Anne Gardom finds a feast of faith at the National Gallery
THE PILGRIM TRUST and the Jerusalem Trust combined to sponsor the excellent exhibition Seeing Salvation, at the National Gallery in London. This meant that it was free, and the accompanying publication The Image of Christ was much less expensive than usual. The very large number of people who went to the National Gallery to see it must have made the sponsors feel that their generosity was well worth while. The exhibition is now over but there is a video available which will certainly be worth having.
This was not simply another exhibition of magnificent pictures, whether still-lives, landscapes, portraits or religious themes, but a carefully presented sequence of religious objects, some of which were pictures, to illustrate a theme and ask a question. Those who had assembled the objects and pictures wanted us to look at and think about the way people have visualised Jesus Christ over the past two thousand years. There were very clear commentaries, both hung next to the displays and on the audio-CD companion, which gave us an excellent theological framework and background to help us to understand and enjoy what we were looking at. Above all it was not just a collection of the National Gallery’s great masterpieces assembled for our edification and enjoyment – it was both more demanding and more exciting than that.
There is of course no picture, no portrait, of Christ that ever claims to have been painted from life. Nobody painted him in his lifetime and even the descriptions of what he looked like are of somewhat doubtful provenance. What the early Christians drew and carved were the attributes of Christ, especially the Good Shepherd. There are very early statues and tomb carvings, Greco-Roman in style and feeling, of the Good Shepherd with the lost sheep over his shoulders, and also the early and familiar symbol of the fish – Jesus Christ Son of God Saviour. The Chi-Rho was also a simple and well-loved symbol from early times and one of the most poignant exhibits was a little Roman lamp with the handle shaped like a Chi-Rho – the flame of the lamp representing the Light of Christ and illuminating the Chi-Rho in flickering shadow patterns on the wall, perhaps of a house, perhaps a tomb. Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World, painted 1900-1904, hung alongside these much older expressions of the attributes of Christ. This copy usually hangs in St. Paul’s Cathedral, but was here seen in all its brilliant detail. It is not fashionable to admire it now, but it was the most admired and influential picture of its time. It toured Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa, attracting huge and deeply reverent crowds, and copies of it hung in classrooms, scout-huts and private houses all over the Anglican world. Holman Hunt was converted to Christianity while painting the first version – this is the third and largest one. It shows Christ, lantern in hand, standing in the darkness, knocking on a closed door. Weeds and brambles, symbols of neglect, creep up the wall; a bat, symbol of ignorance, flits though the night sky; rotten apples lie in the damp grass at his feet. Christ knocks at a door without a handle – the door of the heart can only be opened from inside. To complete the wide range of images drawn from very different periods, there was a painting by Zubararn, a Spaniard painting in the seventeenth century, of the Lamb of God. It is painted with stark realism, depicting a beautiful bound creature awaiting death. The lamb’s eyes are half-open and it lies in a heartbreaking attitude of resignation and acceptance, not struggling or panting, just awaiting the will of God. It is a surprisingly disturbing image – as it was intended to be.
When the face of Christ began to be depicted it was to the supernatural revelations of his appearance that the artists turned. The widespread public interest in the Turin Shroud in our own time gives us an idea of the awe and reverence with which these holy images were received. The most famous and frequently portrayed of these was known as the Veronica – said to have been imprinted on the cloth with which St Veronica wiped the tears and blood from Christ’s face on the way to the Crucifixion. The Mandylion of Edessa, first mentioned about 400 AD, and housed in the Imperial Treasury at Constantinople, was also said to be an image “divinely wrought”. It has long since disappeared, and the icon shown was a copy from the seventeenth century. These images of the face of Christ aroused immense interest and devotion. The Veronica was frequently painted with a series of prayers the saying of which, in front of the image, would earn you substantial indulgences – points off time in Purgatory. It was printed, painted, modelled, widely distributed, and was very important and influential. It was shown in the exhibition in a series of paintings and engravings, and even a very simple and moving papier-mâché cast dating from the fifteenth century. It was an image which combined Christ’s Divinity and his suffering humanity in a direct and particular way.
In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries the dual nature of Christ became more the focus of people’s devotion, and this was possibly easier to depict in the Nativity than in the Crucifixion. As a theological truth Christ’s Dual nature is a good deal easier to expound than it is to paint. However, Christian Art is theology made visible, and artists struggled with it in a variety of ways. They painted the Christ-child as a source of light in dark mysterious stables, they painted Epiphanies where his divinity is acknowledged by gloriously dressed worldly princes, or where his death is foreshadowed in the rough crowds of violent men jostling in the shadows. They painted him as God and Man, risen, victorious even on the cross. There were some very small ivory carvings, dating from the early fifth century, probably from a casket made to hold some precious relic, where this very early craftsman portrays the strength and victory of Christ reigning from the cross. There was a complex painting by Murillo, showing both Christ as a young boy, the centre of a horizontal human Trinity with his parents, and at the same time a vertical divine Trinity with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit.
In the Middle Ages the figure of the triumphant Christ, both human and divine, began to give way to the figure of the suffering Christ. Christ, the Man of Sorrows, becomes the focus of devotion and prayer. The encouragement of the emotions and feelings of sorrow and compassion as a way of developing and intensifying devotion – affective prayer in fact – is reflected in the many pictures of Christ’s suffering. He is shown as a Man of Sorrows, his beautiful body covered with blood, his eyes suffused with tears, eyes that are frequently fixed on the viewer, inviting him to suffer too. These pictures are painted with painful realism: the message of the agonizing ordeal and death of Christ, and our involvement in this death and ordeal, are driven home in picture after picture. This leads to some rather odd (to our eyes) devotional artifacts. There was a page, a coloured print, depicting the wounds of Christ as rather grotesque gaping bloody mouths, the nail as an almost phallic symbol; there was a prayer roll with nails driven through strangely disembodied feet. The veneration of the wounds of Christ, quite separated from his body, as sources of grace, gave rise to images which look bizarre to the modern eye. Beautiful little golden cradles with a doll-sized representation of the Christ-child were used with special prayers designed to increase devotion to the body of Christ. Mostly small, unusual, well-chosen and displayed, the pictures and religious objects relating to and describing the devotion to Christ’s suffering humanity pack a powerful religious charge.
Christ’s saving body and his abiding presence with us now are even more difficult to express, though Titian’s well-known painting showing the Risen Christ with Mary Magdalene in the Garden is an image of great majesty and beauty. Christ was also shown, in a series of paintings, prints and drawings, as pouring his precious blood into a chalice, or as the Man of Sorrows in the Winepress, treading out the wine that is also his blood to redeem mankind. The astonishing sixteenth-century silver-gilt monstrance shocks and startles us into an enhanced perception of the centrality of the Saving Body to Christian belief – the elaborate depiction of the Last Supper has no figure of Christ at the table: that position is taken by the consecrated Host when it was displayed to the faithful.
Modern artists dominated the final room -Christ with us now. The much reproduced Salvador Dali’s Christ of St. John of the Cross, on loan from Glasgow, is both bigger and more beautiful than all the postcards and calendars would lead one to believe. It is a challenge, a surprise, and a question mark. Stanley Spencer’s Resurrection at Cookham is also a very large canvas, full of everyday people climbing out of tombs, pushing up the grassy mounds, smelling the flowers and talking to each other, rejoicing in an Eternity that has both a familiar and a totally new dimension. Christ, a maternal figure cradling babies, presides over all this unhurried enjoyment of endless bliss.
Judging by the large number of people who went, this was an exhibition that could have run for twice as long. Those who put it together had a clear idea of what they wanted to show, and hung well-known pictures alongside seldom seen prints, drawings and other objects. The familiar and the unexpected were both enhanced by these imaginative juxtapositions. It was an exhibition which was sometimes startling, sometimes ugly, often beautiful, and always illuminating.
Anne Gardom studied Fine Arts at London University, and writes the texts describing the famous paintings and other works of art featured in the Forward! pew-sheet.