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Dorothy L Sayers' "The Story Of Easter"

A Deceptively Complex Work for Sunday School Children

Dorothy L Sayers, theologian and novelist, died in 1957. Sometime before then – at a date as yet untraced – Hamish Hamilton Ltd published, and The Haycock Press, Ltd printed, a card-covered, illustrated work, 296 x 197 mm., of The Story of Easter, for which she had provided a short, three page text.(1) The work was one of a series published by Hamish Hamilton, and Sayers also provided the text for at least two others, The Days of Christ’s Coming and The Story of Adam and Christ.(2) Each was illustrated with one picture, all, with the exception of The Story of Easter, by Fritz Wegner.(3) In this last case, the illustrator was B.Biro.(4) The single illustration has the same form as an Advent Calendar, that is, there is a series – in this case 27 – of numbered ‘cut-out’ doors which are to be opened sequentially, at points indicated in Sayers’ text. Biro may also have been responsible for the front cover design (to be discussed later) but it is not attributed. The format is simple enough, but both the text and the accompanying images make considerable demands upon the reader/viewer. The recipient of the copy being examined here was nine or ten years of age at the time it was acquired, and presumably an attendant at either a Sunday School or pre-Confirmation class, the former being more likely for a child of that age in the mid-1950s. If so, it says much for the quality of teaching (if the work was adequately interpreted) and for the depth of knowledge expected of the pupil. For the purposes of this paper, text and illustration will be taken together, as the designer intended. The front cover design will then be considered separately.

I

Dorothy L Sayers was a credal Christian; she was, as the atheist Kathleen Nott accused her of being, “dogmatically orthodox”.(5) This is apparent from the very first sentence of The Story of Easter: “Jesus Christ the eternal Son of God the Father (blessed be He) lived thirty-three years on earth as a man among men.” The divinity of Christ, the second Person of the Holy Trinity, is unequivocally asserted here, and Sayers returns to that assertion at the end of her text. “Jesus Christ, the Son of Man, went up into the Heaven which, as God, He had never left and sat down at the right hand of God the Father, where He dwells for ever, with God the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end.”

Depiction of the entry into Jerusalem.

The main body of the text of The Story of Easter begins with the entry by Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, and then follows sequentially the principal events of Holy Week, especially from Maundy Thursday onwards. It thus follows closely both the gospel narrative, and the liturgical commemorations and celebrations that are based upon it. As the text unfolds, there are numerals in brackets, which indicate which “window” cut-out in Biro’s painting is to be opened. Thus “He sent for an ass, and rode upon it (1) into Jerusalem” – the Palm Sunday reading from the synoptic gospels – requires the opening of double gates in the Jerusalem city wall, revealing the figure of Jesus mounted on the ass, his hand raised in blessing, surrounded by disciples, and with figures laying clothing and palm-branches in his path.  Number 2 is the bribing of Judas Iscariot by the priests and elders (eg.Luke 22). For this, the opening of two leaves of a window high in the Temple complex is required, revealing Judas receiving a bag of money from the High Priest. To complete the ‘picture’, the other twenty-five figures are here listed in summary form:

3. The Last Supper.  The wall of a house opens, to reveal a Leonardo-esque scene of Jesus with eleven disciples. (e.g. Lk 22:14-23. Luke mentions the twelve disciples at the beginning of the meal.)
4.  Judas leaves.  A door in the same house opens, with Judas running out down a flight of steps – a reminder that the Supper was in an “upper room”. (Jn 13:23-30. John alone of the evangelists mentions Jesus’ exchange with Judas, and Judas’ departure.)
5.  Gethsemane. Trees in a garden outside the city wall fall forward, to reveal Jesus standing, with two apostles (ie James and John) with Judas coming forward to embrace him. Judas is accompanied by armed soldiery. (e.g. Lk 22:39-48. The synoptic gospels mention three disciples, Peter, James and John.)
6.  The Betrayal.  The same window serves for this, as for 5. (Matt. 26:47-49).
7. Christ before Caiaphas. Another double window, high in a tower, with Jesus, his hands bound, standing before a seated High Priest. (Matt. 26:57).
8.  Peter’s Denial. Here the wall of a turret opens to reveal a crowing cock. (Matt. 26: 69-75. Jesus’ warning to Peter that he will deny him three times before the cock crowed is Matt. 26:34).
9. Jesus looks at the sorrowing Peter. This image is revealed by opening the door in the tower whose windows featured in No.7. (Lk. 22:61)
10. Jesus in the Court of the Elders. The wall of a building in the Temple complex lifts up to reveal the scene. It is adjacent to the room in which the bribing of Judas (No.2) had taken place, thus connecting the two. (Lk 22:63-71).
11.  Judas’ remorse. Again, in the same complex, a tower window opens to show Judas flinging down the thirty pieces of silver. (Matt. 27:3-5).
12. Judas hangs himself. An explicit image this, clearly intended by Biro to shock. A rock adjacent to Calvary opens, to show a dead tree in a darkened landscape, with the figure of Judas hanging by the neck from a branch. The juxtaposition with Calvary is cleverly thought out. (Matt. 27:5).
13. Jesus before Pilate. A window in a building set against the Temple opens, showing a seated Pilate and a standing Jesus. The two are alone. (Matt. 27:11-14).
14. Jesus before Herod. Again, a seated king, and a standing Jesus, seen alone. (Lk 23:6-12).
15. The dream of Pilate’s wife. The wife is shown asleep in bed, with the winged figure of a demon bending over her. There is some similarity in the features of the demon and those of the presiding High Priest at Jesus’ trial in No.10. (Matt. 27:19).
16. Mocking and Scourging of Jesus by the soldiery. Again in the complex of Pilate’s palace, Jesus is shown in the scarlet robe and crown of thorns, being beaten. (Matt. 27:27-31).
17. Pilate washes his hands. The bound figure of Jesus, still in the scarlet robe and crown of thorns, stands looking out, whilst Pilate, in the background, washes his hands. (Matt. 27:24).
18.  The release of Barabbas. The bars of a prison gate below Pilate’s palace open, to reveal a bound figure of the robber. (Matt. 27:16-26).
19.  Jesus falls under the weight of the cross. As with Gethsemane, trees outside of the city wall fall forward, to show Jesus fallen, and Simon of Cyrene, shown as a negro, coming forward to help him up and pick up the cross . (Matt. 27:32. None of the gospels mention Jesus falling. The image is familiar from the devotion The Stations of the Cross.)
20. The crucifixion. The largest of the windows. Two trees, the trees of Eden (one with the serpent coiled about it) open on the scene of Jesus crucified between the two thieves, with Mary and John standing, and Mary Magdalene kneeling, and one Roman soldier as onlooker. The composition is the traditional one. (e.g. Jn 19:25-27. The artist has made reference to the legend that the cross was made from timber taken from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in Eden. Gen. 2:17.)
21. The “Harrowing of Hell”. The rock of Calvary opens, revealing Jesus leading out souls, the first being Adam, Eve and Moses (?) from Hell. (There is no reference to this tradition in the gospels. The reference in the creeds “He descended into hell” is based upon 1 Pet.3 :18-20. The inclusion of this image, and the text [Jesus’] “soul went out of His body into the place of death and set free all the blessed souls that had been waiting there for Him from the days of Adam and Eve; and He led them all away into Paradise. So by His death He released us all from the power of death” is a good example of Sayers’ Catholic orthodoxy.
22. The Resurrection. Trees in a garden carpeted with flowers open to show the Risen Christ.  (The gospel narratives do not describe the moment of resurrection.)
23. The Empty Tomb. A rock-tomb, with seated, sleeping guards, opens to show two angels, a stone sarcophagus, and empty grave clothes. (Jn 20:12. The reference to the watch on the tomb is Matt. 27:62-66, but there is no reference in the gospels to the soldiers asleep. Again, this is a traditional image.)
24.  The three women. A pair of wooden doors leading through the garden fence open to show the three women with their embalming spices. (Only Mark mentions three women – Mk 16:1 – Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome. Matthew mentions the two Marys, Luke “women” and John only Mary Magdalene.)
25. Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene in the garden. (Jn 20:11-18).
26. The Ascension. A rocky hillside opens, to show the ascending Jesus (feet only, in the medieval tradition) attended by angels, and with disciples standing watching. (Lk 24:50-53; Acts 1:6-12 – two accounts by the same author.)
27. The glory of the eternal Trinity. Clouds, upon which rides the “Lamb & Flag” lift up, to reveal the Father, Jesus at his right hand, and the Holy Spirit (unusually shown anthropomorphically, as a seated figure with a sealed book, and the dove hovering over his left shoulder). (A central doctrine of the Christian Faith, most fully expounded in the ‘Creed of St Athanasius’, it is inferred from, rather than made explicit in, the Bible. Once again, Sayers’ essential orthodoxy and firm commitment to the doctrines of the faith is revealed here.)

II

The inspiration for Biro’s composition, the painting which accompanies Sayers’ text, might have been Hans Memling’s Scenes from the Passion of 1470–71. In that work the events of the Passion are located in various sites distributed throughout a city, representing Jerusalem. Memling’s imaginative depiction of people and places associated with the Passion encourages the viewer, as Lew Andrews puts it, “to enter the painting’s fictive world, to move through the picture’s space as though traversing the imaginary room or houses...”(6) The same is true of Biro’s painting; again, we have the walls and towers of a medieval city, set in a landscape, with figures in fifteenth century dress. Only the principal characters in the Biblical narrative are clothed in the costume of the first century C.E.

View of a city representing Jerusalem.

Which brings us to Biro’s depiction of the person of Jesus. Sayers had very definite views on how Jesus should be depicted. Speaking to a reporter from The Church Times, she said: “Artists who paint pictures of our Lord in the likeness of a dismal-looking, die-away person, with his hair parted in the middle, ought to be excommunicated for blasphemy”.(7) In The Sunday Times, at the same time, she herself wrote: “The people who hanged Christ, never, to do them justice, accused him of being a bore – on the contrary, they thought him too dynamic to be safe, It has been left for later generations to muffle up that shattering personality and surround him with an atmosphere of tedium. We have very efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, certified him ‘meek and mild’, and recommended him as a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies.”(8) It is unlikely that she changed her mind on this in the latter part of her life. In which case, Biro’s depiction of Jesus in The Story of Easter, must have been a sore disappointment. There is little strength or virility in the images of Jesus revealed behind the ‘doors’ of the painting. There is more of a sense of the presence of evil in the demon bending over Pilate’s wife, and more horror and terror in the picture of the hanged Judas than there is of the power and glory that Sayers found in the victim-who-is-hero, the Jesus of the Passion. Biro’s depictions tend to reinforce the stereotypical images of Jesus which Sayers found so misleading and repugnant.

Depiction of the betrayal of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Depiction of the hanged Judas.

III

The front cover design, that which makes the initial impact on the reader, is more of a disappointment artistically. The whole is executed in brown and blue, the title panel surrounded by an over-elaborate and fussy pattern of linked tendrils and foliage. Within that foliate border are a stylized Maltese cross with the sacred initials INRI, and depictions of eight of the traditional ‘Instruments of the Passion’. In the corners, but also embraced by the foliate design, are four roundels depicting The Last Supper and Christ before Pilate,(top) and the Crucifixion and Resurrection (bottom). The figure of Christ as depicted here, one might imagine, would have brought forth one of Dorothy L.Sayers’ legendary bursts of outrage  Here indeed we have the “dismal-looking, die-away person, with his hair parted in the middle” which she had so forcefully denounced in 1938. The figure of Christ before Pilate is particularly effete.(9)

Depiction of Christ before Pilate.

The Instruments of the Passion are here treated solely as a decorative motif, their place in the devotional life of the Christian community, as aids to contemplation, lost in the fussy foliate pattern.(10)  They are scattered in no particular order. Those selected by the artist are:

  1. The thirty pieces of silver, given to Judas Iscariot to betray Jesus. (Matt. 26:14-16)
  2. The bread and the cup of the Last Supper – the latter shown as a chalice, of medieval pattern. (Matt.26:26-29).
  3. The water jug and bowl, used by Jesus for the washing of the disciples’ feet – the ‘jug’ being shown rather, and unfortunately, as an elegant coffee-pot reminiscent of an ‘Arts & Crafts’ design. (Jn.13:3-17)
  4. The cock who’s crowing marked Peter’s denial. (Matt.26:74)
  5. The rope which bound Jesus as a prisoner. (Matt.27:2)
  6. The crown of thorns. (Matt.27:29)
  7. The hammer and (three) nails, used to fasten Jesus to the cross. (There is no specific reference in the gospels to the nailing, or to the number of nails used. The artist here has adhered to medieval convention.)
  8. A sword and spear – the latter, anachronistically, in the form of a halberd. (Jn.19:34-37. The sword refers to Simeon’s prophecy to the Virgin Mary in Lk.2:35)

IV

The ability to visualize places associated with the gospel narrative has been central to Christian prayer and meditation at least since the high middle ages. The Giardino di Orationi of 1454, for example, exhorts the reader to impress the story of the Passion on the mind by such a device, using the familiar scenes of a local town or city to act as a ‘trigger’.(11) The Hans Memling painting mentioned earlier does just this, and Biro in the work under discussion here has taken up the idea. He has, however, not done what the author of the Giardino suggested, nor what Memling had attempted; that is, to place the Passion in a contemporary setting. Instead, he has opted for a late medieval ‘never-never-land’ so often used as the locus of fairy-story. He has also used, particularly in the depictions of Jesus, what by the 1950s was the stereotypical image so abhorred by the author whose text he was illustrating.

The design of the little book, with the participative element of opening the doors in the painting sequentially as indicated in the narrative, is a familiar and successful one. By contrast, the artwork itself reinforces the very understanding of the person of Christ that the author sought to avoid. As she so trenchantly put it:

‘To those who knew him…he in no way suggests a milk-and-water person; they objected to him as a dangerous firebrand. True, he was tender to the unfortunate, patient with honest inquirers, and humble before heaven; but he insulted respectable clergymen by calling them hypocrites. He referred to King Herod as ‘that fox’; he went to parties in disreputable company and was looked upon as a ‘guttonous man and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners’; he assaulted indignant tradesmen and threw them and their belongings out of the temple; he drove a coach-and-horses through a number of sacrosanct and hoary regulations; he cured diseases by any means that came handy, with a shocking casualness in the matter of other people’s pigs and property; he showed no proper deference for wealth or social position; when confronted with neat dialectical traps, he displayed a paradoxical humour that affronted serious-minded people, and he retorted by asking disagreeably searching questions that could not be answered by rule of thumb. He was emphatically not a dull man in his human lifetime, and if he was God, there can be nothing dull about God either…’(12)

Biro’s Christ has none of these qualities. His ‘shattering personality’ is lost.

 

John Morgan-Guy
March 2006

We would welcome any information about the copyright ownership of the work of B. Biro.

1. An indication of the publication date is provided by a sticker on the back cover of the copy in my possession, given as a Church Times Award in their “Giants of the Church Competition”, and dated 15th April 1955.  David Coomes, Dorothy L Sayers. A Careless Rage for Life (Oxford, Lion Publishing, 1992)  p.217, mentions that it was “in the last years of her life” and possibly “for intellectual relief” that Sayers wrote the short texts, The Days of Christ’s Coming, The Story of Adam and Christ, The Story of Noah’s Ark. He does not specifically mention The Story of Easter, but this was part of the same Hamish Hamilton series.

2. The other works in the series were The Days before Christmas; Enid Blyton’s Christmas Story; A Christmas Carol (adapted from Charles Dickens); and The Story of David.

3. The Days before Christmas does not seem to have had a text. Presumably it was in the form of an Advent Calendar.

4. Biro was a prolific illustrator of – principally – children’s books in the 1950s. They included J.M.Scott’s The Man who made Wine; Robina Beckles Willson’s Leader of the Band; and the perennial classic, Captain Marryat’s Children of the New Forest.

5. Kathleen Nott, The Emperor’s Clothes (Heinemann, 1953), quoted by Coomes, op.cit. p.202.

6. Lew Andrews, Story and Space in Renaissance Art: the Birth of Continuous Narrative (Cambridge, University Press, 1995) p.32. I am grateful to my colleague, Dr Martin O’Kane, for drawing this work to my attention, and for reminding me of Memling’s painting.

7. The Church Times, 8 April 1938, quoted by  Coomes, Dorothy L Sayers p.125.,

8. The Sunday Times, 3 April 1938, quoted by Coomes, Dorothy L.Sayers, p.129.

9. That of Pilate, in the background, is equally poor. Here is not the experienced, crafty, manipulative yet weak figure of the gospels, but a youth scarcely out of his ‘teens. The Jesus of the Last Supper is not so much reflective and recollected, as sad, and there is no sense of glory or triumph about the Resurrection figure.

10. Gabriele Finaldi, The Image of Christ (National Gallery/Yale U.P.2000) especially chapter 5, ‘Praying the Passion’.

11. Quoted by Lew Andrews, Story and Space, p.29. I am grateful to my colleague Dr Martin O’Kane for this reference and for discussing this idea with me.

12. Quoted by Coomes, Dorothy L Sayers, pp 129–130.

 

Depiction of the Crucifixion.
B. Biro, Crucifixion, 1950s, scene from behind a door of the painting accompanying The Story of Easter