simple white fading png image
notre dame montreal

Dead Christ

Dead Christ 1500-1520 Mercers

The Dead Christ, c. 1500-1520, limestone, 197 x 68.6 cm.
The Mercers’ Company, London.

Make no mistake objects, pictures, statues, physical objects are powerful, just as much and more so than words. They have the strength to provoke outrage, fear and loathing or indeed to inspire. They convey more than the paint or stone from which they are made and anybody who holds a photograph of someone they love will tell you that it is more than just paper and ink. It is because of their power that they have often been destroyed. Across the world there are statues being built or torn down depending upon the prevailing political opinion. It is an interesting question as to whether destruction of such statues does more harm than good. Whilst removing images or statues appeases some people who are caused offence, some argue that it might be better to learn from the history which they represent. That is a long discussion but we should understand that the statues of Cecil Rhodes or Edward Colston stand in a long line of contentious memorials which have caused outrage.

Last week I visited St Albans Abbey and I asked the guide if they would use the new projector system to illuminate the wall paintings which are barely visible since the destruction of the reformation when they were covered in whitewash and only rediscovered in 1862. The projection restores them to their former glory as they would have been seen by worshippers. The Reformers brought destruction to so much beauty across Europe, but they were not the only guilty ones. Earlier in Britain in the late fourteenth century the Lollards founded by John Wycliffe had attacked all idolatry removing statues and images - ‘dead stones and rotten sticks’ - from churches and destroying them. The Lollards argued that these objects and images were venerated and lured worshippers into idolatry. 
Interestingly the Reformer Martin Luther disagreed with the fanatics of the movement and saw the difference between venerating an image itself and the positive role it can play. He said

It is possible for me to hear and bear in mind the story of the Passion of our Lord.  But it is impossible for me to hear and bear it in mind without forming mental images of it in my heart. For whether I will or not when I hear of Christ, an image of a man hanging on a cross takes form in my heart just as the reflection of my face naturally appears in the water when I look into it.  If it is not a sin, but good to have the image of Christ in my heart, why should it be a sin to have it in my eyes?

Luther championed the positive function of images, especially using woodcuts which we have seen in previous weeks. Luther used engravings to illustrate scripture and as an antipapal propaganda.
So what should we think of religious art and images?

St. John Damascene lived from 676 AD – 749 AD and is well known for fighting the heresy of Iconoclasm (the word means breakers of images.)  He said

“The beauty of the images moves me to contemplation, as a meadow delights the eyes and subtly infuses the soul with the glory of God.”

The practice of Lectio Divina or Divine Reading encourages contemplation of a biblical text. More recently, people have used the expression Vision Divina - Divine Seeing, the spiritual practice of using art as a way of entering into a time of contemplation, a way to pray with the eyes. If we consider that God gave the talents of artists and the gift of sight it makes sense to me to allow God to speak to us in a multisensory way through art and images and that is what lies behind this series of ‘A Picture Paints.’  It recognises that Art can be a sacrament which brings spiritual enlightenment and a channel through which the Spirit of God can speak to our hearts.

St. Basil the Great said
“What the word transmits through the ear, the painting silently shows through the image, and by these two means, mutually accompanying one another… we receive knowledge of one and the same thing.”

The object for reflection could be a painting or any other form of art and there is no reason why it should necessarily be religious in nature. It should be recognised that this has been going on since ancient times where icons have been a source of divine inspiration.

Today we have as our image a life size three ton statue of the Dead Christ (c.1500-20) from the collection of the Worshipful Company of Mercers. This is a pre-Reformation sculpture and one of the most important examples of sculpture to survive the violent destruction of religious reformers in the 16th century. It was discovered in 1954 buried beneath the floor of the Mercers’ Chapel during the clearance of the site following bomb damage. The crown of thorns, arms and lower legs of the sculpture are missing, most probably the result of a brutal attack at the hands of Protestant iconoclasts I the 16th century. The statue may have been buried to conceal it and protect it from further damage.

This sculpture has been described as one of the most important sculptures to survive the iconoclasm of those destructive religious reformers in the 16th century who sought to rid the world of catholic artworks of any kind. However one needs to remember that there isn’t that much competition because historians have estimated that over 90 per cent of pre-Reformation imagery has been lost and much of what remains is in a mutilated state. It is an anonymous work in limestone, a carving of Christ, probably made as part of a medieval funeral monument. It shows a dead Jesus after crucifixion, there is blood carved and shown flowing from his wounds.

I can understand why many people find statues of those who were engaged in practices such as slave trading so offensive. Indeed I can sympathise with the desire to have them removed, albeit to do so can be something of a paradox because it draws attention to the very evils which we deplore. The counter argument is that sometimes it might be helpful to have very visible reminders that once people thought such practices not only to be normal but indeed godly behaviour. However I struggle tom come to terms with how Christians could set about a life size statue of Christ with hammers and break off his arms. Whatever motives might have possessed them what is clear is that they succeeded only in creating an object which is many times more powerful than the one which they sought to destroy. This Dead Christ speaks out against not only those who were so inflamed with hate that they would seek to destroy that which others deemed a sacred monument, it is also a warning against all other forms of intolerant religious fanaticism which is not content to satisfy its own adherents but insists upon condemning deeply held spiritual views of others whom they fear and do not understand.