Coming To God Through the Arts January 2001

Seeing Salvation: the image of Christ

Gabriele Finaldi

In this secular age, why did so many thousands of people visit the recent exhibition on specifically Christian art at the National Gallery, London? Gabriele Finaldi, the curator of the exhibition ‘Seeing Salvation’, explains that, through the reactions of so many visitors and the depth of their appreciative comments, he formed the impression that ‘after a long exile, the religious image had come home’.

Afterthoughts on the exhibition

The ‘Seeing Salvation’ exhibition at the National Gallery was a remarkable phenomenon. Nearly 360,000 people visited the exhibition, which, for various reasons, ran for only ten weeks instead of the usual twelve. In the last weeks queues of visitors snaked their way up the Sainsbury Wing stairs, spilling out on to Trafalgar Square. About 60,000 copies of the exhibition catalogue were sold, and had the weekly sales figures been officially audited, they would have placed it consistently in the top five of the non-fiction weekly best-seller lists, hovering somewhere between Who wants to be a Millionaire? and The Highway Code. The Gallery received 279 letters from people who had visited the exhibition; the usual figure is about twenty. Media coverage was relentless.

As I look back at my diary for the months of February, March and April, I realise that I gave twelve radio interviews to, among others, Finnish, German and Belgian Radio, as well as the BBC World Service (the National Gallery Director, Neil MacGregor, with whom I curated the exhibition, gave another thirteen radio interviews). The National Gallery Press Office didn’t count the column inches, but I know that I received 203 press cuttings, mostly full-scale articles, during the exhibition run. Other articles have appeared since, including a rather interesting piece in the Sunday Telegraph in October, in which the Iranian artist Shirazeh Houshiary talked about how fascinated she was by seeing the Veil of Saint Veronica by the Spanish painter Zurbarán in the exhibition. What was it that drew so many people to see the exhibition and why did it evoke so much comment? There are, I think, several reasons and I will try and outline a few.

Marking the millennium

Many people clearly felt that it was an appropriate and dignified way to mark the two-thousandth anniversary of the birth of Christ. As it turned out, few other cultural institutions have decided to mark the Christian nature of the millennium year in so overt a fashion and this led to the exhibition becoming a focus of great attention. Extensive promotion through the church networks (which are extremely well organised) meant that a large number of Christian groups came to see it.

We began with three days of private visits for church and adult groups, before the exhibition opened its doors to the public. These groups came with their priests, pastors, ministers or leaders and the Gallery offered an introductory talk by a member of the Education department. Once the exhibition opened, the combination of intense media coverage, word of mouth, free entry - made possible by the support of the Jerusalem and Pilgrim Trusts - and then broadcasting in April of Neil MacGregor’s BBC TV series, generated enormous interest.

The exhibition sought to explore what problems artists had to confront when making the image of Christ. We are so familiar with the appearance of Christ, from countless representations in sculpture, stained glass, paintings, prints and film, that we can fail to realise that image-making for the early Christians was highly problematic, principally because of the Old Testament prohibition, but also because the new religion had to be distinctive from the idolatrous and image-based pagan religions. And yet when Christ took human form he inaugurated a new ‘economy’ of the image. The Gospel of St John speaks of Christ as the Word of God become flesh. The Word, in itself unrepresentable, took on a physical form and as such became representable.

The early Church soon recognised that the Incarnation of God allowed a completely new perspective on the problem of representation and that image-making could serve the purposes of exploring the mystery of Christ, of fixing his person in the mind of the faithful; it could also play a role of great importance in the transmission of the faith. It was clearly understood, of course, that the images were not to be confused with Christ himself. Honour and worship were due to the reality represented and not to the image. The exhibition charted the stirrings at the end of the second century of a representational language of sign and symbol and the early visualisations of the Gospel metaphors, ‘I am the Good Shepherd’, ‘I am the Light of the World’.

The Christ paradox

Drawing on works in the Gallery, the exhibition examined how painting can deal with the paradox which is at the centre of the Christian faith: Christ who is both God and man. Words do their best to express this mystery, to define and explore it; paintings can give it visual form, making use of those characteristics which are its own, colour, geometry, visual allusion and a rhetorical appeal to the senses. Murillo’s painting of the Two Trinities shows Christ as the centre and intersection of two realms, the heavenly reality of the Trinity, his divine family, and the earthly reality of the Holy Family. This picture is often ignored in the Gallery, as a work of excessive sentimentality, but it is as clear an exposition of the Chalcedonian formula concerning Christ’s two natures as you will find anywhere. And it is actually a stunning masterpiece of painting.

When Bishop Victor Guazzelli of Westminster diocese came to see the exhibition he did not remark on the theological accuracy of Murillo’s painting, but he commented lovingly on the beautiful expression on the Virgin’s face. In fact, many visitors to the exhibition were struck by how works of art can move one to have a sense of the divine and the holy. One of the museum curators who delivered some sculpture loans to the exhibition said that as she walked round the rooms looking at the silent images of Christ in the Passion, the paintings of Correggio and Dieric Bouts, Velázquez and Titian, it made her wish she were a believer.

Power of images

This was a particularly interesting response. Artists have always been very conscious of the power of the images they make to move the heart of the viewer, and the Church has often encouraged an affective relationship with Christ, the Virgin Mary and the saints by promoting their images. As you look upon Giovanni Bellini’s Madonna of the Meadow, it is difficult not to be moved by the image of tender maternal care and devotion. Many people who saw the exhibition wrote in saying that they felt that their faith had been confirmed and enriched. One Christian visitor wrote that ‘the works were displayed so that we might reflect on the purpose for which they were created, and in the artists’ portrayals of Christ, reflect on our own lives’.

Changed attitudes

But you did not have to be Christian to experience that kind of response. Many of the works in the exhibition represented universal archetypes of human experience: maternal love in the Madonna and Child, loss of a loved one in the Pietà subjects, and innocence brutalised in the Passion images. These themes anyone can recognise and empathise with and consequently for many people the visit to the exhibition was not simply an experience of art: it was ‘an overwhelmingly powerful and spiritual experience’ for one visitor, and another wrote, ‘We were led on a reflective journey into our innermost being’. One visitor wrote memorably that she had experienced an immediate change in attitude after seeing the exhibition. As she made her way to the Gallery, she had seen a homeless man begging on the Strand and had not paid much heed. In the exhibition she had been particularly struck by the Christ on the Cold Stone, a sixteenth-century Netherlandish sculpture showing Christ seated on a rock awaiting crucifixion, completely naked and vulnerable. On leaving the Gallery she came across the same man in the Strand and somehow the image of the sculpture came to her mind and she found that her reaction towards him had been quite transformed. For myself, as a museum curator, I found that the exhibition was making me think about National Gallery pictures in new ways. I am very conscious that a museum is a very artificial environment for religious paintings. These were made to be seen in churches, in the context of liturgy, and often in conjunction with the sacrament on the altar. They were meant to be prayed in front of, focuses of devotion in chapels and devout homes. In an art gallery these pictures can become denatured: they become examples of Raphael’s ‘late style’, or illustrations of the development of aerial perspective. Piero della Francesca’s Baptism of Christ is usually spoken of as a demonstration of the Italian Renaissance’s striving for perfection of proportional relationships and formal design, and it is often forgotten that the painting was an altarpiece representing a truth of earth-shattering proportions: God become man to redeem the world.

Prefiguring the Passion

A good example of how a painting yielded quite unexpected things when considered in the context of the exhibition was Bellini’s Circumcision. The National Gallery Catalogue of the Earlier Italian Schools of 1961 by the distinguished scholar-curator Martin Davies discusses the painting in terms of its attributional status (how much of the execution is actually by Bellini himself), its dating (around 1500) and the influences on the composition. There is no concern about what is shown and why. And yet these are fundamental considerations. The circumcision was traditionally regarded as the first shedding of Christ’s blood, and it therefore came to be seen as a prefiguration of his Passion. Since it was also the formal naming ceremony (‘thou shalt call his name JESUS for he shall save his people from their sins’), it signified the moment in which God’s plan of salvation for humanity, through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, began to be made manifest. Visitors would have seen in the first section of the exhibition El Greco’s Adoration of the Name of Jesus, which shows the powers of heaven, earth and the underworld kneeling at the apparition of his name - the sacred trigram IHS - in the sky, and they could make in their own minds the link with the subject of Bellini’s painting. Just as the circumcision was the sign or mark, made in Christ’s infant body, to signify his participation in the covenant between God and the Chosen People, so too was the new covenant between God and man made in the body of the adult Christ, in the form of the wounds in the hand and side, the iconography of which was explored in a later section of the exhibition. But Bellini’s painting also speaks about the intimacy of a family observing a religious rite and even hints at the mother’s ever so slight diffidence at handing the child over to the priest.

Religious emphasis

In the exhibition we sought to emphasise the religious content of the pictures, to give them back their original meaning, to recognise their prime purpose. People responded accordingly. There was a hushed and reverential atmosphere in the exhibition rooms, which many people commented on, quite different from other exhibitions and from the rooms in the Gallery where the pictures normally reside. Some visitors also decided to pray in the exhibition and while this proved alarming at first, I quickly realised that it wasn’t quite so strange. On one occasion I noticed that an Anglican bishop, who was visiting with his wife, was approached by a visitor who asked for a blessing. They retreated into a darkened corner of Room 5 and the blessing was given, just a yard or two from Velázquez’s Christ after the Flagellation contemplated by the Christian Soul.

The appreciation of the ‘Seeing Salvation’ exhibition by a very wide range of denominations suggested to me that the suspicion and distrust of the religious image which has characterised most Protestant Churches in Britain since the sixteenth century has largely evaporated. From the Methodist Recorder to Reform, the magazine of the United Reformed Church, and to the Salvation Army’s War Cry, the response to the exhibition and the religious images in it was profound and thoughtful and recognised the role that images can play in making the mysteries of Christianity visible, in calling people to faith and deepening believers’ experience of it. I had the impression that after a long exile, the religious image had come home.

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