The Art of Sacrifice

This article was submitted by office volunteer Paul Breen

The Great Sacrifice by James Clark (ukniwm 59639)

James Clark’s (1858-1943) painting The Great Sacrifice (1914) appears in a number of forms in memorials for the dead of the Great War. After the War, the association of resurrection and heavenly reward with the dead soldier became a popular portrayl in remembrance art. The Happy Warrior (1914) by Henry Lintott (1877-1965) depicts a dead soldier with sword in hand, being borne heavenward by four angels. Battlefield myths of divine visions were captured by the artist George Hillyard Swinstead (1860-1926) in The White Comrade  (1915), showing a medical officer supporting a badly wounded soldier whilst gazing at an apparition of Christ offering comfort and support.

In The Great Sacrifice Clark portrays the arresting scene of military dead associated with religious sacrifice. The soldier lies on a dark and grim battlefield, but above, the light of Christ shines down on his peaceful face. He lies with his hand on Christ’s wounded feet, linking the two of them; the sacrifice of the soldier for his country and a free world is inextricably linked to the sacrifice of Christ for man’s sins. Christ is looking down in pity at the soldier’s sacrifice, joined to his own. The colours of the picture evoke feelings of resurrection, with the dark corruptness of the muddy, realistic battlefield giving way through the ascending figure of Christ to an unrealistic, bright sky: heaven.

This representation of death would not be recognised by war artists or the fighting soldier, who had seen the true horrors of the Western front; nevertheless it was comforting to those who had lost loved ones. The figure of Christ reinforced the belief in the validity of the cause and the sanctity of sacrifice. Indeed, Clark painted a second picture, The Greater Reward, showing a dead soldier holding the hand of an angel as they ascended from the battlefield to heaven.

Prints were taken from The Great Sacrifice (the first appearing as early as Christmas 1914 in The Graphic), while adaptations were made for stained glass windows and rolls of honour. Allied countries also modified the picture as a memorial. In St George’s Church, Malvern, Australia a stained glass window depicts Clark’s scene with the non-Australian rifle removed and the slouch cap added. In St John’s Cathedral, Winnipeg the figure of an angel with the Crown of Life and palm fronds has been inserted. The picture gave an evocative and poignant expression to sacrifice, ensuring its popularity as an adaptation for war memorials.

The oil painting of The Great Sacrifice was donated by Clark to a war relief charity and purchased by Queen Mary to give to Princess Beatrice in memory of her son, Prince Maurice of Battenburg, who died at Ypres. It now hangs as a memorial in itself in St Mildred’s Church, Battenberg Chapel, Isle of Wight.

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1 comment
  1. ian hughes said:

    This picture was carried in a credit card size by my uncle who was killed by gun shot in the second world war his name is private william frederick pegg 14406064 7th Ba parachute regiment

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