Important Australian + International Fine Art
6 May 2015


(1919 - 1987, New Zealand)

synthetic polymer paint on Steinbach paper

73.0 x 109.5 cm each;
73.0 x 328.5 cm overall

$400,000 - 600,000
Sold for $480,000 (inc. BP) in Auction 39 - 6 May 2015, Melbourne

Private collection, Wellington, New Zealand
Martin Browne Fine Art, Sydney
Private collection, New South Wales


Colin McCahon: New Works, Peter Webb Galleries, Auckland, 18 February-7 March 1980, cat. 9, 10, 11
McCahon, CSA Gallery, Christchurch, 6-25 September 1980
Colin McCahon: A Question of Faith, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 30 August-10 November 2002


Bloem, M., and Browne, M., Colin McCahon: A Question of Faith, Craig Potton Publishing & Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 2002, pp. 146-147 (illus.)
Brown, G. H., Colin McCahon: Artist, Reed, Wellington, 1984, pp. 152, 187
Colin McCahon Online Catalogue,, ref. cm000905

Catalogue text

'The written word, most often quoted from the bible is 'without apology used as a subject for painting' No one can dismiss these pictures in which the lettering is painted without missing the unity and power of the artist's whole work. This matter is' the one most people want to lay down rules about. But how do we lay down rules for this sort of painting? Part of a painter's work is to discover rules and' test them as he goes along, to see if they will work for him and for us' who shall say lettering shall not be big in a picture?'1

One of two biblical texts dominating the final period of McCahon's oeuvre, 'A Letter to the Hebrews' had first seriously occupied the artist in 1970, when a Wellington collector exhorted him to contemplate the text and the possibilities it might hold for a painting. However, it was not until 1979 that McCahon felt sufficiently confident in his knowledge of the Letter to be able to explore its potential on a significant scale. Particularly fascinated by the passages in which Paul, the Letter's reputed author, elucidates the nature of faith, McCahon first embarked upon the pair of images comprising The Testimony of Scripture: Hebrews II, 1979, posing the question 'and what is Faith?' and answering it thus, 'Faith gives substance to our hopes and makes us certain of Realities we do not see.' Similarly, in the large, closely related work on canvas, A Letter to Hebrews, 1979 (Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington), McCahon delves into the historic nature of this testimony, considering the acts of faith among the Jews of the Old Testament including Abel, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, and observing that'all these persons died in faith 'They were not yet in possession of the things promised, but had seen them far away and had hailed them and confessed themselves' It is for faith that the men of old stand on record.'

Elaborating upon these sacred themes of faith and doubt, meaning and despair, life and death, the present three-panelled work Paul to Hebrews, 1980 constitutes arguably one of the most compelling and sophisticated investigations of the series. With the texts reproduced here not following the Bible sequence but rather, specifically selected by McCahon to accentuate his purpose, indeed the work seems to gently reassure the viewer that only through conflict and affliction may our existence be truly enhanced and enlightened. Thus, while the first panel reveals the displeasure of a judgmental God, the remaining two beseech His indulgence and everlasting protection in an essentially positive way. Suffering is the result of God's loving discipline and serves to strengthen our faith, engendering humility and compassion, and ultimately bringing one closer to eternal life.

Significantly, within months of Paul to Hebrews being executed, this fundamentally optimistic mood of McCahon's meditations would change forever. Unequivocally bleak, dark and pessimistic, his admonishments now reflected an increasingly dispirited personal state and raging battle with mental illness, lamenting the futility of all human endeavour and suggesting a collapse of faith in faith itself. Yet therein perhaps lies the enduring power, universality and poignant beauty of McCahon's prophetic vision; the doubts and frailties that assail so many individuals constantly plagued him too. As one author astutely observes of his achievements, 'it is the existential situation that prevails' The viewer is asked to stand with the artist, in a situation where each person must decide the issue in their own way' It is a confession that, while it affects a solitary person, has become externalised and addressed to all. It is art used to give the conflict of faith and doubt coherence of thought, effort and expression in its most positive form...'2

1. Woollaston, M.T., 'Man's Predicament in his Own World', Christchurch Star, 14 October 1959 quoted in Bloem, M. and Browne, M., Colin McCahon: A Question of Faith, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam and Craig Potton Publishing, New Zealand, 2002, p. 192
2. Brown, G., Colin McCahon: Artist, A.H. & A.W. Reed, Wellington, 1984, pp. 117-118