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.


Martin, Paul - VM - JoAnn van Seventer

The Ship of Life by Paul Martin
The Ship of Life
by JoAnn van Seventer
In the 1990’s Paul Martin made a fascinating series of paintings using the themes of the Ship of Life and the Ship of Fools, the former referring to God’s children crossing the waters of danger and trial on their way to heaven, and the latter portraying those caught up in a life of vice and carelessness and adrift without a clear destination. In the third century the Roman Catholic Church was sometimes referred to as the Ark of Salvation and compared to Noah’s ark in which the righteous found refuge, often with Peter or Christ as Helmsman. In the fifteenth century an allegory about the Ship of Fools was written as a parody of the Church.
The painting Ship of Life by Paul Martin is full of suggestions and symbols taken from literature, art and the Bible. In it we see seven figures, the main four of which have attributes identifying them as biblical persons: Peter holding a fish, Dorcas with her shears, Eve with the serpent on her back, and Lazarus in his grave clothes.
The figures are stylized and iconic, but as in many of Martin’s paintings from this period, the main characters have realistic faces. Dorcas, also called Tabitha in the book of Acts, is the main figure, standing near the center and about to enter the ship. She was known for her kindness to the poor, demonstrated by the clothing she made for them. The young boy accompanying her holds rolls of cloth in his right hand, and in his left what looks like a ticket, the good deeds of Dorcas going before her as she enters the Ship of Life. This was a good woman, greatly mourned at her passing, and called back from death by Peter.
And then we notice Lazarus, raised from the dead by Christ in the Gospel of John. He and Dorcas are two figures completely in white (except for their red shoes), both restored to life.
Eve is an intriguing figure, already standing in the ship, with a serpent on the back of her robe. Her head is bent back strangely, as is the head of the person (Mary of Bethany?) between her and Lazarus. In Martin’s paintings this posture is usually a sign of grief. Eve, with whose choice the whole problem of death began, is now being freed from the serpent by a child, a boy with shears. It is the child Jesus who came to be about his Father’s business, bruising the serpent’s head but in a surprising new context. His great deed is here linked to the deeds of Dorcas, or rather hers are linked to his – the believer’s good deeds connected significantly with the life-giving plan of God.
As one looks closely more things come to mind. We see Eve whose choice was to eat the fruit that brought sin and death into the world at the Fall. We also see Peter whose denial added to the sorrow of Christ before his crucifixion, a death which finally conquered all death. As a result Dorcas and Lazarus were resurrected in this life and are symbols of hope. The rooster on the prow of the ship reminds Christians of the cock which crowed after Peter’s denial of Christ, but a rooster is also the harbinger of the morning, the sunrise, and points to the victory of light over darkness and evil. The ship here is facing a glowing orange shore.
Paul Martin: The Ship of Life, 1993, 130 x 202 cm, oil on panel. Photography: Art Revisited, Tolbert.
Paul Martin was born in Bournemouth in 1948, and grew up in Rugby, England. He studied art first at Coventry Art College and then at the art college in Birmingham. In 1968 he met Professor H.R. Rookmaaker, who stimulated his thinking about the relationship between faith and art. He went on to the Royal Academy, where he met with more appreciation for figurative art. In the 1970’s and 80’s he struggled to get away from a naturalistic style, especially with regard to the human form, and discovered new possibilities through the work of Balthus and Beckmann. He found the iconic approach a helpful way to express controlled emotion. His work was also strongly influenced by medieval frescoes. In the 1990’s Martin painted many icons for the Orthodox church of which he is a member, and his more recent work has moved more into abstraction. Martin taught for many years at Rugby School in England, and then at Leith College of Art in Edinburgh. He currently lives with his wife near Edinburgh.
Publication: Paul Martin, Phil Archer and JoAnn van Seventer: Paul Martin, Art Revisited, 1991, text in Dutch and English. 
ArtWay Visual Meditation July 3, 2011