Thirty-three homilies on the cross

The Passion in Art
May 13, 2005

Richard Harries has titled his pictorial survey of Christ's death The Passion in Art , and George Rouault's Crucifixion adorns the cover, setting up the expectation of the Passion as traditionally understood: the suffering of Jesus's last hours on earth. But Harries has broadened the theme to include the resurrection appearances, as he argues that one is meaningless without the other. Thirty-three depictions of these themes are laid out chronologically from 2nd-century catacomb inscriptions to paintings from the end of the 20th century. Harries provides warmly written and informative short homilies on the historical contexts and theological insights offered by each piece and its period.

There is much to recommend the format and style of Harries's writing. The structure allows him to present brief historically contextualised accounts of each artist and their epoch. He is also adept in presenting concise precis of the cultural background to the imagery. In the chapter on the 4th-century sarcophagus found in the catacomb of Domitilla, bearing scenes from Christ's Passion flanking a central Chi-Ro set within a wreath, Harries elucidates the aspiration of Constantine to yoke the politics of empire with a statement of the resurrection as victory over the cross. This is typical of Harries's ability to extract from key iconographic details illuminating insights of unexpected relevance.

The brevity of the chapters makes this an ideal dip-into book for reflection. But the selection is a highly personal and haphazard one that seems to lack any obvious progression of theme bar narrative subject matter. Some of the leaps in time are unaccountable, especially between Caspar David Friedrich's 1810 painting Morning in the Riesengebirge to 1921 and Stanley Spencer's Crucifixion for Aldenham School. This seminal 100-year period is passed over without any reference to the pre-Raphaelites, early modernist art movements, influence of revolutionary political thought or psychoanalysis.

There is also a curious lack of interest in the liturgical function of the artworks, how each was used and by whom. For many examples, such as the mosaics, the architectural setting of the building is crucial as to how the work is encountered. It would be facile to expect representatives of all periods, and this survey is not intended as such, but the absence of a clear rationale behind the choice of examples takes the edge off the often-superb individual entries.

A graver question is why Harries eschews artefacts from all continents bar Europe. There are no African depictions of Christ to challenge the Caucasian stereotype, which is reinforced by default. And Harries has not found space for the fascinating instances of fusion occurring between Christianity as an exported belief system and its synthesis with indigenous culture. Two recent Royal Academy exhibitions contained germane examples: the section in Aztecs dealing with Indo-Christian representation and the 18th-19th century Kongo crucifix from Zaire exhibited in Africa , which is part fetish/part Catholic votive but wholly African in the ethnography of the man Christ.

Perhaps the book's title is an albatross around Harries's neck: it simply claims too much without the caveat of an explicit personal remit. As it is, Harries unintentionally asserts a cultural hegemony by choosing not to include representations of Christ from the rest of the world. In an intellect so acutely aware of the nuance of a gesture or historic reference, this is a baffling lacuna. There is possibly a reluctance to discuss works outside his first-hand experience, but it precludes challenging white First World suppositions as to the identity and ownership of Christ's likeness. It also avoids many areas of divergent theology and controversial representation such as the examples of priapic Christs that theologian Robert Beckford cites, from the southern states of America.

Could we not have had some images that were difficult to assimilate, that leave us as troubled as 1st-century believers must have been? Disappointingly, there is also only one female artist included, which again by default continues the presumption of Christ's life being articulated from a male perspective.

Two other hindrances in using the book are not the author's responsibility. We are referred to numerous artefacts that extend or support visual arguments cited in the text, but apart from the chapters on Celtic crosses and the Romanesque Christus of Volto Santo in Lucca, there are no ancillary visual references accompanying the initial chapter image. In a book where we are often asked to look closely at details, such as in Sutherland's Noli Me Tangere , a third of the reproductions are substandard and let down Harries's observations. It is tempting to wonder if the subject had been restricted to either the crucifixion or the resurrection whether a tighter compare-and-contrast model of development could have been achieved. There are glimpses of this in Harries's handling of the sun and moon symbols in the chapters on the 9th-century Metz Ivory plaque and the Amesbury Psalter, as well as the theme of the anastasis.

Maybe I was hoping for a different book, but I would still recommend The Passion in Art . It is a fine marriage of applied art-historical knowledge and sensitive theological readings of the specific artefacts considered. Harries has a compassionate, intuitive eye for the spirit in which the artist worked; this is particularly true in his chapters on Giotto, Grunewald and Chagall. The Passion in Art is in the main marvellously engaging and rewarding, yet in what it leaves undone, ultimately flawed.

Mark Cazalet is an artist and art teacher with a particular interest in Christian themes, whose latest exhibition was entitled On Shifting Ground: Images from Israel/Palestine .

The Passion in Art

Author - Richard Harries
Publisher - Ashgate
Pages - 154
Price - £50.00 and £16.99
ISBN - 0 7546 5010 3 and 5011 1

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