One of New Zealand's most significant paintings will be displayed at a church art exhibition.

Colin McCahon's On The Road is the highlight of Somervell Presbyterian Church's Artweek Auckland event next month, thanks to the generosity of a private art collector who wishes to remain anonymous.

Last displayed publicly at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth in 2000, it is a series of acrylic oil paintings across seven panels featuring McCahon's characteristic white numerals and lettering on a black background.

Strict security measures will be in place. Somervell Minister Brett Johnstone says the paintings will be guarded around the clock and not left unattended at any time.

"But I probably won't sleep until I know the painting is back safe and sound with its owner," he says.

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The Remuera church's first art exhibition is likely to attract art lovers from all around the North Island because of the unique chance to see On The Road.

The church decided a year ago to hold an exhibition exploring the relationship between art and faith in New Zealand work. Johnstone says throughout history, art and faith have gone hand in hand. When literacy levels were low, churches frequently commissioned and displayed pictorial descriptions of the scriptures designed to educate rather than decorate.

Curator Dorothy Laing says it was taken to "a whole other level" when they were asked if they'd like to include On The Road.

"We never expected anything like this," she says.

The six-day exhibition, now called Colin McCahon: On The Road in recognition of the painting's importance, also includes four to five other McCahon paintings as well as art by Nigel Brown, Theresa Cashmore, Jessica Crothall, Simon Lewis-Ward, Gary Silipa, Shaw Anderson, John Laing and Rosie Brown.

Ben Plumbly, from auctioneers Art + Object, helped arrange for the McCahon works to be displayed and says it's a rare opportunity to see the paintings together.

"It was an opportunity to do something quite special," he says.

Last year, Art + Object set a new record when it sold McCahon's Canoe Tainui for $1.35 million making it the most expensive piece of art sold at auction in NZ.

Besides its size and scale - On the Road measures five metres in total - it is significant because it was created when McCahon was exploring using new materials and techniques. In the mid-1970s, he was gifted 100 sheets of Steinbach paper and, says Plumbly, used them for some of his most important works including the series Noughts and Crosses, Rocks in the Sky, Angels and Beds, Clouds and On the Road.

McCahon had long explored religious themes in his art but after a visit to the United States in 1958, became more interested in large-scale works, like those he had seen in the US, which took viewers on a literal and spiritual journey.

Produced in 1976, On the Road was his final "Stations of the Cross" work arranged in numbered order and on separate panels, prompting viewers to walk past and contemplate the images. It encourages contemplation in a similar way to "Stations of the Cross", ubiquitous in Roman Catholic churches, which show Jesus on the day of his crucifixion walking to Mt Calvary, dying on the cross and being placed in his tomb.

Dr Peter Simpson, an authority on McCahon's work, will open Colin McCahon: On The Road. He says the painting is a radical work and shows as McCahon developed, his art became increasingly simple and direct.

Simpson likens him to a jazz musician improvising on a theme.

"This was the last time McCahon used the numbers one to 14 (by which he signifies the 'Stations') in a work and it's unique because of that but it also encompasses many of the aspects we see in his work - the notion of travelling, of passing through a landscape.

"I am sure that for people of faith, their interpretation will be in terms of the 'stations of the cross' but that's not the only way to look at this painting. It works so well because it has multiple layers of meaning; that's the beauty of it."

Public events, which include discussions about the religious themes in McCahon's work and the wider nature of religion in NZ art, have been organised to run alongside the exhibition.

Lowdown:
Colin McCahon: On The Road is at Somervell Presbyterian Church for general viewing from Tuesday, October 10 - Saturday, October 14, 10am-2pm ; for dates and times of special events see somervell.org.nz/artweek. Artweek is an annual festival celebrating the visual arts in Auckland with more than 1000 artists taking part in events in some 100 venues.