Lent – the fifth of the Spencer paintings in Stephen Cottrell’s “Christ in the Wilderness” is called “The Hen”. And, thank God, the hope is back after “The Foxes Have Holes”. Christ lies on bare earth, curled gently around a hen, who has her four chicks on or near her. At first sight, this painting is about mothering, nurture, protecting the vulnerable. The hen does this for her chicks, Christ does this for the hen. Behind Christ, in the bumpy, egg-shaped hilly background, there are more hens and a cockerel too.
I have a small confession to make. I don’t much like hens. I recognise that this means I am not a proper member of the clergy – I know loads of priests who keep chickens, and the curate who lived in this house before me certainly did. I used to help out with the hens when I was a child. They lived in a huge barn, but were free to wander into the field outside if they wanted to. They were such bullies – every time a new batch came in, we’d have to rescue one or two who were thoroughly picked on. I never managed to make friends with any of them the way I could with cows and pigs. I hated the feel of their legs, and their feathers were never as soft as I thought they ought to be. Sorry, hens.
The perspective in this painting is a bit odd. Christ’s face is distorted as though he is being crushed by a great weight, and his right foot looks shrivelled compared to his left (I notice feet, because of my own imperfections). Although the feeling is calm and contemplative, somehow there are unseen forces here. This is a moment of respite.
But…by acting as protection to the mother hen, Christ has put up a barrier between her and the other hens. Is this good or bad? They can still reach each other, as long as they work out how – but will they? Is Christ protecting the hen – or is the man taking comfort from the proximity of warm new life? Who is nurturing whom?
I keep coming back to that foot though. Christ has aged, somehow shrunk down from the great bear-like figure of the first painting Consider the Lilies, or even the Scorpion. Lack of food and water, and the bleakness seem to have taken their toll. Yet there is new life in the form of those chicks pecking and playing so happily. There is hope.