SEEING SALVATION

The Image of Christ[i]: an exhibition

26th February - 7th May 2000 National Gallery, London

Geoff Hall

 

Being, like Pooh Bear, of little brain, it has taken me some time to get my head around the concept of 'The Image of Christ'. The celebrated exhibition, also benefiting from a four week TV series, was supported by The Jerusalem Trust & The Pilgrim Trust. Small magazines, like our baby, 'The Big Picture', are not invited to the previews of such splendid occasions. If you picture me being greeted at the door, press badge pinned on the lapel, by the Director of the National Gallery, then I'm sorry to say that it is an erroneous image. I don't think he is too concerned about TBP reviewers - one day maybe! But the true image was on display and I cannot hide my joy at having seen this exhibition in the flesh.

Seven rooms, all themed, were set out as follows: 1.Sign & Symbol; 2.The Dual Nature; 3.The True Likeness; 4.Passion & Compassion; 5.Praying the Passion; 6.The Saving Body; 7.The Abiding Presence.

The exhibition covered the period from the third century to the 20th. It bears witness not only to the ingenuity of the artist to depict through carved 'images' to pencil and sticky pigment, difficult theological and liturgical concepts, but also, that through art...Christian artists have attempted to put extremes of suffering and despair into an overall context of hope - a vein of hope that runs from the catacombs to Hiroshima and beyond.

Those of our Reformed tradition who think that an image of Christ is anathema will no doubt conclude from this review that my soul is very much in need of prayer. Unlike any other exhibition I've been to, this one had presence. I say that advisedly; I don't mean to say that the presence of Christ indwelt inanimate substance. I'm not writing from a Neoplatonic Christian's point of view! I refer to the confrontation of the believer by faith, which as St Paul writes is, "...the evidence of things unseen." (Hebrews 11:1) This evidence of things unseen was in abundance and I found it reassuring in the present climate of skepticism that the National Gallery should put on such a show.

This then represents the faith of our earliest brothers and sisters and of the striving of those who made the Christian faith 'the predominant force in shaping European culture'. A third of the National Gallery's paintings are Christian, we are told, and probably even more if one counted the 'reformational art'. On with the show.

Room One started with some very poignant images from the catacombs, two funerary slabs, one of Aurelius Castus, 8 months old, made by his mother to commemorate his short life. The text on the slab is supplemented by the image of Christ as the Good Shepherd. As Gabriele Finaldi has put it, 'we are struck by the simplicity and power with which they proclaim their faith'. From funerary slab to coins and lamps with the Chi-Rho symbol and from thence to Holman-Hunt's celebrated image of Christ as the 'Light of the World'. This represents quite a movement along the scale of things.

The simplicity of the modest emblem is the thing that strikes you most when walking around the room. The lamp's ability to surreptitiously cast the shadow of Christ's rule on a Roman Empire. We are informed of one of the oldest liturgies of the Christian church, the Lucernarium, which celebrates the resurrection of Christ with these words...May the Morning Star which never sets find this flame still burning: Christ, that Morning Star, who came back from the dead, and shed his peaceful light on all mankind.

'The Light of the World' canvas (1900-04) represents another lamp; the kind of light that is peculiar to Christ. I first came across this image some twenty or so years ago in a stall at the Keswick Convention (in the English Lake District) which, amongst other things, sold religious post cards! I could never understand the fascination of this painting, a throwback from my post-card days no doubt. Why would anyone want to paint a tract, I thought? It is only when you see the thing in the flesh that you are half-way impressed. It seems a very solitary thing. Christ standing alone. Christ rejected, or will He be received? But that is the power of the Image of Christ, it confronts you by the very fact that here is the One whom we have rejected. This is the resonance of the exhibition. We start with human suffering and the death of an infant and we are in the same room introduced to the suffering of Jesus. The continual theme though is not of remorse, but of hope, a theme so often missing from contemporary European and American art. The mother's hope was in the Good Shepherd looking after her son. The Son's hope is in His Father, "Nevertheless, your will be done." A holy resignation to the will of God, in the face of great suffering.

Room Two reveals the dual nature of Christ and the dual nature of the artist's art. Two paintings stand out in this room, Jan Gossaert's and Pieter Bruegel's 'The Adoration of the Kings' dating 1500-15 and 1564 respectively. Gossaert's stately depiction requires complex reading of the symbolism and intricately decorated panel. Bruegel's offering on the other hand is no less complex but is anything but stately! Whereas Gossaert's Kings are regal in intent, Bruegel's look like ragtag misfits from a Rederijker theatre production. The former's clothing is so finely 'stitched' by the brush, the latter showing all the extravagance that satire can muster. From regency to folly. Whilst you would not question the devotion of Gossaert's three kings, you feel you wouldn't trust Bruegel's with your children! No angels to greet the happy morn for Bruegel, only the threat of military action; the threat of violence in the face of the Prince of peace. And just so you know what the elder statesman of satirical art is getting at, to the right of the canvas in the background is an individual who cannot see the truth for looking! Bedecked with jam-jar glasses, he does not see the Christ-child but looks out at the viewers. He is not unlike the character in the first poem of Sebastian Brandt's 'Ship of Fools', published in 1494, who collects books but has no knowledge. Even at this early age Christ is no stranger to the threat of violence and oppression. Art can stir the most noble of sentiments, or can challenge you by the playfulness of a truly great artist who knows how to use the immoderation of satire. Both however direct your thoughts towards Christ.

Room Three attended to the true likeness of Christ. What did Jesus look like? How did Dürer and Zurbarán know how to paint the likeness of Christ? This may seem a surprising question to ask in the age of art and self-expression, but reading that contemporary fascination with self-processes into the history of art is a flawed methodology. The plain answer is that the image of Christ was carried through the ages by tradition. My appreciation of tradition's value to the Christian faith has been increased with this exhibition's focus on the true likeness. The miraculous image bestowed to St Veronica, who wiped Christ's brow as He carried the cross, was handed down through the ages. Now with the benefit of hindsight and our penchant for cynicism we may dismiss this in no uncertain terms. However, for the Christian artists who took their responsibilities seriously and desired to depict the image of Christ with verisimilitude, tradition gave them the tools to do this!

Room Four was concerned with 'Passion and Compassion'. Human compassion...could be harnessed to inspire and deepen faith in Christ and to strengthen devotion to Him. The image of Christ on the cross was no longer solely the sign of God's love and his sacrifice for humanity; it became the focus for humanity's own compassion for the suffering Saviour. (p105) The crowning glories of this room were Hieronymous Bosch's 'The Crowning of Thorns' (c1490-1500), an Ivory casket with four carved scenes from the Passion of Christ (c420-430AD), 'Christ as the Man of Sorrows' (1520's) in the style of Jan Mostaert and the life-size sculpture 'Christ on the Cold Stone' (c1500).

In the face of human rejection and personal injury Christ is depicted by Bosch as calm and serene. He looks out impassively, submissively to the viewer. Those who mock Christ are dressed in contemporary sixteenth-century apparel, even in this age Christ still stands rejected. The secular authorities of the day are revealed as corrupting influences on society. Corruption is established here through violence; the panel reveals this with two 'military' figures to the top left and right of the suffering saviour. The bottom left and right allude to false homage, a mocking gesture of the infidel with the crescent moon on his head dress (left) and it is reckoned that the final figure is a contemporary merchant holding on to Christ's clothing. The conflict of Christian values in the marketplace are shown here as the merchant grapples with the garment. Does this insinuate that the marketing of Christ is false worship? Do we worship the product and not the true 'image' of Christ?

The magnificent little casket (7.5cm x 9.8cm) is a testament of the craftsmanship for the 'everyday' use of consecrated matter. Possibly used for the storage of the consecrated host, the finely carved figures depict Christ's victory over betrayal and death. The four scenes are, 'Christ taking up the Cross'; 'The Crucifixion'; 'The Empty Tomb'; 'Christ's Commission to the Apostles'. The final scene reminds us of our calling to 'disciple all nations'. For this we will need the faithful use of the arts. The testimony of our tradition affirms this and the exhibition catalogue has attested to our shaping of European culture; something we appear to be remiss of since the rise of Enlightenment philosophies. But on this evidence (the exhibition) we have the traditions that can captivate Europe again. We need to show to those without hope the 'evidence of things unseen'. The arts are a most potent force for this purpose. Abraham Kuyper, the Dutch Premier (1901-05) and Reformed Christian wrote of art, in his celebrated 'Lectures on Calvinism', Thus far the artist had only traced upon his canvas the idealised figures of prophets and apostles, of saints and priests; now, however, when he saw how God had chosen the porter and the wage-earner for Himself, he found interest not only in the head, the figure and the entire personality of the man of the people, but began to reproduce the human expression of every rank and station. And if thus far the eyes of all had been fixed constantly and solely upon the sufferings of the "Man of Sorrows", some now began to understand that there was a mystical suffering also in the general woe of man, revealing hitherto unmeasured depths of the human heart, and thereby enabling us to fathom much better the still deeper depths of the mysterious agonies of Golgotha.[ii] Here Kuyper links the suffering of Christ with the suffering of humanity. Christian art should, by this creed, gives us insight into both realms of suffering. It should reveal the "Man of Sorrows" and the "Sorrows of Man(kind)".

This brings us quite aptly to 'Christ as Man of Sorrows'. A small painting (oil on oak), 30.5cm by 21cm. Painted in the 1520's, the small scale of the work is said to produce a sense of intimacy (p118). An image produced for private contemplation, it is remarkable in its ability to evoke compassion and devotion. The writer of this catalogue entry (Gabriele Finaldi) suggests a link with the Devotio Moderna (Modern Devotion) a spiritual movement prevalent in the Netherlands at this time. The accent was on the laity's access to a devotional faith and whose teaching was best personified by Thomas à Kempis in 'The Imitation of Christ'. On the sufferings of Christ and humanity ('We must patiently endure the miseries of this life, as Christ did before us') he writes, THE VOICE OF THE LORD: My [child], I came down from heaven to save you, and I accepted the miseries of your life not from necessity but from love, wanting you to learn patience and to bear the miseries of earthly life without rebelling. From the moment of my birth, right up to my death on the cross, I was never free from suffering.[iii] Christ as the Man of Sorrows shows us how to suffer and not rebel. The image of personal devotion was there to help the devotee to see, reassuringly, the ultimate example of faithful endurance. Tortured as Christ is in this image; bloodshot eyes, tears, drops of blood and instruments of torture, we are assured that a faithful walk will not lead to the dissipation of our souls. I found this a most moving panel that provided me, in my small measure of physical suffering with a reinforcement of my will to follow Christ.

Finally, in this room, the life-size limestone sculpture of Christ, resting on a rock before he was crucified. This piece was on loan from the Catharijneconvent, Utrecht, The Netherlands. I saw this work about 12 years ago at the Catharijneconvent and it was therefore something of a happy reunion to see it at the National Gallery. Its presence in that room was nothing short of astonishing. We are accustomed to looking at images directly in front of us. I was amazed to see that those in the gallery with me only viewed this three-dimensional object from this vantage point. I was mesmerised by this sculpture and spent quite sometime walking around it, bending, moving away, coming up close. My desire to touch it was great; but not wishing to be ejected from the exhibition I resisted. Comfort can be found in touch as well as sight, but having seen enough I wanted to go on to the next level, to find solace and give solace also. It is not an image of dejection. Christ is seated, head resting on his hand, arm resting on his thigh. It is the visualisation of the well-known verses from the Prophet Isaiah's 'Song of the Suffering Servant' and the verse from the Lamentations of Jeremiah: 'O all ye that pass by the way, attend, and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow.' -ch1,v12 (p120) Christ is not disconsolate but exhausted because of His sufferings. It is a remarkable piece that still speaks to the suffering today. Will our art have the same impact in 500 years time?

Room Five focuses on the Passion Image. The theology of this kind of image concluded that to gaze, to meditate on such an image, was to lead to 'the imitation of Christ'. To give power to this theology of the image artists often presented the sufferings of Christ in narrative form. A story that moved the devotee further and further into the emotion and spirit of the Man of Sorrows and ultimately to render up to their Creator God Christ's prayer of submission in the Garden of Gethsemane, "Nevertheless, your will be done". As Thomas à Kempis wrote, 'to suffer and not to rebel'. This is the ultimate intimacy of souls that seek to follow Christ, whether through their role as painters, writers, counsellors or plumbers!

The polyptych was a magnificent invention which allowed, in this instance, for the narrative scope of the story of the 'Suffering Servant'. The Netherlandish 'Portable Passion Polyptych' is proof of this. (mid-sixteenth century) Again the medium provides for private devotion. It has ten different scenes: The Arrest of Christ; Christ before the High Priest; Flagellation at the Column; Crowning of Thorns; Ecce Homo; The Way to Calvary with Simon of Cyrene; Nailing to the Cross; The Crucifixion; Descent from the Cross; Pietà. From this sequence of events you can see that the destination of the soul is Pity or Piety for Christ. (Pietà can mean both). It does not happen through a Kantian disengagement (disinterested contemplation) with art but exactly the opposite, with an 'interested' meditation. Of course piety was not achieved through some kind of mystical aestheticism à la Clive Bell, but through the use of other devices along with the image. I have already quoted from such a period book, but the reader will be aware of devotional books, such as the 'Book of Hours' of the Duc de Berry (Les trés riches heures).

This is obviously quite a different theology from the dominant contemporary varieties offered by TV Evangelists. Would they be happy with the bloodstains of devotion on their gleaming white suits? Suffering does not have a very positive marketing image, but not every Christian lives an affluent life whereby prosperity is ninth/tenths of the law of righteousness.

A suffering humanity needs images of suffering to engage with, but it has to be tapped into the rich vein of hope that is found only in Christ. Such an art would be powerful and would speak more than that of images of prosperous, righteous people untouched by the blood, sweat and tears, that is life for the vast majority of us.

In contemporary terms this has been communicated most comfortingly by the musician Mark Heard. Heard had the ability to write of suffering poetically, as is evidenced here,

Down peppers the rain from a clear blue sky

down trickles a tear on a youthful face

feeling in haste, and wondering why

Up struggles the sun from a wounded night

Out venture our hearts in their silent shrouds

trying to ignite, but wondering how

We can laugh and we can cry

and never see the strong hand of love

painted in the shadows

We can dance and we can sigh

but never see the strong hand of love

painted in the shadows[iv]

 

This is an example of music embracing suffering, but does our art and does our liturgy? Are we given the space to suffer or are means to this denied by the great accent on prosperity?

Heard died of a heart attack in his 30's! Having found a soul-mate, my 'relationship' was ended by tragedy. His music allowed fellow sufferers the space for holy resignation, and to experience the strong hand of love. The tradition that Christian arts are steeped in embraces suffering, it does not rebel against it. Whilst walking round the exhibition, the evidence was presented to me that such ordeal did not lead to ultimate despair but to hope. Room Six presents to us images of 'The Saving Body'. We move to hope in and beyond suffering. Titian's 'Nole me Tangere' (c1515) brings us to the recognition of Christ's victory over death. Christ's graceful gesture to Mary Magdalene, the pastoral setting, all suggest the serenity of assurance.

There is also a lovely painting, probably from the top of an altarpiece, full of wonderful gestures. 'The Deposition' (c1500-1505) was painted by the Master of the Saint Bartholomew Altarpiece. The characters in the scene are resplendent in their contemporary dress. To the left the red-haired John holds the swooning Mary as she is about to receive the body of Jesus. Mary Magdalene appears overcome by the emotion and leans against the ladder used for the deposition. Her attire is wonderful, a red and gold embroidered dress, appliquè jewels on the cuffs and a green cloak. Joseph of Arimathea is helping Nicodemus to take down the pallid body of Christ, which looks stiffened by death. The attendant at the top of the ladder is given the most amazing contortive pose, not unlike a Mannerist painting. Every one of the depositors has a tear-strewn face, again the emotive element of the scene is fixed in time so that we may observe, meditate upon their piety.

Room Seven. We are exposed to the contemporary artist's view of the image of Christ, this time, of course' stripped of the traditions that we have made our own through this journey in time.

In London's Trafalgar Square we were treated, I think prior to the exhibition, to a marble resin sculpture of a life-sized Christ. Ecce Homo was produced from a cast of a 'real person' (p194) not an idealised form. Quite a debate followed which focused around the tradition of the 'true likeness'. This is remarkable considering all that the twentieth century artist has done to break with tradition. Even members of the public claimed that it 'did not look like Christ'!

Back in Room Seven there are paintings from Stanley Spencer, Graham Sutherland and Salvador Dalí. All, we are told, were painted in response to the wars of the 20th century. Spencer (World War One), Sutherland (WWII) and Dalí (Hiroshima). All negate the image of the Man of Sorrows. It would appear that we have had our fill of suffering and in response the artist has produced a Christ that does not need the weapons of torture placed around him. Dalí's Christ is not held to the cross by nails, the kingly inscription is blank. Christ is stripped of his royal divinity! The sense of judgment is therefore obviated. Are the perpetrators of 20th Century crimes beyond judgement?

Now some may stress the opposite, that Christ is herein ultimately associated with suffering humanity, that love held him to the cross. But as fellow human sufferers we are stripped of the possibility of redemption, a theme that could not have been negated by the artists outside of Room Seven. As scripture has so clearly stated, "Without the shedding of blood there can be no remission of sins." (Hebrews 9:22) The sacrificial Christ is therefore unnecessary baggage to 20th Century culture. This is another break from tradition and places these paintings against all that has preceded. We look for redemption elsewhere or reject its possibility. Eastern traditions that offer Christ as just another good bloke postulating the brotherhood of man, cannot be a sufficient way for the contemporary Christian artist to reveal the Man of Sorrows to the suffering world. Or has the suffering of modern humanity numbed us, unlike our medieval brethren, from having 'compassion for the suffering Saviour'.

We need new images of the suffering Christ, of redemption and yes, judgement. We have to retell the story of a dying and suffering humanity that taps into the rich 'vein of hope' that we explored together earlier and is located in Christ. Our own sufferings need also to be brought to light and offered as a sacrifice of submission to a greater will.

This was the only disappointment of the exhibition, but it also serves to say that we as moulders and shapers of culture have been remiss of our responsibilities to 'disciple every nation', whether that is in art, politics or religion. The twentieth century is then the story of our Great Omission rather than the Great Commission!

I leave the reader with one question. Do we need to reintroduce a more liturgical art into our worship or are there different ways of depicting Christian truth for the life of everyday suffering and joy?

 

 

 

 

[i]. Exhibition Catalogue published by - NATIONAL GALLERY COMPANY Ltd., Distributed by Yale University Press, 2000.

[ii].'Lectures in Calvinism', Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company: Grand Rapids, Michigan. 1994. (pp166-67) Lectures delivered at Princeton University, USA, in 1898.

[iii] Published by Collins:Fountain Books. 1977, p138.

[iv]. 'Strong Hand of Love', from the album Dry bones Dance. 1990. © Fingerprint Records

 

The Big Picture Volume 2 Advent 2000 p.12