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One of the disturbing features of art is the way it can make beautiful what is terrible, the way it can make aesthetically pleasing what should shock and appal us. And this ability is nowhere more obvious than in the case of the crucifixion of Christ. You have in front of you an image of immense beauty – Raphael’s The Crucified Christ: the perfect body of Christ (apart from wounds in hands, feet and side) is raised on the cross high above an arcadian landscape suffused by evening sunlight against a wonderfully blue sky, and surrounded by angels, Mary, saints John and Jerome and Mary Magdalene. The angels are daintily collecting Christ’s blood consciously evoking a sacramental understanding of the picture. It is a powerfully beautiful, serene and triumphant image. Contrast this with what I saw a week ago when I went to see the Mel Gibson film ‘The Passion of Christ’ which has just gone on general release amid a storm of controversy. This film which depicts the final 48 hours in the life of Jesus, has gained huge publicity both because of its alleged anti-semitism which isn’t there, and its extreme brutality, which is. We are spared nothing in the portrayal of the torture and agony endured by Jesus during his final hours: Two of those with whom I saw the film were stunned into a shocked silence for thirty minutes after the film ended. The figure raised upon the cross with a final sickening jolt in Mel Gibson’s film has been flayed and battered to a pulp in scenes of extensive and gratuitous violence: but it certainly is a stark reminder of the sheer horrific brutality of execution by crucifixion in Roman times. Crucifixion was an excruciatingly painful means of torture: the condemned person died in agony. It is an anguish that should not be glossed over or made acceptable, and it stands in complete contrast to Raphael’s image of an idealised body in a perfectly proportioned and extremely beautiful picture.
How can such beautifying be justified in art? Does not art have a duty to represent and comment on life as it is, especially when life is ugly, horrific and degrading? It’s a question we could debate at length. In religious terms I believe that we can justify “the beautifying effect of art” solely because of the Resurrection of Christ. The Resurrection reveals that the culmination of life is not death, but the victory of God’s loving purposes, and the overcoming of death and evil and suffering. In the light of Resurrection all things will be transfigured and irradiated by the glory of God in Christ: everything will be translucent to the divine beauty.
This means that the beautifying power of art, far from being a harmful illusion, is actually pointing towards the redeeming work of God in Christ. It’s why, for me at least, Raphael succeeds where Mel Gibson fails. Gibson’s Jesus simply shows a man able to endure extreme suffering: Raphael’s Christ shows me the point of that suffering, the love poured out for our salvation and revealed as ultimately victorious. As Bishop Richard Harries says in his book “Art and the Beauty of God”:-
In the light of this (the victory of the Cross) we can believe that all art – by giving form to the formless, shape to the chaotic, beauty to what is ugly – points to the taking up of all beauty in the victory of God’s beauty. But it is only in the light of the hope given us in the Resurrection that we can believe this. Without this foundational truth the beautifying effect of art is always in danger of becoming a harmful fantasy.
In Raphael’s painting, as I look at it, I see through the agony of the cross to the Resurrection and the glory that is yet to be revealed – which is the goal of the whole creative process. For me that did not happen in Mel Gibson’s crucifixion. And surely the Passion of Christ is eternally significant and powerful precisely because it points towards the new heaven and new earth, the coming of God’s Kingdom in which everything will be transfigured in light and truth and beauty and love and goodness. That is why we can kneel at the foot of the Cross rather than recoiling in horror.
The Cross strengthens each of us to play our part in that process, to reflect something of God’s love and truth and beauty and goodness in our lives and so to become ourselves agents of transfiguration in the world. Transfiguring beauty – the theme of this sermon series becomes therefore, not just a description of religious paintings but something we can aspire to in our own lives. As Mother Theresa said: “to do something beautiful for God”.