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The five thousand

The five thousand
Eularia Clarke (1914-1970)



Methodist Collection of Modern Christian Art, No.6

Commentary by Francis Hoyland

Eularia Clarke was inspired to produce this picture while eating fish and chips at Canvey Island.

She wrote of the fear she felt about painting Our Lord and how she only felt able to include a priest - and only half a priest at that - in the top right hand corner of the painting, as a kind of surrogate for him. Besides this the priest is engaged in the most secular part of the Mass for he is reading the parish notices after he has finished his sermon.

The resulting image is strange in a way because if the priest is saying Mass then his congregation are breaking the Eucharistic fast with a vengeance by eating fish and chips!

Also some of the congregation have their backs to the altar! However, all becomes clear if we realise that here we are in the realm of type and anti type. The most classic example of the relation of type to anti-type is given by Our Lord Himself when He said. "The Son of man must be lifted up as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so that everyone that believes may have eternal life in him."

In other words the healing power of the brazen serpent, which was presumably set on a cruciform standard was a type for the anti-type of the sacrifice of Golgotha whole healing power over sin we all rely on.

If we apply this kind of thinking to this painting it is clear that the priest stands for Christ and that the feeding of the five thousand is a 'type' for the 'anti-type' of the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper and for the reception of Holy Communion thereafter.

Another strange thing about this picture is that it is happening during Eularia Clarke's lifetime not in 32AD or thereabouts. Here again we have an anti-type - that is Eularia's experience at Canvey Island - setting off the resonance of the 'type' of the actual feeding of the Five Thousand, which was itself a ' type' of the Eucharist so, for her, everything was working together.

It seems to me that the fun of working out the meaning of this picture is a good way of getting closer to the meaning of the story and of sharing with Eularia some of the Faith we hold in common - at any rate now we can relax and enjoy the spectacle!

Taken together the figures make an overall pattern on the picture surface. Even though the ones at the top are slightly smaller this is certainly not a perspective space in which geometrical rules are applied to establish the way that things get smaller as they get further away.

When one applies the rules of perspective one begins by establishing ones own position in relation to the things one is painting. Someone looking at the picture then identifies with the artist and becomes the unmoving apex of a cone of vision.

This gives the artist and the spectator a sort of power over what is depicted but since Eularia was equally concerned with every person and had no intention of owning or dominating anyone, this sort of space did not suit her and she invented this even spread of figures instead.

However, it is clear that we are looking down quite steeply on the figures at the bottom of the painting and for that matter on the altar at the top. Maybe we are looking at a hillside or possibly not.

Then again the grass we hear of in the gospel spreads evenly across the space and its individual leaves get no smaller as they recede from us. But all these apparent inconsistencies make up an image that is consistent when we consider Eularia's aim was to show how important each individual and each object was to her.

For this purpose the space could not be arranged better. The painting is full of delightful incidents: the boy sitting on his father; the child in yellow using her mother as a table as her mother stretches out, curling her toes, bicycles, a primus, the sleeping woman in the bottom left hand corner and so on.

It is clear that Eularia needed to have seen the crowd at Canvey Island in order to paint this picture and this fact seems to embody a spiritual truth. God has become so mixed up with man since his incarnation that one can see the effects of his presence everywhere - if one has eyes to see.


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