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The Triumph and Apotheosis of Labour: art as theological symbolism at St Mark's Leicester (dedicated 28 June 1910)



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The Triumph and Apotheosis of Labour: Art as Theological Symbolism
at St Mark’s, Leicester (dedicated 28 June 1910)1
By Richard Bonney
The Empire Banqueting and Conference Hall in Leicester,2 under
private Muslim ownership, is the unusual home for an important work
of art by a friend of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Around the apse
of the former St Mark’s Church ‘there are large-scale paintings of
Christ flanked by workers with emblems of their trades and the
products of their labours’.
The Triumph and Apotheosis of Labour
James Eadie Reid did not find favour with Geoffrey K. Brandwood,
writing in 1984 ‘it now seems a rather precious piece’ but as the
author observed, ‘it was linked with the close association between this
church and the working man that has existed since the turn of the
century’.3 It was an association that found little resonance with the
Bishop of Peterborough, who at the service of dedication on 28 June
1910 objected to the term ‘working class’ as a class designation,
arguing that all ‘we are all working class, each with his work to do’.4
The uniqueness of the commission, however, derives from the
theology of Frederick Lewis Donaldson (1860–1953), Vicar of St
Church of S[t.] Mark, Belgrave Gate, Leicester. Laborare est Orare. The Sanctuary
Mural Paintains. The Triumph and Apotheosis of Labour.
Price Two Pence.
Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland, L 726.
2 <>
3 Geoffrey K. Brandwood,
The Anglican Churches of Leicester
Museums Publication, 1984), p. 40.
Leicester Journal
(1 July 1910), p. 8 column one.
Mark’s, and his commitment to the amelioration of the condition of
the working class in his parish and the country as a whole.
The Theological Background to the Commission
‘For genuine sympathy with the labouring classes each of these
preachers is more or less distinguished, having tried for years to rouse
the Conscience of the Church and Nation to a full and true sense of
duty and privilege in this regard. One of them has the distinction of
having walked at the head of 1,200 “Unemployed”, from Leicester to
London and back to service in their Parish Church, for the purpose of
demonstrating the urgent need of Parliamentary legislation and
voluntary aid on the subject.’ Thus wrote the Revd W. Henry Hunt, the
Editor of a volume of sermons published in 1906 entitled
Churchmanship and Labour
The Vicar of St. Mark’s, Leicester, F. Lewis Donaldson, who was
one of the three leaders of the march of the ‘Leicester Unemployed’
the previous year, contributed four sermons to the volume. The last,
and the most interesting, was entitled ‘The Apotheosis of Labour’.
Here, some five years before he commissioned the artist James Eadie
Reid to paint the altarpiece at St. Mark’s entitled ‘The Triumph and
Apotheosis of Labour’, was the essence of his theological ideas on the
subject which would later be depicted in visual form.
Donaldson accepted that the concept of apotheosis was pagan
in origin, but contended that the true apotheosis was the Incarnation
of Christ, ‘the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us’, breaking the
bondage of corruption that we should be delivered into the glorious
liberty of the children of God (John 1:12, 14). ‘The Christian
apotheosis is that of a brotherhood inter-penetrated and exalted by
the divine life’, he contended. ‘It is not the mere exaltation of a
personage, which is the world’s apotheosis. It is the exaltation of all
men by union with the Man, Jesus Christ. Neither is it any posthumous
honour, but the exaltation of the living, who, by baptism of the Holy
Ghost, are one body in Christ.’ A new divine democracy was the
undoubted ‘character’ of the first circle of the Church: ‘And all that
believed were together, and had all things common; and sold their
possessions and goods and parted to all men as every man had need’
(Acts 2:44-45). Baptism proclaimed every man, woman, and child,
every human being, as ‘of sacred and priceless value. The actual
working out of this belief was of necessity specially evident in the
exaltation of those of low degree, from being outcasts to being priests
and princes in the kingdom of God.’ ‘The poor, the despised, the
unfortunate, the outcast, the slave, the unemployed, the cripple, the
leper, the diseased, the miserable and sorrow-stricken, these pre-
eminently found their apotheosis in the living honour paid unto them
by the Apostolic Church.’
Shifting from apostolic times to the contemporary era,
Donaldson contended that ‘it is this belief alone by which today the
regeneration of society and the exaltation of the poor can be
achieved.’ Donaldson argued that it was certain that ‘the exaltation of
those of low degree - the cause of labour throughout the world - will
be effected only by the power of love’. ‘The apotheosis of labour is the
social redemption of those of low degree who can be exalted only by
the Lord of Love working in the minds and hearts of men and in
The Benefactress and the Artist
The issue was how Donaldson’s vision in his fifth published sermon of
1906 could be depicted in visual form and who was to be the artist
who would bring it to fruition. Almost certainly acting on a
recommendation from a clerical friend, Donaldson chose James Eadie
Reid (1859-1928) ‘of Paris and Gateshead-on-Tyne’6 because of his
commitment to the portrayal of the Christian gospel through the
medium of art, whether via stained glass windows or murals. Reid had
studied at Edinburgh, working with Patrick Geddes and Robert Ashbee.
He had also been an assistant to the former Slade Professor of Art at
Oxford, William Blake Richmond. He exhibited at the Royal Scottish
Academy and the London Salon and carried out many commissions for
5 F. Lewis Donaldson, Sermon XIII. ‘The Apotheosis of Labour’, in
and Labour. Sermons on Social Subjects Preached at S. Stephen’s Church,
Compiled by the Rev. W. Henry Hunt. London: Skeffington and Son,
1906. Donaldsons other sermons were: Sermon IX. The Church and the New
Labour Movement. Sermon X. The Church and the ‘Labour Church’. Sermon XI.
The Social Redemption of the Unemployed. Sermon XII. The Social Redemption
of the Outcast and Poor:
6 Various dates of birth for Reid are given in different sources. In c. 1881 he was
living at 7 Hill Street, Dundee, Forfar, Scotland and c. 1901 in Southwick,
Durham. The significance of Gateshead is that some of Reid’s commissions for
stained glass windows were carried out by the Gateshead Stained Glass
Company. Reid was chief designer there from 1900 to 1908.
churches chiefly in the north-east,7 but also in Leicester.8 Uniquely, we
have Donaldon’s instructions to the artist before he began work,
followed by a theological depiction of the meaning of the work which
Donaldson worked out in consultation with the artist after completion.
The paintings cover an area of 800 square feet and were painted in oil
upon canvas affixed to the walls. They were the gift of Mrs. Sophia
Perry Herrick, of Beaumanor Park, Leicestershire in memory of her late
husband, Mr. William Perry Herrick, and his sister Mary Ann, ‘Founders
of this Church’. The then Borough Council wrote on 2 July 1872 to
thank William for the gift of ‘a place of worship of great architectural
beauty… in [what was then] one of the poor districts of Leicester’
(ROLLR DG9/2184). William died from a hunting accident in February
1876 and was outlived by his much younger wife. On Sophia’s death in
1915 the estate passed out of Herrick hands.
The Commission: before the work was begun
The Church of St Mark, Leicester, stands in a town of 244,255
souls (1909 estimate), of whom the greater number belong to what are
8 At St Peter’s:
9 F. Lewis Donaldson,
The Triumph and Apotheosis of Labour
An Aspect of our
Redemption in Christ
, pp. 4-5. Written for the Painter [James Eadie Reid] before
the initiation of the work. This and the following document were published by
Barbara Butler and Richard Bonney,
Vicar of the Unemployed. F. Lewis
Donaldson and Christian Socialism
(University of Leicester, 2005), 315ff.
(document 11).
termed the ‘working classes’. St Mark’s is one of the chief working
class parishes of the town, and contains (1909) towards 15,000 souls.
In this parish there is represented all the tragedy and pathos,
shame and horror of modern social conditions - infant mortality, child
labour, underpayment or sweating of men and women, decadence of
physical life, consumption, premature death, and a general low vitality,
together with an almost complete absence of beauty and a dire lack of
the graciousness and glory of life.
Therefore, in any scheme or design for decorating the Sanctuary
- the Holy of Holies - of this people’s church there should be depicted
1. not merely Cherubim and Seraphim; 2. nor, upon the other hand,
merely the realism of the people’s life - furnaces, factories, machinery,
and physical poverty with its results - but rather there shall be
depicted or symbolized:
The Travail and Tragedy of Labour
, by which is meant the
suffering of the proletariat or ‘working classes’ pre-eminently but not
only. For the travail and tragedy of Labour is part of the ‘fallen’ state
of our whole race, and not of individuals or of classes only. This
tragedy affects the proletariat chiefly, so far as poverty is concerned,
but it affects and degrades all Labour whatsoever - working men,
working women, and children, artists and art, worship and the
priesthood, merchants and commerce, scholars and physicians, prince
and peasant - for all and everything are marred by the organization of
society as we know it.
The Curse of Mammon.
The root cause of this travail and
tragedy of Labour is the organization of society and commerce for the
pursuit of riches, not for service and for good; for mammon and gold
not for God. The lust of gold is the ultimate source of almost every
industrial horror. ‘The love of money is the root of all evil.’
The Divine Pity sees this - the tragedy and its cause - and
therefore He reveals His mind and will in the Christ - the New Man -
who demonstrates that Labour, like all human life, can be redeemed
by Love, and by Love alone.
The Redemption of Labour by Love
can be effected only by
sacrifice. For Love must penetrate the depths of this Hell to purge it
and transform it. The element of suffering is already there -
involuntary, brutally enforced, hopelessly endured. Love, though it
sees, nay because it sees this horror and knows this shame, submits to
enter therein, to transform the evil by good, until at last Labour
becomes what God intended - a free service of fraternity, rather than a
repulsive, hateful task, enforced by the lash of the whip or by the cruel
spur of ‘competition’ instigated by the lust of gold or by the pang of
Thus at last - through love and fraternity, realized in the
reordering of society Labour, freed from its shackles, stands forth
noble, upright, beneficent, glorious.
This Liberated Labour renders a Free Service and a Pure Offering
of which alone can be said, ‘Work is Worship’ –
Laborare est Orare
Then, and only then, is the life of Labour ‘of’ the Kingdom of
God - part of it, interwoven with it, consecrated and strengthened by
it, one with it - when organized society, accepted industry and labour
as spheres of brotherhood, build therein the altars of love in Christ.
Then and only then it will be true for us, as once it was for the
apostolic Christians, ‘neither were there any that lacked’; then, and
only then, will excessive riches on one side, and attenuated poverty on
the other, with all their tribe of attendant evils, pass away, and there
shall be a divine community, the city of God, and the brotherhood of
This will be the Triumph of Labour
, not merely of the proletariat,
and of the manual crafts, but of the liberal arts; for all shall be one in
Christ Jesus, Who at length shall reign in Industry, as in His Church,
over all supreme, and to Whom every kind of labourer (each in his own
vocation and ministry) shall render homage, making his work a pure
offering of fellowship and love, unto Him who is Himself the
Apotheosis of Labour
, the Lord of Life and Love - even Christ.
Donaldson’s description of the work after completion and ‘after
consultation with the Painter’, James Eadie Reid.
The general idea of the two outermost Panels
… In these,
Labour is suffering under tyranny and oppression, and is in travail and
10 Ibid., pp. 6-11. Readers who intend to study the paintings with the aid of this
sketch are advised to begin with the outermost panels and work towards the
sorrow. There is but little looking upward, and gloom and despair
prevail; though, even so, some faces are turning towards the light, a
symbol of the beginning of redemption and reform.
The Panel on the Extreme Right
. In this, Labour is seen as
carrying massive material or dragging some unseen weight, without
hope or expectation, with bowed head and back. No face can be
discerned looking upward, but all seem absorbed in the mere burden
of existence. In the foreground is the figure of a fallen man
symbolizing Labour overwhelmed by its burden. The quiet, watchful
figure above represents Mammon, oblivious to all but his own
personal aggrandizement; bags of money are on his lap, and a grim
callousness to the pain around him is expressed in his countenance
and bearing. The dim figure of a woman in front symbolizes Luxury in
attendance upon her master, Mammon. Overhead is the Angel of
Sorrow, bearing the globe of destiny, which is opaque, and in which,
therefore, it is hard to read man’s destiny. But a close scrutiny reveals
a dim gleam which signifies, even under such conditions, hope of
good to come.
The Panel on the Extreme Left
. In this panel, poverty, pain and
sorrow are shown in various figures, viz., in mother and child, father
and daughter, husband and wife. In the extreme left corner a man is
sitting, bruised and broken. He sees no hope, and contemplates
nothing but death. A mother is striving to direct a young girl, her
daughter, toward the light. A woman is trying to help forward a poor
wretch, fallen and bandaged - her father. On the right is the kneeling
figure of a man, his hands covering his face, weeping with bitter grief.
Near him is a strong man, with uplifted hands, cursing his fate, while
his wife tries to restrain and comfort him. Behind, to the left, is a
figure representing old age in its weariness and pain. Two men
standing higher up on the extreme left symbolize ancient Philosophy,
contemplating abstract wisdom, but unable to initiate, or even
formulate, what is needed for reform, and expending itself in fruitless
speculation. In the distance, in this and other panels, the ever moving
and necessary current of human life and labour can be seen. Men are
stripped for oppressive labour with molten metals. The general
conditions are bad, and yet, even so, a few faces are beginning to turn
towards the source of light and of redemption. The dim figure at the
side of this picture symbolizes current Society - cold and remote,
careless, indifferent, and blind to the tragedy of Labour’s lot. Above all
is the figure of the angel of sorrow with the globe of destiny, in which,
through opaque and mysterious, a close scrutiny reveals a gleam of
light symbolic of good to come.
The general idea of the Second Panel from extreme left and
Second Panel from extreme right.
In these two paintings the redemption of Labour is not
accomplished but is proceeding. Love is developing fellowship and
union, and is raising the conditions of earthly toil. Men and women
may be seen earnestly assisting one another, and the general
movement is upward, and the faces are more generally turned towards
the ‘strong Son of God, Immortal Love’, who is the source of
redeeming power.
The Second Panel from extreme left
. The redemption of Labour
is symbolized in this picture by a woman, outcast, neglected and
scorned, who is being lifted up by others. Her rescuers (a woman-
leader with her co-worker in redemption) are direction her attention to
the Christ, and her face is turned as if towards Him, from Whom the
light suffuses her countenance. In the foreground is the figure of a
young woman tortured by doubt, worn by privation, but struggling
against the prevalent conditions of society. Next to [her] is a strong
man in the prime of life, capable of full enjoyment of labour and
striving to break the bonds which bind him, so that he too may move
towards the light. Next to him is a man, old and worn, his life spent,
yet feeling that something still is lying in the beyond, and that the
promise given has not been a vain one, and is still worthy of his faith.
At the extreme right is the figure of a man who has grown hopeful of
good, and is looking earnestly towards the source of all good. The
prominent figure in this panel and the equivalent figure in the
corresponding panel on the right represent guides or leaders of men,
of whatever kind, who are striving to enlighten their brethren, and to
unite individuals and classes in the common effort of redemption.
The Second Panel on the extreme right
. The prominent figure
symbolizes those who lead or teach or unite mankind. A husband and
wife are coming forward, signifying the redemption of Family Life. In
the Foreground are a miner, a shepherd and an agriculturalist,
representatives of three great departments of man’s activity.
Throughout this painting the idea of inspiration drawn from the Faith
of Christ is symbolised by the upturned faces and the general attitude
and tendency of the figures depicted. In the background, the struggle
of Labour with unrighteous conditions of life is still proceeding, but
the general effect of the symbolism of this painting, and of the
corresponding one on the opposite side, gives the impression of Faith,
Hope and Love, with a corresponding progress towards good and God.
In these two panels the artist has achieved a notable piece of
symbolism, by showing how the change in the spirit and policy of
human society will affect its outward fabric and structure. In the
outermost panel to the left, he has depicted the ugliness of modern
industrialism by the factory chimneys, which belch forth their smoke
and dirt, and disfigure and darken the skies. The gloom of the sorrow
and travail of men, caused by the mere pursuit of riches, and the
growth of unhallowed and unrestrained industrialism, is symbolized by
these chimneys and smoke. In the two panels now before us… the
change in human endeavour and policy is symbolised by an equivalent
alteration in outward things. A mystic change comes over even the
factories. The smoke disappears, and the chimneys and factories
assume almost architectural shapes and proportions. They become
almost beautiful. Thus we learn the great truth that all these outward
things are sacramental. If the doings of men be foul, so will the very
air he breathes be foul; if his deeds be ugly, so will his buildings,
streets and cities. If, again he be redeemed to fellowship and love, the
very outward fabric and structure of his towns and cities will
sacramentally reflect this love. In these wonderful pictures we see this
great truth symbolically expressed by the painter’s art. As the light
eternal radiates from the eternal love of Christ, the shadows flee, the
foul smoke is driven outwards and finally disappears, leaving even
factory and warehouse transfigured.
General idea of the two Panels next to the Centre
. These
represent the triumph of Labour redeemed by Love, and able now to
offer to the Lord of Love a free service and a pure offering in
fellowship one with another, and with Him.
The Panel on the left of the centre
. Sculpture, as representing
the plastic arts, is symbolized by a man holding the model of a figure
which is kneeling in devotion. Next to him is the author and student
with his book, symbolizing knowledge. The craftsman stands in the
pride of physical energy, symbolizing all the workers in the materials
which the earth yields. He represents all the manual crafts. A man
holding the model of a ship symbolizes the conquest of the sea, and
labourers of all kinds, who ‘go down to the sea in ships’. The woman
worker engaged in the daily round and common task yet finds a glory,
reflected from the Christ, in what may seem merely menial, but is
really essential to the happiness of mankind. This figure, and others in
the paintings, represent the millions of women engaged in industry
throughout the world. Close by the woman, and on the common
platform of mankind, is the king or ruler, signifying ‘principalities and
powers’, and the Labour of government. He stands crown in hand,
acknowledging the homage due to the source of all authority, even
Christ. The lowest figure here is the schoolmaster, as if to symbolize
the fact that in the training of the young lies the foundation of every
art and craft. This idea is balanced in the corresponding panel on the
right of the centre, by the figure of a mother and her child. The
mother and the teacher are the first in the education of mankind.
The upper part of this panel and of the next on the right of the
centre represent the twelve apostles a sharers in the glory of their
Lord. Other painters have beautifully depicted this glory by aureole of
Cherubim. Here it is depicted rather by the first fruits of His Kingdom,
the workers of Galilee.
The Panel on the right of the centre
. An architect offers his
work, symbolised by the model of a church. By his side is the builder
who, with the architect, symbolize all the arts and crafts of building.
The next figure is that of a woman, representing the life of thought
and culture. The glory of maternity and its service for God and man is
symbolized by the figures of a mother and her babe. The liberal arts,
painting and music, are shown expressing themselves through
instruments of colour or form, endeavouring to translate the message
they are receiving form the Eternal Word.
The Central Panel. The Christ as the Apotheosis or Deification of
. Our Lord is represented as the source of Light, and Life, and
Love. He stands in an attitude of majesty, with uplifted arms,
suggesting partly command, partly appeal, invitation and
encouragement: ‘come unto Me, all ye that travail, and are heavy
laden, and I will refresh you.’ And again, ‘My Father worketh hitherto,
and I work’. Behind the uplifted hands, and through the aether, shines
the symbol of the Cross, and the mark of His suffering may be traced
in the sacred hands. He appears as the Co-worker and Inspirer of all
service in the travail or labour of mankind, as the One in Whom men
realize that work is not merely a medium of fame or gain, but is in
itself worship, and a return of the gift or talent which has been
reposed in them, and which is a means of fulfilling the eternal purpose
of God. Each act and every service, however humble, are potent to aid
the divine purpose, if done in fellowship and good will. In the picture
the Christ is represented as coming with the glory of the dawn of the
true life of mankind, while the Cross, glowing in the light of ‘the day of
the Lord’, symbolises the triumph of Labour, consummated through
sacrifice, fellowship and love.
Laus Deo.
Conclusion on The Triumph and Apotheosis of Labour as
Theological Symbolism
The style of James Eadie Reid’s depiction of Donaldson’s theological
vision may no longer be fashionable, as Geoffrey K. Brandwood has
suggested. It is well crafted in accordance with Donaldson’s precise
instructions. As a work of art it is unique, moreover, because it
provides a visual image of Christian Socialism as portrayed in
Donaldson’s pre-World War I sermons and other writings. The ‘vicar of
the poor’ brooked no debate on the central social issues of his time,
for which he was prepared to suffer the loss of ecclesiastical
preferment in order to champion the principles he espoused.
Donaldson himself attained the Canonry at Westminster but not the
bishopric of Birmingham which, given his standing, might have been
expected for him. Preferment could scarcely be refused, given the
petition from St Mark’s congregation and the citizens of Leicester to
the Prime Minister in 1919 asking for it on his behalf in recognition of
all he had done ‘to improve the conditions of the working folk of the
city’.11 But refused it was. For, as Hewlett Johnson recorded on 18
February 1910, many regarded Donaldson as12
a kind of robber chief in priest’s raiment… you are known through the papers
as a terrible thing… I am not asking you to hide your light under a bushel
far from it. But one aspect of your light already shines far and wide and is
greatly distorted…
11 Brian Buchanan and Graham Hulme,
St Mark’s Church, Leicester: an architectural
and historical study
(Leicester: Victorian Society, 1996), p. 14. The authors
quote from a note about the petition kept, together with the formal
acknowledgement of its receipt from the Prime Minister’s office, by Mr and Mrs
Boughton of Syston. Ibid. p. 53. Ibid. 14, 40: Eadie Reid also provided a war
memorial window for the church in 1920.
12 Hewlett Johnson, godfather to Bishop Hewlett Thompson, was subsequently
Dean of Manchester, and then for over thirty years the ‘Red Dean’ of Canterbury.
This quotation was kindly supplied by Bishop Hewlett Thompson.
The Triumph and Apotheosis of Labour. An Aspect of our
Redemption in Christ. Commissioned by Lewis Donaldson from the
Painter James Eadie Reid. This and the following two photographs:
ROLLR DE3736, 3 photos of altar of St Mark’s. !
Right-hand side panels
Left-hand side panels
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