Giotto, Michelangelo, Raphael and the First World War: William Orpen’s Picture of a ‘Simple Soldier man’s’ Death (Summary)

Kai Artinger (PDF)

During and after the First World War, the image of Christ’s sacrifice considered an analogue of the mass death of war, became popular in art. The artist William Orpen was obsessed with the so-called ‘simple soldier man’ of whom he had seen so many lying slaughtered on the battlefields of the Western Front. He missed no opportunity to express his views on his favourite subject, especially in the aftermath. He sold himself in his entire war oeuvre to the idealisation of the sacrifice of the ‘simple soldier man’.

Since the end of the First World War, much has been written in British and Irish literature about Orpen’s engagement as an official war artist for the British propaganda machine from 1917 to 1919. Strangely enough, there have been no studies on his ‘obsession’, that is, his picture of the ‘simple soldier man’. Until now, art historians and critics have not found religious reverberations in his war work. This failure is so much more amazing because of the obvious similarity of his works to those of the famous Renaissance artists Giotto, Michelangelo and Raphael.

The article argues that there was an ideological need to employ a Christian iconography of sacrifice to motivate and describe the death of the ‘simple soldier man’, which arose from an objective and a personal ‘dilemma’ of the artist. This ‘dilemma’ is recognisable in Orpen’s entire war oeuvre, but particularly in his works, where he was, to some extent, obliged to legitimise death for censorship and propaganda reasons and where he ‘obliged himself’ to legitimise death as a sacrifice. The First World War was the first industrialised war characterised by trench warfare and poisonous gas attacks. Therefore, the traditional value system of warfare became meaningless and anachronistic. The scale of slaughter was beyond human comprehension. Death was alienated, rationalised, and, above all, industrialised murder. Indeed, because of this form, it is not accidental that later, in the 1970s, the First World War was to be denounced as the ‘first holocaust’ in our century of total war. The ordinary soldier in the wars of attrition was reduced to a mere thing: alienated to an object, to human material.

The function of Christian iconography in Orpen’s war pictures is examined based on three examples. This iconography helps reconstruct the artist’s perception of the death of the ‘simple soldier man’ and its meaning to him.

Keywords: Christ’s sacrifice image, Great Britain, memorial paintings, mass death, Christian iconography