11 March 2016
Our work of the week is ‘Vexilla Regis’ by David Jones which will be on show in ‘David Jones: Vision and Memory’ at Djanogly Art Gallery, Nottingham from 12 March – 5 June.
This painting is densely rendered with the interlacing of lines and layers of colour characteristic of Jones’s technique during the late 1940s and 1950s. At a glance it is just a picture of some woodland, but the more you look the more you can see the rich detail which invites closer scrutiny. A tangle of thorns rests at the base of the central tree, its trunk is studded with nails. The tree to its left supports a pelican’s nest in its branches, the one to the right an imperial eagle. Ponies wander through the grove. A curved Roman war-trumpet has been abandoned on the forest floor.
Its Latin title (“the standards of the King”) hints at the underlying iconographic complexity. Many of the more exacting references would be unintelligible were it not for the accounts addressed in 1949 to the first owner, Jim Ede’s mother, Mildred. In them Jones emphasised the Christian imagery of the Crucifixion, but also showed how this is combined with a number of other references demonstrating his extensive knowledge of Roman and post-Roman Britain.
“The general idea of the picture was also associated, in my mind, with the collapse of the Roman world. The three trees as it were left standing on Calvary—the various bits and pieces of classical ruins dotting the landscape—also older things, such as the stone henge or “druidic” circle a little to the right of the right-hand tree in the distance and then the Welsh hills more to the right again, the rushing ponies are, more or less, the horses of the Roman cavalry, turned to grass and gone wild and off to the hills…”