As morbid devotional objects go on show at Frieze Masters, one writer asks: why do we look at violent religious art?
I was a convent girl, which meant growing up amidst images of pain and grief, the body in all its variegated states of distress. The ground were large and among the rose beds, tennis courts and conker trees werestatues of the Virgin and the saints. A print of Dali’s crucifixion hung in the sick bay: Jesus as spaceman, ascending vertiginously through the night sky. Once I fainted in chapel, toppling before the alarmed priest. The body was a host, a relic, a false refuge; you ate the flesh of Christ and disdained your own.
Dali’s aerialist is notable for lacking any marks of the ordeal through which he’s passed. There are no nails in his palms, no chaplet of thorns. The Lamentation I’m looking at now is a different matter. Painted at the end of the 15th century by an unknown Spanish artist, it emphatically displays a corpse. Christ lies across his mother’s lap, naked save for a loin cloth. Someone has had the foresight to spread a clean white sheet beneath him. Already, it’s stained with blood. His body is an appalling litany of small wounds, lacerations from a scourge or flail, dabbed here and there with scarlet beads. His eyes roll whitely upwards. His ribcage has been split open. It gapes, obscenely like a lipsticked mouth.
This ghastly body is flanked by a grieving semicircle of mourners, bent and interlaced like reeds in a breeze. I’m poleaxed by their faces. All six have the same long Byzantine noses and hooded, sorrowful eyes. They are looking and looking, these veiled, haloed figures, gauging the extent of the damage, keening over every mark. Antecedents of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, claiming back their tortured boy. How are you meant to respond to an image like this? Why contemplate such an unstinting account of violence? The traditional purpose of a lamentation was to show Christ’s sacrifice. He died, as we’d sing in assembly in wavering voices, to save us all. Then too there is the memento mori aspect, the reminder that flesh is temporary and all too soon a feast for worms, and as such one should seek sanctuary in the eternal kingdom, whose doors stand open to the pure of heart.
I’ve long since shrugged off my Catholicism, but its sense of the body as an imperfect refuge continues to haunt me. You don’t have to believe in heaven to be moved by a depiction of the body’s vulnerability, its provisional, fugacious nature, its susceptibility to hurt.
The revelation of impermanence awaits us all. In the early 18th century, the Spanish sculptor Juan Alonso Villabrille y Ron made a terracotta figurine of St Paul in his palm frond corset, gazing into a skull. I recognize the horror in his face, a panic so visceral the cords of muscle in his neck have all gone into spasm. There’s the bad news of what will come, and then there’s the sweetness of the living form, the tender replication of a human being, with dainty pink cheeks and a tanned bald crown.
Most replications of the saints don’t possess such intact, healthful bodies. They’re more often portrayed at the moment of martyrdom, undergoing the varied torments that one person can inflict upon another. On occasion, it’s tempting to suspect this grim subject matter provided a stealthy way of portraying a body in a state of ecstasy. An ivory statuette made by Jacobus Agnesius around 1638 shows the youthful Saint Sebastian snared perpetually in the act of falling forward, wrists bound, an arrow piercing his upper arm. The subtle pleasures of eyeing or fingering his cool white flesh return magnified in Derek Jarman’s 1976 queer fantasia, Sebastiane. Here, martyrdom is reconfigured as a sado-masochistic rite, the covert metaphors of submission and penetration made explicit. You don't have to believe to be moved by a depiction of the body's vulnerability.
Other images are more determined in their desire to convey harm. In 15th century France, an unknown artist painted an extraordinary rendition of the death of St Quentin. The patron of porters, tailors and locksmiths stands at the centre of an eerily static crowd of men in red-toned clothes: red caps and leggings, red jerkins, red belts, red boots, the colour conveying the blood to come. They all have the same blank faces, as they apply to his small, bare body instruments of torture.
That kind of specific damage won’t befall many of us, but the revelation of bodily vulnerability holds fast. In the summer of 1966, the poet and curator Frank O’Hara was hit by a beach taxi after a party on Fire Island. He died a few days later, at the age of forty: a gay man, a lapsed Catholic, once an altar boy. At his funeral, the painter Larry Rivers attended with fascinated horror to his best friend’s body, in a speech that has something of the same grievous intensity as the Spanish Lamentation, the anguished detailing of a medieval martyrdom.
This extraordinary man lay without a pillow in a bed that looked like a large crib…. He was purple wherever his skin showed through the white hospital gown. He was a quarter larger than usual. Every few inches there was some sewing composed of dark blue thread. Some stitching was straight and three or four inches long, others were longer and semicircular. The lids of both eyes were bluish black. It was hard to see his beautiful blue eyes which receded a little into his head. He breathed with quick gasps. His whole body quivered. There was a tube in one of his nostrils down to his stomach. On paper he was improving. In the crib he looked like a shaped wound, an innocent victim of someone else’s war.
When Rivers read these words at O’Hara’s funeral, people cried out for him to stop, but I think the act of bearing witness is an act of love. There’s no need for heaven: the pearly gates, the cherubim and seraphim, the light beyond the sun. It is the protean body, come and gone, that's the abiding miracle.
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