Magazine article The Spectator

The Tragedy and the Triumph

Magazine article The Spectator

The Tragedy and the Triumph

Article excerpt

The Easter theme of death and resurrection has inspired the greatest works of many of the greatest artists. In those parts of the world where the predominant culture has been formed by the Christian tradition, the specific narrative of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ has given expression either in paintings, sculpture or music in notoriously compelling forms.

In such renderings the Easter theme is at its most compelling when the death and resurrection motifs are held together in paradox and tension, when triumph and tragedy are inextricably bound together, rather than perceived as opposites. Van Gogh's 'Pieta', presently on display in Modem Art in Britain 1910-1914 at the Barbican (until 26 May), is an especially telling example of such a paradoxical portrayal. Painted while van Gogh was 'imprisoned' in the asylum at Saint-Remy after his breakdown at Arles, it was originally dismissed as yet another example of his insanity.

Unlike so many other portrayals of Mary with the dead body of Christ, just taken down from the cross, the promise of release and resurrection is also all there. Christ, while clearly dead in the painting, is nevertheless so portrayed that he seems already to be springing free from the grip or embrace of the hands of Mary, which are held open in despair/faith as though this Christ has 'sprung' free from the grip of that restricting flesh and blood, which Mary originally gave him in her womb. And all this when, within only a short while, he will break free from the linen cloths which bound him in death and in the tomb.

It is this letting-go by Mary and her apparent surrender (as though she has been compelled to let him go yet again, as she did from her womb in the pain of birth) which articulates so powerfully this theme of death and life, tragedy and triumph, despair and hope - and all on the same canvas.

Of course, such an insight cannot claim to be exclusively Christian - nor should it. The greatest truths of the Christian religion are never the exclusive property of the Christian tradition. One would rightly be most suspicious if they were or even claimed to be. For example, the image of the phoenix rising out of the ashes is to be found in various forms in many traditions the world over. It is not insignificant that the example of this theme of death and resurrection held together, which Christ himself gives in the Gospel of John, does not draw upon religious imagery, but rather upon the evidence of the world of nature. `Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.' Indeed it is supremely that same fourth gospel which refuses from the outset to prize apart death and resurrection, insisting upon speaking of Christ's hour on the cross as supremely and paradoxically his `hour of glory'.

So this paradox of death/life lies at the heart of the very nature of things, and it is the heart of the very nature of things with which artists as well as philosophers and theologians are rightly concerned. Poets of every age are on to it, of course:

Dust as we are, the immortal spirit grows Like harmony in music; there is a dark Inscrutable workmanship that reconciles Discordant elements, makes them cling together In one society.

Wordsworth: `The Prelude'

For the true artist soon realises that the creativity is in the suffering while theologians (like the contemporary Moltmann) go further, claiming that both the creativity and the suffering together are in the heart of the Creator, whom they describe as `The Crucified God', summarised in the syllogism: to love is to create and to create is to suffer. …

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