Quality is the first norm for art, but its final norm is love and truth, the enriching of human life, the deepening of our vision.


Howson, Peter - VM - Willem de Vink

Peter Howson: The Harrowing of Hell

He Went That Deep

by Willem de Vink

My eyes hurt when I look at the paintings of the British artist Peter Howson. I know only a few artists who show us the decadent life in our part of the world with such violent pictures. The intensity of his work makes a deep impression on me. His extra-proportionally painted personages with their bulging muscles and tense movements mirror macho street culture. Bloated egos, driven by sensuality and rage, deformed but painted extremely accurately, fill his canvasses. In his approach to people I see an affinity with the grotesque work of the German artists Otto Dix (1891-1969) and the plastic anatomy of Johannes Grützke (1937-2017). They also remind me of the Marvel Comics. And then, sometimes, I see an extremely vulnerable Christ in the middle of these horrific scenes, either crucified or not. I find that fascinating: what is he doing there? 

Howson (born in 1958) clearly wants to express something with his art. The artist had a turbulent youth. Because of his talents he was selected by the Ministry of Culture in the 1990’s to spend some months in Bosnia to paint his impressions of the war there. The young painter returned with gruesome pictures of rape and violence. With his stark realistic canvasses he soon became a phenomenon in pop culture circles with his work being bought by celebrities such as Madonna, David Bowie, Mick Jagger and Sylvester Stallone. 

In the meantime his whole life was turned completely upside down. Howson lost himself in drugs and alcohol. At the turn of the century, during a deep crisis, he had an experience of Jesus, who told him: “You are loved, you don’t need alcohol and drugs.” From that time on he paints his faith into his work. You will still meet a ‘complete nutter’ (as he calls himself) in his paintings, an obsessed, restless man. But he is also a changed man. “I’ve been angry for years and drink and drugs were part of that, until I realised that God is the only safe addiction. It took me three or four months to discover how it feels to be loved and to love.”

In 2007 Howson made a series of paintings that he called The Harrowing of Hell. According to the Bible Jesus descended all the way down into the realm of the dead for humanity. He was like the prophet Jonah, who was thrown overboard in a storm and was swallowed by a sea monster. Jonah called that place the eternal imprisonment, the realm of the dead from where he was delivered by God. Jesus referred to this event and called it a sign of what he himself would do. He would take away the keys of hell and proclaim the good news there and deliver the righteous dead.

In this painting Howson places Jesus in a hell situated under the streets of a depressing, polluted city. The place is swarming with people. Some are falling from the world above into the depths. Others suppress each other as in a nightmare. They are contorted, demonised figures that should actually be hoping for liberation but react to Jesus in a panic.

There he hangs, naked in a crucified posture but not on a cross. He is impaled on a lance that seems to be handled by Don Quixote. The nobleman from La Mancha made famous by the great Spanish writer Cervantes is here the fool who elevates Jesus. It makes Jesus, hanging like that in a vacuum, even more vulnerable. His deliberate surrender shocks his surroundings. The scene shocks me. I feel the painter is moved and I am amazed at his rendition of what is for me a fairly unknown and fascinating part of the Gospel. Howson penetrates into the deepest darkness of our human existence. At the same time he shows that Jesus is present there too.


Read: Jonah 2:7; Jonah 2:1-3; Matthew 12:39-40; 1 Peter 3:18-20, 4:6; Acts 2:31; Revelation 1:18; Matthew 16:19; Matthew 27:51-53.

Peter Howson: The Harrowing of Hell, 2007, oil on canvas.

Peter Howson was born in 1958 in London, England and grew up in Glasgow, Scotland. He studied at the Glasgow School of Art. In 2011 he completed a painting of St John Ogilvie for the re-opening of the Saint Andrew's Cathedral in Glasgow. A BBC documentary was devoted to this work in 2010. His work is in the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, USA; in the UK by The Tate Gallery, London, The British Museum, London and The Scottish National Museum of Modern Art in Edinburgh. 

Willem de Vink, born in Utrecht in 1957, is a Dutch speaker, writer, and artist. His comic book Jezus Messias (Jesus Messiah) has already been published in more than 200 languages. He also wrote the book Dit is liefde, Vincent, (This is love, Vincent). He recently published the book In het hoofd van de maker, Creativiteit, Kunst, Kerk (In the Mind of the Maker, Creativity, Art, and Church).

ArtWay Visual Meditation April 3, 2022