How did we decide what Christ looked like?

Frank Kermode

  • The Image of Christ edited by Gabriele Finaldi
    National Gallery, 224 pp, £14.95, February 2000, ISBN 1 85709 292 9

This National Gallery exhibition has a catalogue of extraordinary splendour and is accompanied by four programmes on BBC2’s new Art Zone slot. In the Gallery itself there are further aids to understanding in the form of a film show, CD-Roms and audiotapes. A BBC book accompanies the series, and Neil MacGregor, the indefatigable director of the Gallery, not only does the TV presentations but is making a hectic lecture tour (Glasgow, Liverpool, Cardiff, Belfast: admission free). We are talking about as professionally orchestrated an art offensive as we are ever likely to see.

The title of the show has a faintly evangelical ring, but its avowed purpose is not to proselytise. MacGregor remarks in his catalogue introduction that one third of the paintings in the National Gallery (and in comparable institutions) are of Christian subjects, though it is improbable that even one third of the people who go to look at them would call themselves Christians. The paintings don’t really belong in Trafalgar Square anyway; at some time in the past they were removed from churches and other places where they had a clearly understood devotional purpose. But there they are, unmistakably still dedicated to that purpose, though it is a purpose no longer clearly understood. Most of us look at them with some quite different, ill-defined, but un-devotional motive.

Seeing Salvation is anxious not to put us off; if we don’t take a Christian view we are allowed to think of the pictures as representing ‘part of a narrative of human artistic achievement’. But that sentiment is a vague substitute for intimacy with the original theological certainties and subtleties, which the experts understand and which some of them may well think consistent with their own religious positions. Conventional pieties do occasionally peep through the prose of the catalogue and the TV commentaries, where they are rather heavily underlined by John Tavener’s music for the title sequences.

Still, the organisers encourage us to compromise, to substitute human for theological concepts, to accept the life and sufferings of Christ as ‘archetypes of all human experience’, conveying truths not just to Christians but to everybody. For example, Piero della Francesca’s Baptism of Christ (which we see in the rather enigmatic run-up to each TV segment) is ‘an epitome of compositional values’ but it is also ‘an exploration of the central mystery of the Christian faith – the total fusion of human and divine’.

I doubt if this really works. You may well think The Baptism a beautiful painting, but it has a cause and a purpose, a sense that cannot be had without some theology. A striking example of such senses is the convention, alluded to here, whereby the genitals of the holy child are emphasised in various ways. The purpose is to insist on the fully mortal nature of the fully divine child, but we had so totally lost touch with the idea that it required Leo Steinberg’s remarkable book The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion to restore it to our notice. Or we might miss the homiletic point of pictures showing St Francis embracing the Christ child, or the dead Jesus, and have to be told that it ‘calls on each one of us to embrace the incarnate Christ’.

It is true that the explanations of the experts often make the pictures more interesting without diverting our attention from their formal beauty, but it might have been better to admit that a full understanding of their structure demands an acquaintance with the language and symbolism of Christian devotion and theology. This understanding can be acquired without me slightest degree of religious complicity. The exercise is familiar to people who study not only paintings but poetry, which draws on bodies of ideas that most of us no longer have at first hand.

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