Father Richard Barrett answers readers' questions
Could you inform me as to why there is never a figure of Christ displayed on the crosses in Anglican and other churches? One can always find crucifixes in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, why the absence of Christ in other Christian communities?
W1111N I WAS ON a Greek island once I found myself taken to a lovely Greek church. It was fascinating stuff and it struck me after Mass there, that our sister Church makes no apology for representing Jesus the Nazarene in suitable colour and form. Not so the wild-eyed caveman, the product of BBC 'research' into the 'face of Christ' that stared out of the front page of a British newspaper recently.
Of course why it hasn't occurred to budding forensic re-constructors that images of Jesus from Nazareth would have abounded shortly after his
death is quite baffling. When I was last in Palestine, I happened to discover in the course of a chat with a group of youths that there was a local tradition of a statue to Christ lying in the sands on the road to Jaffa. Apparently, Sc) they explained, this was the first image of Christ and it was dedicated or commissioned by the woman in the Christian Scriptures who was cured of a haemorrhage. They offered to take me there and I now regret not making the trip.
Surely it must have occurred to the BBC researchers feeding in to the latest docu-dramu on Christianity that within 50 years of his death an industry, albeit local, would have grown up around his image. Look at Lourdes. If it is true for other places identified with the supernatural, why not of the Christ Event? Seems obvious to a humble recorder.
Of course Catholics will point to the Turin shroud and suggest that the re-construe
tors from the BBC take themselves off to Turin and view a much more credible image of Christ. Semitic features, appropriate beard and an even more appropriate pony-tail hair-style flowing down the hard spine. Also thrown in for good measure is heavy bruising around the left cheek, blood flows around the cranium, heavy lacerations across the entire back of his frame and a distinctive bruising across the left shoulder. Not to mention the punctures and blood flows in the wrists and upper-feet. Some people will do anything and create anything to escape the blindingly obvious. The fear of commitment afflicts us all.
Now that a huge millennium cross has been erected in the square of Westminster Cathedral a symbol of victory to some and of failure to others it seems the reader has taken umbrage at the wholesale inability of some Christian sects to imagine what the Son of God really looked like. We can suppose that only in a reformation culture, where the image of Christ has been banned for centuries, could a programme telling the rest of Europe what he really looked like, be ventured. What a venture indeed!
So why was the image of Christ banned in this island for so long? The chapel of King's College Cambridge, and indeed many an Anglican church, does sport a crucifix but a bare cross. Now it seems to this humble recorder that people who claim to be Christians but cannot stomach the image of Christ, are either illogical or they are in denial. We do not worship a naked instrument of execution but we do worship a naked victim of an imperial edict. The Christ that we do worship is the super-being that was affixed to a cross. Not just anyone crucified that year but this particular person otherwise Christianity could have been called say Spartacanity or something anything indeed as crucifixion was a favoured instrument of torture for the Romans.
Why then was the exhibition "Seeing Salvation" more popular than any other exhibition put on in London for a century? I wonder why. Velazquez's depiction of the flagellation of Christ was the
most popular painting of the lot I wonder why. So how to explain the different forms of Christ, say the Christ in Della Francesca's Baptism of Christ to the Christ in Veronese's Baptism of the Lord?
There are widely divergent images of Christ not because nobody had a clue what he looked like, but for a theological motive. Each painter wished to cast himself in the role of Christ, or at least cast Christ in a guise that was accessible to the men of his time. Caravaggio's Christ on the Way to Emmaus looks not unlike a dilettante of the Rome of 1600. And so on.
Returning to the matter of this island's frigidity toward images, it may be that we have to place the blame firmly and irrevocably at the feet of the puritans. They could not stomach the New Testament if the truth be told. Abolishing Christmas, feasts, joy and merry England was their project and all that made England great in say the time of Henry V namely the rich tapestry of our Faith. Passion plays, mystery plays, drama, frescoes, statuary, and finally last of all the very image of the Saviour itself all these had to go. And all because the Oliver Cromwells of the country could not bear a modicum of happiness in other people's lives. The country was doused in the pale squalor of puritan uniformity and churches were whitewashed, and the liturgy reduced to wordservices of insufferable length etc. It is all to be found in a crypt under Canterbury Cathedral which the good monks had the sense to brick up as a treasury. Not so much filled with the chalices which the puntans could not but hate, but the artistic heritage of a past that would not be suppressed.
We did not hide our riches in this island but maybe we should have whitewashed the walls of our churches before Oliver's Army came knocking at the door with cudgels and chisels. So the answer to the reader's query is no. It is not the fault of the Anglicans but of Oliver and his party hacks. This country was hacked to death long before now we are simply in denial about that fact. Most art historians secretly yearn for a return of our frescoes and our crucifix.