Sunday, 23 January 2011

Christian Art / Secular Age

I’m not religious myself, but I was brought up in the Catholic tradition and I’ve always been rather fascinated by the iconography of Christ in particular. Aren’t the stations of the cross just a bit weird?... As a child in Ireland, the church we attended contained a load of highly realistic paintings of a bloke being thrashed, jeered through the streets, nailed to two bits of wood, and dying a grim death in the glare of mocking onlookers.

I always found the ‘cult of the wounds’ a particularly odd, not to say morbid diversion in Christian art. A symbolic devotion to the five wounds (hands, feet and side) sustained by Jesus in The Passion is often expressed in oddly sexual paintings, such as this one by Caravaggio, where St. Thomas explores the vulva shaped lance wound with his long, outstretched finger. Yeuch.

Early Christian art was characterized by a theological debate between the Byzantine iconoclasts (those who believed that it was impossible, not to say heretical, for artists to try and represent figuratively the face of Christ as God incarnate) and the iconodules, who asserted that it was by contrast essential to represent, and thereby venerate, the humanity of Jesus.

In contrast to Islam, where the representation of Mohammed is still frowned upon, in Christianity the iconodules, have by and large, won the debate. (Although at times in history, such as the English Reformation, iconoclasm has enjoyed a resurgence)

These polarized arguments have come to characterize, in a sense, the challenge that lies at the heart of Christian art. Artists through history are attempting to paint Jesus as a divine being, but also - in case that wasn’t difficult enough - they’re also seeking to express His humanity.

Few have ever managed the mix just right. Humanity, misery and fallibility win out in in Grunewald’s Isenheim Christ – with precious little divinity.

Conversely, Michelangelo’s risen Christ is a transcendent, sun-kissed muscleman who seems never to have known hunger or strife.

Some images do seem to succeed in representing Christ as some kind of unsettling character with his foot in two worlds. Piero della Francesca’s uncanny Resurrection seems to exist in a frightening dream state between the physical world and myth, divinity and the impossible. Neither triumph nor humility light the saviour’s face. His gaze, echoed in the sleeping soldiers at his feet, evokes a wisdom, stillness and calm more akin to artworks of the Buddhist tradition.


In the modern age Christian art has arguably become more interesting because the challenges are so much greater. Many people (me included) don’t really believe any more.

One particularly thought provoking sculpture of Christ from recent years is Mark Wallinger’s Ecce Homo, made for the empty fourth plinth at Trafalgar Square. The title refers to Pontius Pilate’s words as he presents the flogged and humiliated Christ to the baying crowd who must decide his fate. Wallinger, himself an agnostic, plays with our preconceptions and sense of scale in this work. Christ is modelled on real human proportions and looks like an ordinary man, yet he stands on a great plinth high above us. The disparity between His physical ordinariness and the plinth scale is jarring – toying as it does with the conventions of art history that demand public (and religious) sculptures be huge and attention-grabbing. As if to emphasize this fact, on the other sides of the square stand enormous larger than life sculptures of mortal men which honour their status and earthly achievements – shouting with pride, vanity and arrogance. Wallinger’s Christ reproaches them with his gentle presence.

Another interesting piece of modern art that references Christian iconography (also made by an agnostic) is found in Sam Taylor Wood’s remarkable Pieta. Taylor-Wood has expressed the view that her religious themed works are not made from any doctrinal point of view, only to reference and comment on art history. Naturally, though, the two aren’t mutually exclusive. When Taylor-Wood entered into dialogue with the classic Michelangelo Pieta, she also commenced a similar dialogue with issues of what it means to represent Christ in an age of doubt.

Pieta consists of a looped video in which Taylor Wood cradles the troubled actor Robert Downey Jr. in her arms, in an identical pose to Michelangelo’s sculpture. Her choice of medium is pretty crucial here. In marble the pose is timeless – Mary bears the weight of her son without effort, while his dead body rests secure and not without elegance on the folds of her dress. On the video, we see Downey Jr struggle not to slip, the pose clearly a challenge to maintain. Taylor-Wood has explained in interviews that, although she keeps a serene face, the effort of holding Downey Jr in this unusual pose is incredibly painful.

Like Wallinger’s sculpture, Taylor Wood’s piece – due to it’s time based nature – seems interested in redressing the balance in that age old humanity/divinity paradox. Where Holy images have traditionally been (particularly in the High Renaissance) the stuff of idealized marble tableaux with which we can hardly have any empathy, Taylor-Wood reminds us that all suffering is real and tangible, not frozen and idealized.

An extreme example of this is surely ‘Piss Christ’ by Andres Serrano, a 1987 photograph of a plastic crucifix submerged in the artists own urine. Following the production of this work, the agnostic artist was caught in a decade-long firestorm of hate mail, death threats and litigation. A reproduction of the piece was torn up in the US Senate. Many spectators felt that Serrano had literally urinated on the holiest symbol of Christianity.

Perhaps inevitably, I see it in a rather different light. Naturally, with a title like ‘Piss Christ’, the work courts open controversy and seeks to snort in the face of the Christian Right. Yet look at it for a second… it’s beautiful. A spectator could glance at this work and be caught unawares by the eerie majesty of Christ seen through the regal filter of golden liquid… before the inevitable jolt of realization slaps him or her in the face. It effortlessly brings us back to the contradiction at the heart of all Christian art, the aforementioned ‘humanity versus divinity’ paradox. By surrounding the idealized Christ with the stuff of basest humanity, Serrano brings that paradox into focus. Jesus, so we’re told, was the Son of God. But he shared our bodily functions, he pissed, he was human. The Christian Right need to wrap their heads around that.


  1. I think that part of the orginal idea of depicting the stories in the Bible related to a lack of reading skills and the need to depict the life of Christ in a memorable way for the populace. From memory Gombrich attributes this to Pope Gregory the Great. The Byzantine & later Protestant churches took the opposite view that creating images was akin to idol worship.
    After that the paintings of the Renaissance were as much about status as religion. Your choice of a Carravaggio image is interesting because his paintings challenged the Helensitic or Classical tradition by his use of street people and his mistresses, "dame de la nuit" to model for sacred roles. Makes Serrano look relativley low key compared to having a hooker as the model for "Our Lady" or "St. Catherine"?
    The depiction of people in non-religous painting was as problematic as the religious ones, apart from the portraits of nobility & the aristocracy.
    From my point of view, I view God having "made man in his own image", is God as a sentient intelligence. So how do you depict him as not a humanoid form but a life force or intelligent energy? A couple of thoughts from a "holy fool". All the best.

  2. Jesus was a Jew - I think a lot of imagery of him ignores this fact and depicts him as a caucasion, euro white boy. Having lived in America for a number of years a few times I have also seen images/figures of Negro Jesus or Last Supper, I have never seen an Asian Jesus though, that would be a first - although I'm sure a lot of these religious pilgrim idols/souvenirs are now made in China...

    Matt Shiel