New Church Sculptor John Flaxman: Deliver Us from Evil

deliverusaugust8.jpgThe mind of the noted British sculptor John Flaxman (1755-1826) “was earnest, enthusiastic, and highly poetic; his temper serene; his affections warm and benevolent; and his whole character shone with the angelic light of pure disinterestedness and cheerful piety. Religion was not with him a thing set apart for occasional use, regarded only for the sake of the world’s opinions, or because the world has lost its attractions; it was the vivifying principle of his existence; it guided every feeling, was blended with every thought, and passed into every action. In this dishonest, hypocritical world, a simple-minded, sincere man must necessarily be considered very peculiar; and John Flaxman was so regarded. He was a receiver of the Doctrines of the New Jerusalem, a humble believer that the revelations of Emanuel Swedenborg were graciously provided by the Lord, for the restoration of a true faith and church in the world” (Allan Cunningham and Lydia M. Child, quoted in Annals of the New Church, Volume 1, 1904, 330-331).

johnflaxmanaugust8.jpgDeliver Us from Evil (see photo, top), a large plaster sculpture in high relief made in the early 1800s, is in the New Church Art collection at Glencairn Museum (08.SP.01). This depiction of two good and two evil spirits struggling for control of the human soul illustrates the New Church concept of spiritual freedom: “[F]or a man to have communication with the spiritual world there must be joined to him two spirits from hell and two angels from heaven, and . . . without these he would have no life whatever” (AC 5993). Flaxman was the first artist to depict the deceased human soul as a full-bodied adult, an idea derived directly from the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg. Deliver Us from Evil was a preliminary model later executed in marble for the Baring family monument in St. Mary the Virgin church in Micheldever, England. (See the marble version of Deliver Us from Evil in St. Mary the Virgin church here.) Glencairn also has the plaster model for Thine is the Kingdom, which is a companion piece in the monument. 

Deliver Us from Evil was purchased in 1974 from the Kensington Society of the General Conference of the New Church. Thine is the Kingdom and a Flaxman piece with a classical theme were also included in the purchase. All three had originally been given to the Kensington Society in 1872. In 1879 they were installed in their Palace Gardens church, and remained with the Society until 1974 (see The New Church Herald, no. 1911, vol. LV, Saturday, January 19th, 1974).

It is interesting to note that Flaxman produced a sketch titled But Deliver Us from Evilsimilar in basic composition to the plaster sculpture—which was intended to be one of several sketches for a series on the Lord’s Prayer. The series was intended for publication, but this did not occur until after Flaxman’s death. In 1835 the British lithographer Richard James Lane published Flaxman’s Eight Illustrations of the Lord’s Prayer.

The influence of New Church concepts on Flaxman’s Deliver Us from Evil is unmistakable, and Jonathan Bayley noted in his work, New Church Worthies, “how devoutly Flaxman was in the habit of expressing his indebtedness to New Church principles, not only in his life, but in his art.”

Photos: The photograph of Deliver Us from Evil is in the collection of the Glencairn Museum Archives, Bryn Athyn, PA. The sketch of John Flaxman, a self portrait, is taken from his Wikipedia entry.

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August 20, 2008 | Posted by: Ed and Kirsten Gyllenhaal in New Church History Fun Fact