The Prophet was painted in 1955 at the apex of Francis Newton Souza's career in London. 1955 was a critical year for Souza, with many milestones achieved and with his creativity at its peak. It was during this year Souza wrote his innovative autobiographical essay, ‘Nirvana of a Maggot’, published by his friend, the poet Stephen Spender in Encounter magazine and painted his most iconic works including Birth, which holds the world auction record for the artist. It was also the year of Souza’s first solo exhibition at Victor Musgrave’s prestigious Gallery One in London. This landmark exhibition drew praise from John Berger, the renowned art critic, who devoted a whole article to this exhibition in the New Statesman. Other well-known critics Andrew Forge and George Butcher wrote articles on the artist that appeared in publications such as The Guardian and the London Times. 1955 was perhaps the most significant and productive year in Souza’s career, marking the landmark moment that Souza established himself in the eyes of the critics, patrons and galleries of the London art world.
This painting is an iconic representation of duality and dichotomy in Souza's practice. Here Souza depicts an austere anguished man dressed in a business suit brandishing a solar monstrance and pierced by a single arrow in his neck. These signature signifiers conflate in one figure the fundamental themes of religion, sinners, saints and martyrdom.
The arrow in the neck betrays Souza’s allusion to St. Sebastian the martyr and venerated saint of the Catholic Church, which appears in some of Souza's most iconic works. Historically, St. Sebastian was an officer of the Imperial Roman army who concealed his own Christian faith in order to aid imprisoned Christians. Upon discovery, he was sentenced to death, tied to a tree and shot by arrows, miraculously surviving, escaping and recovering, only to later be clubbed to death after confronting the Roman Diocletian. The story of St. Sebastian appeared in the Golden Legend, a medieval collection of hagiographies that describe the stories of the saints. His importance grew during the 14th Century during the Black Death when sufferers of the bubonic plague prayed to him as their protector and source of recovery from pestilence. Souza himself nearly perished as a child from small-pox, and it is possible that he identified with St. Sebastian as a protector from illness. The arrows which appears in the neck, is indicative of his resilience and became his distinguishing attribute throughout the canon of Western art particularly in the Renaissance, seen in examples by Andrea Montegna and Peter Paul Rubens who created the two most iconic images of the Saint.
Souza masterfully reinvigorates and transforms this traditional subject imbuing it with a sense of sardonic complexity and devilish duality. He reinterprets the renowned religious icon by depicting St Sebastian as an autobiographical product of 1950s London. The suit and tie in which the subject is dressed, for Souza was a uniform; a smart disguise for modern man. This camouflage, concealing all hidden sins and madness behind a veneer of respectability and moral virtue. Souza wrote, the same year as this painting in ‘Nirvana of a Maggot’, “There are times when I wander in the street late at night or in the early hours of the morning. I avoid being seen at such times because I get beside myself like a lunatic […] On returning home, I dress up, wear a neat tie tucked with a modest pin and having tied my shoe- strings neatly, I meet my family and friends as though nothing had happened.” (Artist statement, F.N. Souza, Words & Lines, London, 1959, p. 26, reproduced with the permission of the Estate of F.N. Souza)
The Prophet's face, which is portrayed shrouded in shadow, may also be a reference to Souza’s own features which were permanently marred by the scars of small-pox. This Prophet, like Souza’s greatest works, represents the complex tension found in the dichotomy between good and evil which was his obsession. Souza wrote “I can’t differentiate good from evil, purity from perversity, hell from pleasure, brimstones from snowflakes, corruption from honesty, fornication from continence. All these are one and the same to me.” (Artist statement, F.N. Souza, Words & Lines, London, 1959, p. 26, reproduced with the permission of the Estate of F.N. Souza) This single subject captures all of these dualities within the virtuosic line of Souza’s skill as a draughtsman at the absolute peak of his powers.