Page 10, 21st March 1997

21st March 1997
Page 10
Page 10, 21st March 1997 — CHARTERHOUSE CHRONICLE

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Locations: Edinburgh


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Keywords: Asceticism


The importance of first impressions

THOSE OF US Who are occasionally

required to produce a thousand words might do well to reflect upon the relative values of those words and of one picture. Long before we are able to read, we observe illustrations. In the early years of literacy, when the written word is still difficult, the visual image is immediate, powerful and often unforgettable. Even when we have become comfortable with reading, pictures may still overpower text.

I have a vivid recollection of a book of poems given to me over 40 years ago which I was quite unable to open a second time because I was so frightened by Edward Lear's drawing of the man who cut off his thumbs.

Holman's Scapegoate disturbs me as much today as it did in childhood and Magritte's Time Transfixed has given me a long-standing unease about empty fireplaces. Of course, not all remembered images are those of fear or horror; many are lifelong sources of pleasure and space.

Whenever I go to Edinburgh, I make a bee-line for the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in order to look at Ambrose McEvoy's extraordinary portrait of Ramsay McDonald. This his not solely an act of tribal piety there is an air of loneliness and a quality of courage in this picture which moved me greatly and which I find oddly consoling. And Van Eyck's music-making Angels makes me happy to think that my trade is practised in heaven.

But the one picture which has most informed my religious thinking and supported my faith in times of stress, is one of unrelieved suffering observed with brutal clarity. It is Matthias GrUnewald's painting, The Crucifixion. A print of this picture hung in the cloakroom of my primary school, thus acquainting us with desolation at a tender age.


the human frame at the extreme limits of pain truly the likeness of a man who has no looks to attract our eyes hit me like a phys ical assault at some time around the age of reason and has remained indelibly imprinted upon my spiritual and emotional retina ever since.

This was anguish, ugly and inescapable, far beyond the experience of childhood but not beyond its apprehensions and terrors.

Even at seven years old, you know that there will be pains and sorrows far exceeding those of skinned knees and the death of hamsters, that there is an adult world of grief and horror which it is almost indecent to contemplate from the Eden of security and love in which a happy child lives.

But you know that the time will come when you will be driven out of Eden and that the artist is telling you the truth: a truth from which kindly adults wish to shield you.

I knew that the labels over our coatpegs were lies. They portrayed winsome little mice simpering under toadstools and our names were written upon them in large clear capitals. These were part of the well-meaning deceit which was being practiced upon us.

It would not always be like this one day it would be like this: there would be the unspeakable, the unbearable, blood, screaming, insupportable grief, human endurance driven to the limit; my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

0 F COURSE, one does not live with such horrors constantly before the eyes of the mind, for life is as full of delights as it is of sorrows. But this image, rooted as it is in the truth, remained in my memory and became part of my understanding of affliction.

When my father's death shattered my shaky adolescent faith and when the recent deaths of a much loved child and a close friend made the faith of my middle years seem meaningless, Grilnewald's terrifying suffering Christ was always the backdrop. It never quite went away and in remaining, it recalled my wandering feet to magnetic north.

Not long ago, an agnostic friend asked me: "what would the painting mean to you if it were to be retitled, A Young Artisan Tortured?"

His intention in asking this question was to encourage me to think about the received framework of remaining in which I had placed the picture. He succeeded.

It made me realise that the tortured young artisan is Everyman, that he is the incarnation of all our fear, pain, betrayal and bereavement as well as being the Incarnation of the unchanging and eternal God.

So, you might say, did you not know that already? Well, yes, they told me so, but learning the Catechism does not make the Faith. What is known by the mind must become reality for the heart if faith is to live. And as the experience of pain, grief and loss is universal, then surely the reality must take root here if anything is to make sense about ourselves and our God.

When the young artisan Jesus was tortured by the occupying power, when his mother collapsed in her grief at the foot of his gibbet, the pain and despair which he underwent disfigured him so that he seemed no longer human. Thus we shrink form looking at him.

In the same way, we shrink for images of dying children in Ethiopia, from the corpses of the victims of genocide in Rwanda and from the women of Serbia weeping over the bodies of their husbands and sons. But we must look, just as Matthias Griinewald looked so unsparingly on as a scene of appalling suffering and gave us an unsanitised and uncensored image that we may not escape a mirror held up to the human condition. This is God's solidarity with is in our weakness and wickedness and although it horrifies, it gives hope too.

II; WE KNOW that this is true, then what is promised will be true also. A 'holy picture' Crucifixion is as much a lie as were the mice and toadstools and however wellmeaning it might be, a lie cannot lead us to the truth. Because we can recognise this all but unbearable representation of suffering as being true, then we are enabled to say in confidence that we look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.

So I am grateful to those who represented this image to my infant consciousness and I hope that one day, when I have served my time, I shall be permitted to kneel before St Matthias Grunewald to thank him for his terrible, saving vision.

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