformed services); there are even splashes of red on each side found in the mother’s head-scarf, the man’s tie and the soldier’s shoulder badge although, mostly, the colours are muted shades of grey, khaki and fawn. Symmetry inevitably creates a sense of balance and, therefore, stasis. Barker is clearly not interested in movement.
As if to emphasise this point, the two men who appear to have taken a step forward (the air-raid warden on the left and the soldier on the right) have stopped, with heads bowed and hands clasped (the one holding the strap of his helmet and the other in prayer). The two boys, on either side of Christ, are also immobile; one is on his knees and the other is lame. These people have emerged from the greatest ‘tribulation’ to have affected the world since recorded history, the saving figure of Christ is in their midst but yet none is impelled to move towards him. None seeks to unload a burden, nor seek mercy, nor even throw themselves forward in deep-felt gratitude.
Perhaps what we see is merely a very English restraint. There is a quiet deference but nothing which might be construed as sentimental or over-emotional. The response to Christ is perhaps indistinguishable from the sober respect which would have been accorded to King George VI or another member of the Royal Family who might, by chance, have been passing. There is, of course, one notable exception. The small girl in the forefront of the picture is alone in showing movement of her own volition.
We are left to ponder whether it was Christ who first opened his arms, prompting the child to run towards him, or whether it was the girl, running spontaneously towards Christ, who caused him to open his arms to welcome her. We do not know; nor is it necessary to know. It is clear from Barker’s composition that Christ and the girl are meant to balance one another. He and she are the only figures with hands open; both are bare-foot; both have long, loose hair; and both are dressed in simple, pale robes which bind them to the rolling, golden hills in the background, the Cross and the bright, pastel-colours of the rainbow. These are the components of a heavenly realm, off-set by the darker colours of earth: the grass in the foreground and the dress of the other figures.
It is impossible, once one has been acquainted with Barker’s most significant and appealing work (the beautiful Flower Fairies, in all their variety), not to link the little girl, running with out-stretched arms towards Christ, to the children whom Barker translated into fairies. The Flower Fairies are children made ethereal with wings. The girl in Out of Great Tribulation is grafted into a spiritual dimension through her identification, as explained above, with Christ. There can be no doubt that, in this major Christian work, Barker is affirming her core belief in the saving quality of children. It is children who embody a spiritual affinity with God. One might even be tempted to go further and say that it is girls who seem to carry this quality more significantly, given that the two boys, though gazing into the face of Christ, are motionless. It is only with the little girl that Christ is making eye-contact.
It is worth looking at the way that Barker portrays Christ. She shows him as a post-Resurrection figure. This is not as she portrays him in the triptych in St George’s, Waddon, The Parable of the Great Supper. In Out of Great Tribulation, Christ bears the marks of his own suffering. The holes in his hands, from the nails which crucified him, are visible in his hands and the crown of thorns still sits on his head. Barker has, however, cleaned up her Christ. There is no blood. The wounds are not fresh. Christ is robed. He is as we imagine he may have appeared to the apostles in the forty days between resurrection and ascension. Christ, therefore, identifies with the people clustered around him as he too has come out of great tribulation. It is the Christian understanding that suffering can be borne because it is shared by Christ. It is not the lot of humanity to escape suffering but it is through Christ that we come through it. This point is made with additional subtlety in the way that Barker echoes Christ’s crown of thorns with the coil of barbed wire tucked into the bottom left-hand corner of the picture. Both are symbols of the suffering which mankind can inflict upon itself.
One final point to make about the composition is the way Barker indicates the presence of others by having figures only just apparent on the fringes of the tableau. Her intention, surely, is to suggest inclusivity. This is emphasised still further by the representative nature of the figures. There are men and women of all ages, boys, a girl and a baby. There are those who served in one capacity or another in the war and there are civilians. True, there is no-one in the picture (including Christ) who appears to be anything other than White British but this indicates little more than a standard perspective on British society at the time. Immigrants from the former Empire had yet to add to the diversity of British society. Barker is a woman of her time.
Out of Great Tribulation is a picture of contrasts. The bright, spiritual realm symbolised by the Cross is echoed in the figures of Christ and the little girl who unite to form the upright of the Cross. This dimension is contrasted with the darker colours and realism of the figures grouped on either side, and the darker ground on which they stand. Their conventional dress contrasts with the simple shifts worn by Christ and the girl, and their bare feet. The open hands of the two central, spiritual figures are in contrast to the hands which we can see elsewhere in the picture, clasped or hanging loosely to the side. Where does this contrast take us? Is Barker stating quite starkly that there is an uncrossable chasm dividing the heavenly from the earthly? Surely not. The little girl is able to make the transition.
Out of Great Tribulation deserves our attention because it combines a sense of hope (symbolised by the child, impelled towards Christ as a source of comfort) with a sense of resignation. The figures to Christ’s left and right, have not been transformed or translated by what they have endured in the Second World War. The boy in calipers and the elderly woman at his side with a walking stick remind us that physical disability and degeneration are facts of life too. Not one figure (unless it be the little girl whose face we cannot see) is smiling, though none appears miserable or pained; this is no Judgement where the saved and the damned are divided. Is any chastened? It is impossible to tell but perhaps the praying soldier is. If these people have come out of great tribulation, there is very little to suggest that they know how to escape such a trial coming again. They stand on either side of their Saviour but passively so.
Are there messages to take from this painting, very much reflecting its own era fifty years ago, to British 21st century society? Barker would be adamant that it is in the simple innocence of children and their pure instincts that salvation is to be found. She would be appalled by the evidence, which we currently have to confront, that childhood has been eroded by an exposure to influences and behaviours which contaminate innocence before it has developed its own resilience. She would also unhesitatingly affirm the central importance of Christ in any actions that attempt social or spiritual regeneration.
It is therefore fitting that Out of Great Tribulation should again be hung in a church, and Cicely Mary Barker’s old church at that, which is realigning itself with that central Christian imperative to serve the community.