The Martyrdom of St Edmund

by Sister Wendy Beckett

StEdmund700We are all familiar with religious painting that comes to us heart on sleeve, breast heaving with emotion, large banner held aloft proclaiming that it is a work of GREAT SPIRITUAL SIGNIFICANCE. Nothing could be less like the art of Brian Whelan, this astonishing artist who is drawn to themes of the utmost profundity and yet treats them with a whimsical originality that is surprisingly affecting. This is very strong art: not for aesthetic wimps. His colours are strong, yet its power comes from no obedience to the merely material. His work amazes, and holds us in its thrall: what more could be desired of a religious painting?

Here he depicts one of those iconic moments in British history, for ever commemorated in the name of the town of Bury St. Edmunds. The 9th century Danes focussed on East Anglia, ravaging and harassing. The national memory still reverences King Edmund, who fought so valiantly against the invader until they captured him. Because he would not deny his faith, the Danes used him as target practice. It was said, much in the realistic manner of Whelan’s painting, that he ‘looked like a hedgehog’. As a final mark of contempt the Danes beheaded him. But after battle and martyrdom, came legend, and here we have all three. On the left press the enemy, armed to the teeth, almost inhuman in their chain mail, hung with shields, one-eyed beneath their tight Viking helmets. They bear down relentlessly on saint Edmund. He has no protection. His armour is thin and ragged, he wears no helmet, has no weapon. On his head is the crown of East Anglia, which rises to a cross shape: this is a Christian people. Round his neck hangs an image of the true cross. His arms are tied behind him. Whelan shows no ropes binding him to the oak as he was slaughtered, as if to show that it is his faith that holds him there, upright and resolute, rather than constraint. Here we see what it means to die loving and affirming God. The Father himself comes to receive him. On the right, intruding visibly into our cruel world, looms the face of God the Father, tight-lipped with distress, compassionate, infinitely loving. He has sent angels to receive the soul of his saint, young now, and radiant, clean from life’s dirt and damage, mailed hands at peace. He no longer needs to wear the relic of the cross, since he is brought into the realm of the Resurrection. But Whelan accommodates not only the theological truth but also the folk legend.

After the beheading, his people said, a wolf guarded the head, calling “Hic, Hic” – the Latin for he is here. (Clearly an educated animal.) He lay in two pieces under the oak tree, and when found, another miracle: the head joined itself to the body and that body never decayed. It was incorrupt Edmund that was reverently laid to rest, and a mighty abbey built to pay him honour. He lay there in Bury Abbey until the Reformation, when his body disappeared and its whereabouts is still a mystery.

This is a painting alive with the brilliance of faith. We know that the fallen acorns will grow into new trees: this death cannot be an ending. The tree, incidentally, stood for a long time in Hoxne, Suffolk, where the local pub, The Swan, celebrates St. Edmund’s Day, November 20th. Whelan honours the noble wolf, while admitting its legendary character: it is ghost, as compared to the great reality of God and the angels. Like the oak, which the artist shows as bearing the young green of spring leaves simultaneously with the scarlet of autumn and the colourlessness of winter, holiness is ‘for all seasons’, and here this becomes incontestably visible to us. This is a work of exuberant freedom and absolute control, a good symbol of what the love of God is all about.

Sister Wendy Beckett is a contemplative nun who lives alone in the grounds of a Carmelite Monastery. She has written several books on art, The Story of Painting being the best known, and has composed and presented several television series, both for the BBC and for UPB in America

“His work is bold and commanding.”
Seamus Heaney, Nobel Laureate

“Looking at a Whelan painting is like looking at a stained glass window, through the eyes of Bart Simpson.”
Writer and critic Steven Martin

“wise, witty and affectionate paintings which range from religious iconography to images of his home city of London.”
Ian Collins, writer

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