Zacharias and Elizabeth 1913–14 is a large square oil painting by the British artist Stanley Spencer depicting the biblical story of the two titular figures that is featured in Luke’s Gospel. In the foreground of the composition is Zacharias, an elderly male figure dressed in white who is holding a pair of tongs over a flame, while another aged male, also wearing white – the Archangel Gabriel – approaches him stealthily from behind. The figure of Zacharias is also repeated in the background of the painting: behind a wood and metal fence, staring blankly outward while the auburn-haired Elizabeth stands to his right with her arms outstretched. A large, smooth, curved wall divides the painting vertically, separating these two scenes. The figure of Elizabeth appears again behind the wall, with only her upper body visible. Two further figures are also depicted in the painting: a gardener who resembles traditional representations of both Jesus and John the Baptist is seen at the right dragging an ivy branch, a conventional symbol of everlasting life and Resurrection, and an unidentified woman wearing a dark claret dress kneels behind a gravestone while touching the curved dividing wall with her right hand.
The story of Zacharias and Elizabeth occurs at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel. The priest Zacharias is visited by the Archangel Gabriel while he is making a sacrifice by burning incense in the Temple. Gabriel tells him that although his wife Elizabeth is too old to have children, she will bear a son given to her by God who will become John the Baptist. In Spencer’s painting he employs a visual conceit used by early Italian Renaissance painters such as Giotto, Masaccio and Fra Angelico in which more than one scene is presented concurrently in a single tableau. As such, while the scene in the background of the painting takes place at a different time from the scene at the front, the entire story can be apprehended in one glance.
Zacharias and Elizabeth was made by Spencer in 1913–14 at his childhood home, Fernlea, in the Berkshire village of Cookham. In a 1937 notebook entry the artist recounted his memories of creating the work in the crowded conditions of the rural family cottage: ‘I was a young twenty-two when I painted it. It was painted in our Fernlea dining room and Pa was giving piano lessons on my right. The dining room table was tipped up to form an easel and other children were lined up along the dark paper patterned wall’ (quoted in Fiona MacCarthy, Stanley Spencer: An English Vision, exhibition catalogue, Hirshhorn Museum, Washington DC 1997, p.61). The work was made on a pre-primed canvas, onto which Spencer drew pencil sketches and gridding before painting the final scene using commercially manufactured oil paints.
The artist made at least one preparatory study for the painting (see Zacharias and Elizabeth 1913–4, Victoria and Albert Museum, London), in which the trees and foliage are given a highly detailed rendering. Artist and writer Timothy Hyman has argued that an accurate representation of the Cookham countryside and its significance for Spencer as means of recovering a ‘childhood vision’ took precedence over a convincing portrayal of the biblical story of Zacharias and Elizabeth in this work: ‘[The painting’s] fusion of landscape and religion is inherently fragile. The wild vitality of the barren winter trees about to become fertile, the amazing evergreen bursting in the foreground remain more convincing than Zacharias himself’ (Hyman and Wright 2001, p.15). In 1937 Spencer acknowledged the importance of Cookham to the work, stating that ‘I wanted to absorb and finally express the atmosphere and meaning the place had for me … It was to be a painting characterizing and exactly expressing the life I was … living and seeing about me … to raise that life round me to what I felt was its true status, meaning and purpose’ (quoted in Hyman and Wright 2001, p.93).
Keith Bell, Stanley Spencer, London 1992, pp.16, 22, 27, 29–30, reproduced p.23.
Timothy Hyman and Patrick Wright (eds.), Stanley Spencer, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 2001, pp.13–15, 21, 33, 70, 74, 93, reproduced pp.92–3.
Stanley Spencer: Love, Desire, Faith, exhibition catalogue, Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal 2002, pp.20–1, reproduced p.21.
Supported by Christie’s.