Morris Kestelman 1905-1998
Lama Sabachthani [Why have you forsaken me?] 1943
Oil on canvas
Imperial War Museum, London
Kestelman was the son of European Jewish immigrants and he was brought up in the East end of London.
His philosophy of art was always "to revel in the sunny side of life . . . heaven knows we all need the solace we can get from art."
However in the early 1940s, during the Second World War, the scale of the Nazi genocide of the Jewish race was gradually becoming apparent.
The above painting is the artist`s response to the news from the Continent.
The impact of the news was keenly felt in many quarters of British society.
Various policy prescriptions were advanced to try to aid the plight of the Jew in Europe. None seemed to attract much support. The following are links to the Debates in the House of Commons and House of Lords in 1943, when the question was discussed. From them one gets an idea of the context of the times in which the painting was executed:
HC Deb 19 May 1943 vol 389 cc1117-204 1117 : Refugee Problem
House of Lords Debate:Refugee Problem: Deb 28 July 1943 vol 128 cc836-72
The painting depicts a scene of mourning: a group of Jewish men, women and children weep and mourn over a mound of corpses.
The title is taken from the opening verse of Psalm 22: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
These of course were the last words of Christ on the Cross
The psalm starts with a declaration that the psalmist has been deserted by God.
There is then a complex dialogue that restates the omnipotence of God and yet also elucidates present torment and anguish. The psalmist meditates on the possibility that God might not rescue, and applied to this context where intervention seemed neither feasible nor imminent, it questions the very rule and presence of God. But the psalm ends on a positive note: the triumph of God over evil and injustice.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from the words of my groaning?
2 O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, and am not silent.
3 Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;
you are the praise of Israel.
4 In you our fathers put their trust;
they trusted and you delivered them.
5 They cried to you and were saved;
in you they trusted and were not disappointed.
6 But I am a worm and not a man,
scorned by men and despised by the people.
7 All who see me mock me;
they hurl insults, shaking their heads:
8 "He trusts in the LORD;
let the LORD rescue him.
Let him deliver him,
since he delights in him."
9 Yet you brought me out of the womb;
you made me trust in you
even at my mother's breast.
10 From birth I was cast upon you;
from my mother's womb you have been my God.
11 Do not be far from me,
for trouble is near
and there is no one to help.
12 Many bulls surround me;
strong bulls of Bashan encircle me.
13 Roaring lions tearing their prey
open their mouths wide against me.
14 I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint.
My heart has turned to wax;
it has melted away within me.
15 My strength is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth;
you lay me in the dust of death.
16 Dogs have surrounded me;
a band of evil men has encircled me,
they have pierced my hands and my feet.
17 I can count all my bones;
people stare and gloat over me.
18 They divide my garments among them
and cast lots for my clothing.
19 But you, O LORD, be not far off;
O my Strength, come quickly to help me.
20 Deliver my life from the sword,
my precious life from the power of the dogs.
21 Rescue me from the mouth of the lions;
save me from the horns of the wild oxen.
22 I will declare your name to my brothers;
in the congregation I will praise you.
23 You who fear the LORD, praise him!
All you descendants of Jacob, honor him!
Revere him, all you descendants of Israel!
24 For he has not despised or disdained
the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him
but has listened to his cry for help.
25 From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly;
before those who fear you will I fulfill my vows.
26 The poor will eat and be satisfied;
they who seek the LORD will praise him—
may your hearts live forever!
27 All the ends of the earth
will remember and turn to the LORD,
and all the families of the nations
will bow down before him,
28 for dominion belongs to the LORD
and he rules over the nations.
29 All the rich of the earth will feast and worship;
all who go down to the dust will kneel before him—
those who cannot keep themselves alive.
30 Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord.
31 They will proclaim his righteousness
to a people yet unborn—
for he has done it.