Roger Wagner's Visionary landscapes by Rupert Martin
A Journal of the Arts and Religion
THE story begins at the monastery of San Marco in Florence, where Fra
Angelico prayed and painted. Walking up the stairs you are confronted
by an angel with multicolored wings, announcing momentous news to
Mary. Further on you come to the individual cells in which you can seclude
yourself. Each cell contains a frescoed wall painted by Fra Angelico to aid the
monks' prayers. You are alone in a landscape in which Jesus comes and goes, as
if entering the very place where you sit and contemplate. For English artist
Roger Wagner these rooms have a special place in his life as artist and Christian.
They embody an ideal space in which art and the everyday meet, where the
worlds of prayer and art overlap. At the place where they meet is the person of
Jesus, apprehended by faith at the intersection of time and eternity. Wagner's
visits to San Marco in 1973 and 1978 proved formative for his faith and his art,
and his early paintings reflected the ordered world of Fra Angelico, with its
formal clarity, translucent color and atmosphere of prayer.
In his recently printed work. The Book of Praises, Wagner seeks to create an
equivalent to the experience of walking from cell to cell in the monastery of San
Marco. Each page becomes a self-contained unit in which one can immerse
oneself in the text and image as in a cell. This work is characteristic of the
thoroughness with which Wagner approaches any project. He began by learning
Hebrew, translating the Psalms into a fresh idiom, and then engraving woodcuts
placed between the Hebrew and English texts, in a way that varies from page to
page. The woodcuts act as a focus for our reflections on the Psalms, and remind
Wagner of the Bibles of the Reformation with their combined use of type and
woodcuts. Wagner's work also belongs to the English tradition which includes
the woodcuts which Paul Nash carved to illustrate the book of Genesis, as well
as William Blake's woodcuts to illustrate Thornton's translation of Virgil's
Eclogues which so inspired the nineteenth-century painter Samuel Palmer.
Having studied at Oxford and lived there for the last twenty years, Wagner
has had ample opportunity to look closely at the jewel-like pen-and-ink
landscapes by Palmer which are displayed in Oxford University's Ashmolean
Museum, and it was entirely fitting that Wagner recently held a major exhibition
in that museum. Palmer's pastoral vision was of a world replete with fruitfulness,
a Keatsian overabundance that reflected his faith in God's providence. The
idyllic days Palmer spent at the southern English village of Shoreham fueled his
imagination to recreate its humble valley as the Valley of Vision, with its
rounded hills, ripe crops, and little shady dells glimmering with light. As we shall
see, Wagner's pastoral vision is not so idyllic, but traces of Palmer's lyrical vision
remain in the way Wagner sees landscape as the mirror of God's glory, the place
within which He works out His redemptive purposes.
In Roger Wagner's work, several strands merge: the Renaissance, the pastoral,
English landscape and poetry, and Christian biblical meditation. As he has
progressed as an artist he has often interwoven these different strands and
techniques. A good example of this process is the painting entitled The Harvest
Is the End of the World and the Reapers Are Angels.
The image came to him when he was an Oxford undergraduate studying
English. At that time he was torn between his desire to study art and the need to
finish the course he had begun. During his final year he impulsively decided to
give up English and. begin art studies. After a week he was dissuaded and went
on to take a first class honors degree in English literatureâthe highest result
that one can achieve at Oxford University. It was only after he had spent the
next three years studying at the Royal Academy of Art, London, that he felt he
had acquired sufficient technical expertise to enable him to tackle the theme of
angels reaping. Even then he destroyed the first version, feeling that it was too
garish in color.
The key to the composition came to him after seeing a picture by Guercino
which had a very dark sky. "The more you can compose a picture, the more you
can subdue colors and the stronger the effect," Wagner says. By introducing a
dark blue sky he not only increased the sense of impending doom, but he was
also able to contain the radiance of the central harvest-field and thereby control
the light. Roger made many drawings of the angels, for some of which this
author served as a model. I remember standing for an hour in the position of a
reaper with a sickle!
These drawings of angels were made into woodcuts and included in his first
book of poems, entitled Fire Sonnets published by the Besalel Press in 1984.
These poems have an unearthly quality that adds to the vision of angels reaping:
there are trees ablaze with angelic light, the angel wrestling with Jacob in the '
dark, and Jesus stretching out his hand to Peter as he begins to walk on water.
Wagner's work constantly refers to the supernatural, and he depicts a world
ablaze with light, transfigured by the presence of God and his angels:
And in that summer evening's fading light
I saw his angels gather in the wheat:
Like beaten gold their beauty smote the air
And tongues of flame were streaming in their hair.
One hears echoes of the mystical poets Henry Vaughan and Thomas Trahern
in these poems, and also in the visual imagery of the field of wheat, which is
reminiscent of Traherne's vivid memory of childhood in his third Century.
The Corn was Orient and Immortal Wheat, which never
should be reaped, nor was ever sown. I thought it
had stood from Everlasting to Everlasting.
Wagner's field of grain is not, however, the endless vista of childhood
innocence, but the prospect of God's judgment on our completed lives. The
theme of judgment gives Wagner's pastoral painting its particular edge. Here is
no sentimentalized landscape, but one fraught with doom, the Anglo-Saxon
word for judgment. And yet it is an image of judgment far removed from art
history's many grotesque herdings of human beings into the Pit. Wagner speak
of the power of Michelangelo's Last Judgment, but says:
I'm never entirely happy with such pictures. The emphasis on terror
produces a terrifying picture of God, who works just by fear. Although an
aspect of fear is appropriate, the emphasis in the New Testament is on the
justice of God. Evil being destroyed is something we are encouraged to
The sense of judgment as something positive is reflected in the radiance oft!
field of wheat, and both the parable and the painting illustrate the possibility o
redemptive love. His harvest field is intersected by two paths that in their
shadowing reveal the cross, and the low angle of the sun causes tl ^ s'
wings to cast winged crosses onto the wheat [see front cover]. Judgment
becomes a promise, an answer to the perennial question posed in the Psalms:
"Why do evil men seem to succeed?"
Wagner has translated the classic themes of Renaissance art, redemption and
judgment, into an idiom that is true to the English pastoral tradition and to hi
image of a loving and just God. Each element in this skillful composition
contributes tc the whole: the detailed flora of the foreground, the three
sycamore trees, the stocks of cut wheat, the three angels choreographed in
different poses, the more distant angels, the intersecting paths leading the eye
inward over the radiant wheat to the splendor of the magnificent oak which
holds the composition in balance, the blue curving river, and the rising
crescendo of cumulus clouds highlighted by the setting sun against deep-blue
thunder clouds. All these elements speak of one dramatic fact of faith, the
splendor and glory of God who is creator, redeemer, and judge. A vision of such
subdety and intensity took more than ten years in the making, and combines
technical excellence with a visionary faith.
The influence of the Suffolk landscape near Aldeburgh, where Roger was
brought up, is evident in many of his paintings ; af which acts as a pendant
to the angels reaping. Entitled Abraham and the Angels (1989), it shows
Abraham picnicking with the angels among a group of pine trees. The gnarled
branch of a dead tree in the foreground and the looming presence of a nuclear
power plant in the background provokes thoughts of impending catastrophe,
such as God visited upon the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah immediately after
His angelic visitation with Abraham and Sarah (Gen. 18-19). One of the striking
aspects of Wagner's painting is this blend of biblical story and contemporary
iconography and landscape. His visualizing of past and present ends up
transcending particular time, creating a sense oftimelessness.
Watching again the film by Andrei Tarkovsky which focuses on the icon
painter Andrei Rublev, I was reminded how much an artist is called to be aware
of his times and yet to transcend them. The film records the turbulence of
fifteenth-century Russia and the cruelty of the Tartar invasions, showing the
painter wandering through the landscape witnessing these events. That suffering
is transmuted in the icons into a poignant compassion, a desire to reveal the
truth in eloquent forms, to set forth the glory of God in translucent layers of
tempera on wood. The black-and-white film ends in color as the camera dwells
lovingly on details of the icons for which Rublev is best known, including The
Trinity, which shows the three angels that visited Abraham.
Tarkovsky's film also refers to the position and plight of the artist in a hostile
political climate. Roger Wagner's own art have a prophetic edge similar to
Tarkovsky's, not hesitating to deal with unfashionable themes and to issue a
searching indictment of the values which dominate our materialistic society.
Two paintings of 1989 depict the Great Storm which had recently destroyed
thousands of trees in the south of England. One is entitled See What Desolations^
refers to Psalm 46, in which the note of catastrophe is followed by a note of
Come and see the works of the Lord,
the desolations he has brought on the earth .
He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth;
he breaks the bow and shatters the spear,
he burns the shields with fire.
Be still and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth
Wagner's paintings, for all their vigor of composition, often possess that sense
of stillness at the center of the storm, that idea of hope in the face of despair.
The light which bathes his wheat fields or is caught in the leaves of a tree has an
otherworldly quality, between day and night, and often accentuated by
gathering clouds or deep blue skies. It is the kind of light I see from my window
as I write, the low evening light of a winter afternoon revealing the greenness of
the lichen-encrusted oak trees, reflecting the whiteness of silver birches
silhouetted against a dark storm-cloud. Yet, in a Wagner painting there is a
strange stillness, as if nature is holding her breath, for that moment taken out of
time into eternity. It is the light of transfiguration which we are occasionally
privileged to glimpse on earth.
Trees hold a special place in Wagner's imagination: the solitary oaks or clumps
of pines in the flat Suffolk landscape, the tall black poplars arching over the river
that winds through Port Meadow near Oxford, the juniper trees of Delphi in
Greece. In landscapes that are largely unpeopled, the trees act as metaphors of
life, either destroyed by storm, or filled with light. As Gerard Manley Hopkins
wrote of the trees near Oxford in "Binsey Poplars":
My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
All felled, felled, are all felled;
or in Traherne's words:
The Green Trees...Transported and ravished me; their
Sweetness and unusual Beauty made my heart to leap....
they were such strange and Wonderful things.
For Wagner, trees rustle with angels' wings and shimmer with the light of
heaven; they represent both the transcendence and the immanence of God. His '
own poetry shows how he sees the light and movement in the trees he has
Who hears the ocean roaring in a tree
That rustles like a thousand angels' wings
And feels the rising wind he cannot see,
Is seeing to the burning heart of things.
Working on blue paper, he has made a series of large single trees , '
using the same technique of pen and ink with gum arable that Samuel Palmer
used for his tree-filled landscapes. These single trees show how much the
development of Wagner's technique has helped to release his vision: they
combine a minute attention to the individual leaves with a broad sweep of
composition and light.
The trees also show how much his art emerges out of his life and observation.
Born in 1957, Roger was encouraged to appreciate and study the arts by his
father. Sir Anthony Wagner, who was an expert on heraldry and who became
Garter King of Arms at the College of Arms. Roger has inherited the meticulous
attention to detail that characterizes his father's visual work, as well as his
mother Gillian's interest in the art and culture of England. Dame Gillian Wagner
became noted for her work in the field of voluntary and social work, becoming
president of Dr. Barnado's charity for children. She has also written books,
including a biography of Dr. Barnado. The combination of this artistic and
literary backgroundâas well as his forays into the Suffolk landscapeâwere
formative influences which he took with him to school at Eton College and then
Oxford University. At Eton the influence of the Robert Browning scholar and
English teacher Michael Meredith was particularly appreciated, especially during
Wagner's visits to Italy in 1973 and America in 1975.
During the years that I have known him, Roger has shown a single-minded
dedication and integrity in his life and work. I recall one example of this
integrity, when we were staying on the Greek island ofNaxos in 1977. He had
spent hours painting a landscape, seated on a barren hillside in the heat of the
day, but for various reasons he became dissatisfied with the picture and simply
abandoned it c : hillside. Later that day we entered the local butcher's shop,
where the butcher said that he had seen Roger painting, and asked whether it
would be possible to buy the painting. Roger said that, unfortunately, it wasn't
good enough, and even refused to let me go back and retrieve it from the
hillside, so that we could supplement our dwindling resources!
Roger Wagner is a painter of place as well as of visions, and he often chooses
to locate biblical stories in familiar settings, placing the story of the burning fiery
furnace from the book of Daniel in Lucy's iron smelting works in Oxford. Not
all his subjects are religious: "God created the hippopotamus as well as the
angels," he comments. "I want to be free to paint every aspect of Creation." For
that reason he has not ignored the industrial landscape, seeing in it scope for
metaphor and transformation.
In 1988 he published a book of poems and engravings called In a Strange
Land^ which includes images of the des ; - docklands of London seen in the
context of Psalm 137 . Before they underwent their recent
redevelopment, the London docklands were indeed a strange, almost surreal
place: derelict warehouses bordering little creeks, rusting cranes lying idle, empty
piers that used to bustle with imperial trade. All of these things
compose a stark geometry, empty of people and activity, and reminiscent ofde
Chirico's metaphysical paintings of empty piazzas and colonnaded buildings.
The paintings on blue paper, in gouache, ink and watercolor mixed with gum
arabic, combine geometry and mystery, accurate observation with a sense of
spiritual desolation, echoing the words of Psalm 137:
By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept...
How can we sing the songs of the Lord in a strange land?
The docklands become a metaphor for the spiritual bankruptcy of a whole
nation, for empty promises of materialism, and for the blight that affects the
grandest of human schemes, in the light of God's eternal plans. And yet there is
a poignant sense of elegy in these works, a transforming light that gives some
sense of hopeâas if nothing is wastedâa sense that everything is beautiful in its
own time and in its own way.
An elegiac note is also struck in one of Wagner's earliest compositions,
entitled Ash Wednesday . In it, he has translated an enigmatic section
from T. S. Eliot's Ash-Wednesday into pictorial form. The section begins:
Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree
In the cool of the day, having fed to satiety
On my legs my heart my liver and that which had been contained
In the hollow round of my skull. And God said
Shall these bones live?
As with many of his paintings, this one is a visual jigsaw, pieced together from
different places and visual experiences. The juniper tree was discovered at
Delphi, and the broken columns drawn from a photograph which I took on the
island ofDelos, during our 1977 visit to Greece. The leopards were drawn from
life during several visit to London Zoo, the wheeling birds come from the
Suffolk landscape, and the skeleton from a Renaissance painting by Vittore
Carpaccio. The painting gives the effect of a heightened reality verging on the
surreal. The theme of the painting, as of Eliot's poem, concerns the hope of
resurrection, even when confronted with the fact of death.
This concept of hope coming out of despair, of beauty in the apparently ugly,
of the majesty of ordinary thingsâwhether natural or architectural, man-made
or God-madeâis central to an epic series of paintings which Wagner embarked
on in the 1990s. As with the harvest paintings, there was a long period of
gestation and several versions of the painting entitled Menorah.
The painting could be said to begin with the train journey from Oxford to
London, which passes through Didcot. From the train the six-massive cooling
towers of the Didcot Power Station dwarf everything else. On one journey, the
artist saw the smoke and steam pouring from these towers against an
extraordinary sky. He made a sketch while on the train and then amplified it at
home. on another occasion, when we were visiting two hilltop clumps of beech
trees called Wittenham Clumps, which inspired some of Paul Nash's late
paintings, I remember Roger turning his back on the beautiful trees to make a
watercolor of the power station with its great plumes of smoke shadowing the
plain below. Wagner has acknowledged the influence of Paul Nash, especially his
stylized landscapes. In this case the influence of Nash's war paintings with their
devastated woods and elegiac fury may have contributed to the vast, impersonal
forces symbolized by Wagner's painting of the power station.
The sense of human vulnerability in the face of these mechanistic forces led to
the idea of placing a Crucifixion scene in the foreground. The first version was a
deposition with the figures who attend to and mourn for Christ dressed in the
striped uniform of the Death Camps and carrying the yellow Star of David. The
plowed field is raked by the evening light, and the three crosses set at an angle to
the six cooling-towers belching steam and the central taller chimney emitting
The chimney immediately brings to mind the crematoria chimneys of
Auschwitz, but it was only later that the artist saw, in the six towers and one
chimney, the symmetrical appearance of the seven-branched candelabrum, the
menorah, which is a central Jewish symbol of God's presence. This early version
was entitled Servant Song IV: Surely He Has Borne Our Griefs, referring to the
messianic prophecy of Isaiah 53. The connection of the Suffering Servant with
the suffering of the Jews in the concentration camps is a startling one, and raises
the central question in any attempt at theodicy: how can a God of Love allow
such suffering? The question occurred in Auschwitz itself, as Elie Wiesel, an
Auschwitz survivor, describes in his book Night.
The SS hanged two Jewish men and a youth in front of the whole camp.
The men died quickly, but the death throes of the youth lasted for half an
hour. "Where is God? Where is he?" someone asked behind me. As the
youth still hung in torment in the noose after a long time, I heard the man
call again, "Where is God now?" And I heard a voice in myself answer:
"Where is he? He is here. He is hanging there on the gallows."
Although seen by Elie Wiesel in the context of Judaism and of the humiliation
of God in going with Israel into exile and suffering, for Christians this moving
story has a striking resonance. God was indeed there on the gallows, because
Jesus had gone through the same kind of gratuitous, cruel and prejudiced death
on the cross, not at the hands of Jews, but because of the sin of mankind as a
whole. The cross becomes the only answer we can give to the inescapable
problem of suffering, and it is not so much an answer as a demonstration of
God's love in suffering. As the German theologian Jiirgen Moltmann wrote in
The Crucified God: "The Son suffers dying, the Father suffers the death of the
The suffering of God, his identification with our suffering through the death
of his Son, helps us to bear the terrible suffering which this century has
witnessed. Wagner is courageous enough as an artist and as a Christian to
confront this manifestation of evil and yet to see the possibility of hope in the
stark landscape of grief.
The elegy of the first version gives way to a more tragic vision of crucifixion in
the second version, painted in 1993 [see Plate 5]. Jesus is naked on the cross,
the thieves on either side. The plowed field is flooded, reflecting the cooling
towers which loom even closer than before, in a more sinister way. The
onlookers, dressed in Hasidic clothes, gather and drift, seeking comfort,
pointing in silent witness, or simply standing, desolate, inconsolable in their
The composition of some of the figures has a revealing source: a photograph
taken by Dmitri Baltemants in the Crimea in 1942, which shows women
looking for their loved ones among the bodies which lie strewn across a bleak,
smoke-filled landscape. This haunting photograph of grief shows one woman
stooped in despair as she searches, and another with arms flung out in a gesture
of despair. The words of Jesus on the cross ec'; i ; abandonment: "My God,
my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" And that cry was made by a Jew to the
God of the Jews.
Emotions are stirred by such iconography, because the Jewish people suffered
persecution in an ostensibly Christian culture. Christian anti-Semitism should
lead to Christian repentance. And yet there is a glimmer of hope in the fragile,
vulnerable body stretched upon the cross; as Christopher Miller has written in
his introduction to Wagner's retrospective exhibition at the Ashmolean
The Jewish Christians at the foot of the cross lament the loss of all their
hope; the intervention of God in their lives is apparently annihilated in
Christ's death. The smoke that the Jews watch sweeping up into the clouds
""o^s the ashes carried by the wind over the bleak Polish plains. And a
parallel is established. We are in the presence of the cross, but the six
cooling towers and the central chimney make up the seven branches of the
menorah, the ritual candlestick which defines the holiness of the Jewish
holy place and thus marks the presence of God. For Jews and Christians
alike, the face of desolation wears another aspect, that of the presence and
providence of God.
The promise of God's presence through suffering is sufficient. Political
solutions are no answer to the Final Solution. Moreover, the systematic
destruction of Jewish life and culture has been repeated in the horrors of Pol Po
and the genocide of Rwanda. Wagner is proposing not a human, political
solution, but something that Christopher Miller has vividly described as a
"politics of transcendence":
In the gloomy forms that preside in the painting's background, the colossal
mechanisms of the state themselves achieve a status like that of destiny.
Christ was crucified, if not at the state's behest, by the state.
Our wildest dreams of horror have been eclipsed by the functioning of
an industrial society which used its technology and organization to
administer a systematic death. Capitalist considerations played their part in
the functioning of Nazi and Stalinist death camps. The considerations
which should determine conduct towards other humans were overlooked.
These are not simple implications, but they suggest how Wagner is able to
bring to bear upon lives lived under the light of the electric filament a
politics of transcendence.
Wagner has the ability to bring together disparate elements of his experience
into an aesthetic whole, and to deal with profound themes in a fresh,
challenging way. To set a biblical scene in a contemporary landscape is not in
itself unusual; it is a technique employed by other artists such as Stanley Spencer.
But grappling with the meaning of suffering by bringing together images of
crucifixion and holocaust shocks us out of our complacency. It takes courage
and integrity to make such connections. It also takes faith to present the hope
that Wagner has, while not looking for easy answers.
His is also a visual solution: how to paint shadows, how to represent grief
through gesture. His large compositions evolve slowly, as disparate elements
come together and as the paintings grow in complexity. "Scale comes from the
strength of the idea and the composition," Wagner says. "Too many large
paintings are just inflated small ones." This is why he rarely works o; ' ge
scale, preferring the intimacy and immediacy of small paintings on board, the
sketch, or the woodcut. At the same time, he does not shy away from the
challenge of scale.
Roger Wagner's most recent work consists of a series often paintings on the
theme of Job's encounter with the God of Creation. The plan is to exhibit these
in the Bartlemas Chapel in South Oxford, which is all that remains of a medieval
leper colony. As he explains:
Job is the nearest the Old Testament comes to answering the question of
suffering. And the answer isn't in propositions. God doesn't explain but
shows Job; he gives him a guided tour of Creation, at the end of which Job
says that he has seen Godâand that for him is the answer, that is enough.
For Wagner, Creation represents God's glory, and Job's suffering is
transcended by seeing God and experiencing his love. As someone whose faith
was nurtured within the context or a charismatic, evangelical Anglican church in
London, and who now worships in a Vineyard church in Oxford, Roger's
experience is of "a God who is like the God we discover in the Bible, who does
intervene in his world and who does miraculous and extraordinary things." But
his faith is also mature enough not to rely on the sensationalâmature enough to
look for God's working in the small things and incidents of everyday life. His
paintings embody that search for God in the simple fabric of Creation: ears of
corn, the trembling of leaves, the shimmer of water, as well as the simple
relationships shown in a tender touch. A particularly poignant little painting that
he keeps in his attic studio in Oxford is of his late father, blind at the time of the
painting, tenderly holding his granddaughter in his arms.
Wagner is not afraid to grapple with issues of judgment and suffering, but his
theology is based on the all-sufficient love of God. Wagner's art embodies a
theology of grace as well as a theology of the cross. It's always interesting to see
what painters choose to put on their walls. Alongside reproductions of Piero
della Francesca's The Resurrection of Christ, Botti Primavera and a
Japanese woodcut, Wagner's study features Rembrandt's Prodigal Son. In this
painting the touch of the Father, the poignant moment of reconciliation,
expresses all that Wagner believes and tries to embody in his art: the love flowing
from God the Father being more than sufficient for the world we live in.
Roger Wagner's version of the pastoral tradition contains the threat of danger,
but also the all-revealing light of love. Light is what ultimately reveals God's love
both literally and figuratively, whether it is the light flooding the plains of
Oxford, or streaming over the wheat fields of Suffolk, or filling the trees with
angels, or turning the London docklands into a vast theater set. That light
embodies the glory of God and his redeeming love.