Stuck through with spears and smiling

January 4, 2002

Richard Harries considers why we are able to find beauty in paintings that depict suffering, pain and torture.

This is an interesting book on an important, perplexing theme. Why have so many artists depicted scenes of pain and suffering? And why do we find that scenes of horror, which in real life would leave us appalled, can have a strangely satisfying quality in art? As Nigel Spivey points out, art arrives at sites of agony and agonises there but "art keeps us going, in our wounded state". What tests this thesis to the limit is the Holocaust. Before that unspeakable horror art can seem not just trite but blasphemous. Yet Adorno, who said that there could be no poetry after Auschwitz, also said: "There is no longer beauty or consolation except in the gaze falling on horror, withstanding it, and in unalleviated consciousness of negativity holding fast to the possibility of what is better"; and art can come from such a gaze. Indeed, it is from such a gaze that great art does come.

Spivey, whose prime area of expertise is classical sculpture, helpfully reminds us that what we see in a work of art does not necessarily correspond to what was originally expressed in it. When the now-famous Laocoon group, which shows the Trojan priest and his two sons being strangled by a serpent, was first unearthed in 1506, it was admired as an example of heroic suffering by those who were to be pitied. But this is not what the classical world meant by it. Heroism was shown stoic fashion, by calm endurance. Laocoon's agony is a sign of his justified punishment. This philosophical background helps to explain why St Lawrence, who was roasted on a grid iron, went to his death looking serene and why Christian martyrs generally, who in Spivey's view were too willing to die, suffered joyfully.

According to the surviving evidence, Jesus was first depicted dead on the cross on a 9th-century icon now in St Catherine's monastery at Sinai. It was only when theologians had resolved the relationship of Christ's humanity and divinity, that they felt confident enough to show his humanity even in death. But there was no stress on his suffering as such until much later. This came about particularly as a result of the influence of Franciscan preachers from the 13th century who urged believers to hold the image of the crucified before their mind and imagine his suffering, and in their heart realise that that suffering was for them. This emphasis on suffering was given a grim reality by the black death, the first wave of which, from 1347 to 1350, is estimated to have taken 20 million people, a quarter of Europe's population. Interestingly, despite the preoccupation with suffering during the medieval period, images of St Sebastian continued to show him, though stuck with spears like a hedgehog, serene and confident. His image had a different function from that of Jesus, namely showing his power to help in times of illness and dereliction. We might say that something of the triumphant, healing grace of Christ was expressed in and through his saints.

If theology could be influential on how human vulnerability could be depicted, so could classical models. Spivey argues that Raphael's painting The Entombment owes much to reliefs of the death of Meleager on Roman marble sarcophagi. He also argues that the torso of Laocoon influenced paintings of Christ at the column, paintings by Titian and the descent from the cross by Rubens. The Counter-Reformation called for high drama, "direct, beseeching, inflammatory art", and this was all given a firm foundation by spiritual meditations of the followers of St Ignatius in the Society of Jesus and their heroic missionary endeavours, facing torture and death as bravely as any soldier in an earthly army. And what of the artist himself, Rembrandt, for example? His many self-portraits stare out at us with their sad, quizzical looks. Spivey tries to debunk the usual story, nevertheless the fact remains that Rembrandt's wife, children and subsequent partner all died, even leaving aside his bankruptcy. And the style of his painting did change dramatically from high baroque to sensitive portrayal of battered human beings. He cites the self-portrait of Rembrandt as the ancient Greek painter Zeuxis and refers to it as "his ironical sniggering Zeuxis". This painting, which is in Cologne, is sadly not illustrated, for it would hardly bear out that description. It is, I think, Rembrandt's finest self-portrait in which he looks out at us and says in effect: "Yes I know I look absurd, but so do you, and so are we all."

The rational criteria of the Enlightenment and the high hopes of various utopias over the past two or three centuries have been continually dashed by human savagery. Artists have sought to depict this: for example, Callot in the 17th century with his series on the miseries of war and Goya in the early 19th century on the disasters of war. Since the 1850s, photography has helped to bring home the brutal, desolating reality. Visual artists, like poets, had to go through a process of profound dissolution in the first world war, the futurists, indeed, going from a position where they consciously glorified war to scenes of sheer pity and utter desolation. But as all this harsh realism has come through, so has the fundamental problem of depicting it in art without false consolation. Goya's The Executions of the 3rd May , 1808 , makes us imagine ourselves before the firing squad, full of terror, full of pity for the person about to be executed and filled with a sense of outrage that such inhumanity could occur. Yet, artistically, the painting is a brilliant success. The Raft of the Medusa by Géricault concerns an incident of utter inhumanity, leading in the end to cannibalism. Yet the figures sprawled over the raft are in pleasing poses and the painting conveys more a sense of hope than of bestiality. But Géricault knew his world, even collecting heads from public executions in order to paint them. Or, to take another specific example, Picasso's Guernica brings home the terror and destruction of bombing. But its balance and form, the contrasts of light and dark, its use of colour and its asymmetries within symmetries make it a work of art rather than just a splurge of angry colour.

Specialists in the different periods that Spivey has covered will no doubt have disagreements. His view of Caspar David Friedrich, for example, is seriously misleading. He was not a pantheist and his landscapes, well described elsewhere as "spilt religion", look through death with a hope for what lies beyond. Nevertheless, readers will be grateful that Spivey has been so ambitious in his range. He writes in a very personal style, often with short staccato sentences. He is allusive and suggestive rather than tightly connected in his arguments. The book comes with 180 black-and-white illustrations that work well.

Spivey writes: "It is a mystery about art and existence that we take pleasure from a tragedy; find beauty in a body pierced or torn." He is quite honest in remaining perplexed about this to the end. He does offer a psychological explanation from Freud: the fact that we have to die and that we cover up our fear of death, a fear that heightens our sense of living and that can be aroused by a scene of horror. One might compare it with those who engage in dangerous sports such as mountaineering. It is fearful and exhilarating, the one accentuating the other. But there are different levels of interpreting why we can find depictions of suffering strangely satisfying, and this has nothing to do with either sadism or masochism. Psychological explanations may be right, but the much more interesting and testing questions relate to the philosophical and theological dimensions. Take Cimabue's depiction of the crucifixion in the Dominican church in Florence. It is beautiful, in the red and gold patterning behind the body and even more in the closed eyes and surrendered spirit expressed through the posture of the face and body. Yet crucifixion was one of the worst forms of torture known to human beings. How dare we evade that reality, even if a depiction of that reality does arouse pity or anger or even contrition?

There is no work of art without form. As Samuel Beckett said about his old master Joyce: "Here form is content, content is form." This form reflects the patterning we see in every aspect of nature, in the microcosm and macrocosm. From a theological point of view it is rooted in that creative spirit that breathed on matter when it was "without form and void", the primal structuring reality. Yet in the human world this divine ordering has been destroyed. And yet again from a Christian point of view, it has been restored through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In him human life is set in its proper relation to God and to one another. This is the justification, the only justification, for making a work of art out of the cruelty of crucifixion. It is this truth which is, if one is a Christian, reflected in every work of art. For genuine works of art do indeed sustain us and enable us to go on going on. So even beyond the pity or pathos or justified outrage that the depiction of suffering in art may arouse in us, the very fact that it continues as art points to a hope grounded elsewhere.

Richard Harries is bishop of Oxford and author of Art and the Beauty of God .

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