In the last few years, many churches around the country have hung banners with messages such as, "It's Jesus Christ's 2000th birthday. Celebrate the real Millennium here." That's not likely to encourage the unchurched to enter the doors. In the midst of the national stampede to mark the moment, the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square mounted a very popular, and very powerful, exhibition entitled Seeing Salvation: The Image of Christ. The show was accompanied by an expansive book and a BBC television series. Far from the hype of other Millennium efforts, this deeply-grounded art exhibition set out to explore the ways artists have rendered the image of Christ from the earliest Christian centuries until the present day. Curated by Gabriele Finaldi, the exhibition drew largely from the National Gallery's own outstanding collection of European masterworks, while including paintings, prints and carvings from other museums in Britain and from around the world.
Although the exhibition was arranged on loosely chronological lines, each of the seven galleries addressed a particular theme in the iconography of Christian art. As Neil MacGregor, Director of the National Gallery, explained, the intent was "to focus attention on the purpose for which the works of art were made, and to explore what they might have meant to their original viewers. We have put some of the Gallery's religious pictures in a new context, not-as in other exhibitions-beside works by the same artist or from the same period, but in the company of other works of art which have explored the same kinds of questions across the centuries" (p. 6). At the entrance to the exhibition, a huge wall-mounted colour photograph of a sixteenth-century English altarpiece deftly opened the show with the question, "Why have representational religious art at all?" With its lush woodwork and carefully inscribed sacred texts-and its utter lack of figurative representation-this opening image set the tone of open enquiry which characterised much of the exhibition.
The show acknowledged that for many centuries and in many places, Christians refused to make any images at all, and it skillfully demonstrated that Christian art has always lived in tension with a powerful aniconic aspect of our tradition. From the doorway next to this huge photograph, Holman Hunt's The Light of the World peered out at us, inviting us to enter and engage the Christian art within. Hunt's painting has been so deeply out of fashion for so long that it is probably due for a reappraisal, although it still has a whiff of kitsch about it. In the late nineteenth century, it was probably the most popular Anglican devotional image; it appeared in copies and reproductions throughout the British Empire.
It stood in a room which looked at Christian art as an art of signs and symbols. The earliest Christian pieces were to be found here. Created before the development of explicit Christian iconography, and in the cultural milieu of declining paganism, these pieces often try to render the beliefs of the new faith in symbolic or metaphoric ways. The familiar early Christian fish was here, crudely carved in white stone-a powerfully direct and vigorous image. A small oil lamp with a chi-rho monogram stood in a small display case. Usually relegated to corners of vast museums, small objects like this can often get lost. This one, however, was carefully isolated in its case. Lit with a tiny light from one end, the monogram cast its shadow against the back wall, demonstrating beautifully the way in which the symbol would have come to life when the wick was lit. With such simple means the earliest Christian artists evoked the light of the world, flickering in the surrounding darkness, casting a living, dancing shadow on the walls of a Roman tenement or catacomb.
Zurbaran's Agnus Dei was also displayed in this room. One of several versions of the same composition by this artist, it is a painting pared to its simplest expression. …