An extraordinary oil painting of a Biblical scene in a contemporary setting has gone on temporary display at the Ashmolean Museum. Menorah, by Roger Wagner, 1993, is a crucifixion scene set against the surprising backdrop of Didcot Power Station. The work is the centrepiece of a show of 23 of Wagner’s works, including oil on board illustrations for his new translation of the Book of Psalms.

Looking at Menorah, the eye is first drawn to the massive cooling towers and central chimney belching out emissions into a sapphire and indigo sky. This part of the painting dominates the top two thirds. The eye then travels down to the quieter presence of the figures beneath, the naked Christ and thieves on crosses, and the grief-stricken onlookers, evidently Jewish, in a flat sodden foreground field. The six towers and tall chimney line up from certain viewpoints, Wagner noticed. He thus transformed them into a menorah, the seven-branched ceremonial Jewish candlestick, creating a painting that fuses Jewish and Christian symbols and has many connotations, not least bringing to mind images of crematoria at Auschwitz.

At first the painting appears to have a static quality, yet it is a synthesis of the moving and motionless, of symmetry and geometry, beauty and ugliness, hope and despair, as well as stark industrial power and human vulnerability. In short, it’s an amalgam of many things – memories, history, knowledge and belief – and well worth seeing.

To most, Didcot Power Station is an ugly thing – voted Britain’s “third worst eyesore” by readers of Country Life – and controversial, twice invaded by climate protesters. For Wagner, 30 years ago when he first saw it, it was an inspiration. Sketching it from the train, he thought of a Deposition drawing with power station as background. Then, with images of the Second World War in mind, plus the smoke and towers lining up, it became a crucifixion. Press pictures of the Bosnian war raging at the time, of grief and widows mourning, influenced how he painted the onlookers. Born in 1957, Roger Wagner read English at Lincoln College, Oxford. Art and literature vied within him at the time. He then studied at The Royal Academy School of Art, London. His paintings have been shown in many solo and group exhibitions in Britain and abroad. He has work in the Ashmolean and the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

Menorah is the largest contemporary painting ever acquired by the Ashmolean. It is also, in the words of a former Bishop of Oxford, Richard Harries, “one of the outstanding paintings of the late 20th century”. It is at the museum until Wednesday (free entry). Thereafter, Menorah returns to St Giles’ Church where it will remain on permanent loan; the Book of Psalms illustrations will also transfer to St Giles, for display until April 30.