Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Monthly Archives: December 2015

Baby Jesus meets the Sphinx

Happy Christmas! And for a Christmas card, here is Glyn Warren Philpot’s startling Repose on the Flight into Egypt (1922), currently on the wall at Tate Britain. (Click to enlarge.) I don’t know much about Philpot. Google him and you get a bunch of deftly done portraits, many of young men. All a bit ‘nineties at first, but in his later years (he died in 1937) he went rather more Deco, though not always with entirely happy results.

Here the satyrs and fauns of a departing world recognise in the crumpled figures of the exhausted family the beginnings of the new age, and in the sleeping baby the power that will revolutionise the universe. There is a beautiful and generous sympathy in this. In the Christ child the Sphinx sees the definitive answer to her riddle – a human. God as a human. The toppled colossus from whose shoulder the Sphinx alights, and against which Joseph rests his back, is an Ozymandias among half buried lintels and columns, ruins of the old religions.

The only comparable image I can think of is Max Klinger’s Christ on Olympus, where the resurrected saviour is greeted by the entire astonished pagan pantheon. It’s a wonderful conceit, though Klinger’s grandiosity lets him down a bit in places.

The commentary on Repose on the Tate site maybe dwells too much on the phallic cactus at lower left, but does so in the context of Philpot’s attempt to reconcile his Christianity (he was a Roman convert) with his homosexuality. What an indictment on the churches that this is still an issue for many, ninety years on …

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