The theme of the passion of Christ is a profound part of Western European art. This is hardly surprising, as the process leading to Christ’s death is of critical importance to Christianity. Moreover, the passion of Christ provided artists with the opportunity to express, through the figures of Mary the mother of Christ, Mary Magdalene, John the evangelist, and the other disciples, some of the more profound emotions known to humans: anguish, grief and mourning, tenderness, comfort, and resignation.
As important as the individual figures in these scenes are to the larger canvas, quite naturally the tortured body of Christ receives special treatment by the artist. The viewer is invited to gaze at the brutalized and lifeless body of Christ and contemplate the suffering that, according to Christian tradition, Christ willingly undertook to save humanity.
This focus on the violated body of Christ also draws from the medieval tradition that concentrated prayerful devotion on the five wounds of Christ: the two nails that pierced his hands, the two that penetrated his feet, and the one on his side, where the lance impaled him. Just as figurative art took inspiration from this devotion, so too did the musical tradition. A particular favourite of mine is the Danish-German composer Dieterich Buxtehude’s oratorio Membra Jesus Nostri. As the name suggests, this composition is dedicated to the contemplation of seven—not five—wounds of Christ. Broken up into seven cantatas, this work contemplates Christ’s feet, knees, hands, side, breast, heart, and head.
As critiques of Mel Gibson’s famous film The Passion of the Christ indicate, however, no matter how great the suffering, the passion of Christ acquires its complete meaning from the fact that subsequent to his death, Christ was resurrected. To focus merely on his death and passion, therefore, is to miss the entire point of the Passion. The Christian belief about the Resurrection is that through his victory over death, Christ also conquered time and space. It is perhaps the recognition of this transcendence that has allowed artists to see and depict the broken body of Christ in a variety of forms and places.
Take, for example, the very moving sculpture by Maksymilian Biskupski in the Military Cathedral of the Polish Army, Warsaw. Titled Christ of All the Lost, the figure is completely abstracted from the context of Christ’s traditional life cycle. In this image, Biskupsi presents Christ through the figure of a corpse dressed in military uniform, excavated from the grave, soil still clinging to his body. The figure is one among other bodies protruding from a common grave. The sculpture was intended to be a memorial to the Katyn massacre which saw the murder of thousands of Polish Army officers in the 1930s. Through this art work, Bikupski successfully twines the grief of those mourning for the officers with that felt for Christ, and suggests that Christ is among us, suffering when the innocent and weak suffer and are killed.
This identification of Christ with the wretched of the earth is, of course, not Biskupsi’s innovation but has a venerable tradition within Christianity. An illustrative case is that of St. Martin of Tours. According to tradition, prior to becoming a Christian, Martin was a Roman soldier, and while stationed in Gaul, encountered a mendicant freezing in the cold. Moved to pity, he shared half his cloak with the mendicant. Later that night, he was blessed with a vision, where the mendicant revealed himself as Christ, who praised him for following the teaching of seeing identification with the poor and the wretched as service to God.
It was in this context that I encountered the three images of Peter Hujar that were captured by his former lover, David Wojnarowicz. On display at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City, as part of the on-going exhibition America Is Hard to See the images of Hujar were taken moments after his death from AIDS. These three images feature Hujar’s hollowed out face, his feet sticking out from under the bed sheet that became his shroud, and a limp hand by his side. I was deeply moved by these images, and for a moment saw not the dead Hujar but Christ himself, as was perhaps Wojnarowicz’ intention. As I learned at the exhibition, Wojnarowicz was part of a group of homosexual artists who participated in the culture wars of the 1980s and demanded that the U.S. government pay greater attention to the AIDS epidemic that was killing thousands of men at the time.
The tradition of Christian art in Western Europe wasn’t simply about filling up a space with pretty pictures; rather, by drawing upon our deepest emotions it sought to teach the faithful to empathise with the life of Christ and his saints. When contemporary artists transcend the immediate context of Christ’s life, but draw upon the Christian tradition, they perform the equally important task of helping us see Christ and his saints, not only in images in church but more importantly, in the world around us.
(A version of this post was first published in The Goan Everday on 2 Aug 2015)