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The Sandham Memorial Mural

Updated: Mar 13, 2022

I'll admit that my appreciation for murals is hit and miss, and very often on the miss side. That's likely why we haven't posted about one to this point. But here is one of the hits, in my opinion. Stanley Spencer was commissioned to paint a series of murals for the Sandham Memorial Chapel in Newbury, UK. This particular scene covers the wall behind the high altar. It's a small chapel, funded by the sister of Henry Sandham. Her brother had served on the Macedonian Front in First World War. He wasn’t killed in action, but died of malaria he contracted on the front. For her, and likely for anyone else in the same circumstance, he should be rightfully remembered among the fatalities of The Great War.

The work is called the Resurrection of the Soldiers and it has to be one of the most interesting war memorials in existence. As an ambulance orderly and later as an infantryman himself, Spencer had seen more than his share of the dead and dying. The experience left an indelible impression on him, as anyone might expect. He summed up that impression by saying that he couldn't believe death was the end of everything. The thought was too depressing to let linger. I imagine this piece is his conviction writ large. Soldiers and horses arise from death and take part in a procession to Christ at the painting’s apex. So much is happening that commentary could go on almost indefinitely. For brevity's sake, I’m just going to zero in on that jumble of crosses in the foreground. Cemeteries of the war dead-ones I've seen, at least-are typically reverent and serene places. The memorial crosses and headstones line up in graceful rows and the grounds are usually immaculately manicured. Contrast that with the messy pile Spencer gave us. When I saw this for the first time, I’ll admit it distracted me. It was just too messy to be moving. But I’ve come to see it in a different light now, and I find it deeply moving. Those memorial crosses are discarded and strewn around like junk because they’ve lost significance. Memorials aren’t necessary for soldiers who are no longer memories. They are alive again, awakened to a new world at peace. And my favorite detail is all the handshaking. It's tangible and real, something very familiar and 'everyday.' Former comrades, bonded by a shared experience few of us will thankfully understand, greet one another alive and well after a long absence. It’s almost like the loss, sadness and tragedy of war were all reversed so suddenly that the men didn’t give a second thought to the mess they were making. Their priority was seeing their friends again. There are other aspects to the piece we could talk about but that’s my favorite. I love it.

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