Thursday 29 March 2018

Easter through art

What's the theme of Easter, and of Easter art? In a word, it's sacrifice: specifically human sacrifice. And more specifically, the sacrifice of the good to the appalling.

That's the Easter theme we're asked to respond to every year.

The theme starts early in religion with the bloke at the heart of three of the world's large religions, whose voices in his head (we're told) told him to cut his young son's throat and "offer him for a burnt offering." The son was saved only by some other voices in his head telling him to stop. 

Caravaggio makes the crime real:

Family values, huh.

Keep reminding yourself: this would-be child-killer is revered by Islam, Christianity and Judaism. You wonder why (Greater evil hath no man than this, that he is willing to kill his own son for God.) The only other notable thing he is ever said to have done to be revered is to marry his own sister, and to offer up his foreskin to his god. Yes, really.) But the other two religions only revered him; Christianity then upped the ante by founding a whole new religion on the thing he was discouraged to do!

Think about that: to the extent you believe the story, the greatest being in the universe is sacrificing his most beloved son to a world (in their description) filled with sin and deformity (all His own work, ironically) and to a species one Christian saint described as a mass of ordure, filth and corruption. (A working definition of Sacrifice being: the surrender of a higher value for a lower one. Or even to nothing at all; sacrifice just because.)

This perversion is brilliantly captured in Dali's Christus Hypercubus, below, in which the figure at left -- infinitely smaller than the Ideal Man pinned up on the stylised crucifix -- looks up at the blindingly bright Christ figure with a look not simply of curiosity or sadness, but of literal man-worship. If we have questions here, when looking at a man – not just any man, but our ideal man – nailed up to a piece of wood like this, they might be along these lines:
"How can you worship the destruction of your ideal man?” 
“Why would you celebrate his torture?” 
“Why is suffering so damned central to your mythology?”
Fair questions, especially when confronted with priests quietly sacrificing young children to their own misbegotten lusts, and splatter-fests like Mel Gibson’s Passion that so lovingly depict every act of torture and every drop of blood in high-definition Technicolor as their Ideal Man is delivered up to the mob. (They mightn’t watch the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but how many good and gentle Christians will be searching on Netflix this Easter for the chance to see their hero graphically beaten and slayed?)

Christus Hypercubus, Salvador Dali.

You have to believe a lot of (literally) fantastic nonsense to explain this stuff away, let alone worship it. Han's Holbein's painting Christ After Crucixion helps makes plain both the reality of the sacrifice, and the precise amount of fantasy you would have to believe to swallow this stuff. Holbein's interrogation brings you up short. It tells you: This is reality. This is a dead body. It It is never going to walk again. 

A Christian Confronts Reality, Hans Holbein

Holbein's is no ideal man. It is a painting from the morgue. It is a man as he would be several days after a brutal death; decaying, rigid, gone, departed. Its features drawn, its muscles limp, its skin already decomposing. I've labelled it as Dostoyevesky did when confronted with this battered Christian corpse: when he was first brought face to decaying jowl with the gruesome reality of death and sacrifice crucifixion and its results. Dostoyevsky was immediately struck when first seeing the piece by the importance of this confrontation for his faith, and inspired to dramatise in his next novel the full importance what that confrontation meant. As described by his wife,
The figure of Christ taken from the cross, whose body already showed signs of decomposition, haunted him like a horrible nightmare. In his notes to [his novel] 'The Idiot' and in the novel itself he returns again and again to his theme.
Dostoyevsky describes in The Idiot one character's questioning:
His body on the cross was therefore fully and entirely subject to the laws of nature. In the picture the face is terribly smashed with blows, swollen, covered with terrible, swollen, and bloodstained bruises, the eyes open and squinting; the large, open whites of the eyes have a sort of dead and glassy glint. . . .
    Looking at that picture, you get the impression of nature as some enormous, implacable, and dumb beast, or, to put it more correctly, much more correctly, though it may seem strange, as some huge engine of the latest design, which has senselessly seized, cut to pieces, and swallowed up–impassively and unfeelingly–a great and priceless Being, a Being worth the whole of nature and all its laws, worth the entire earth, which was perhaps created solely for the coming of that Being!
Holbein confronts the Christian viewer with the starkest of choices: One must either believe the fantasy that God somehow repaired and raised this ravaged body from the dead, and that the Christian myth, therefore, “offers hope for humanity beyond this life”; or else you must accept that the dead stay dead, that such an event did not and could not occur, that reality is what it is – not fodder for this nastiness -- and begin making a life and an ethics from there. Dostoyevsky's Idiot crystallises the challenge. Holbein's art makes it possible.

A Christian Confronts Reality (detail), Hans Holbein

Remember here that good art need not be a thing of beauty, but it must have something to say. This -- both Holbein’s painting and Dostoyevsky’s novel -- certainly do that.

But why celebrate sacrifice anyway? Why wait, as the fantasy demands, for happiness in some supernatural realm? Why accept the nonsense that the whole of nature and all its laws were created for the sake of a fantastic and gruesome story?

Maybe, instead, we could reject the absurd, and with that embrace instead this earth and our life upon it. This is what artist Michael Newberry asks of us in his powerful reclamation of two mythological traditions.

Icarus Landing, acrylic on linen, 55x36 inches.

This is man reclaiming mythology, and embracing this earth. 

In the artist's words, 
Happy Easter!
Wouldn't it be great if we could be transformed while alive?
And evolve with plenty of time to share the wonder?
And to look towards Earth for our paradise?
Wouldn’t it just. And wouldn’t that transform lives.

Happy Easter everyone!

Have some chocolate, have some fun, and if you have to watch a movie, then make it Life of Brian.


Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Peter Cresswell said...

How and why the mythology of Jesus has persisted into the 21st century is a question worth pondering over the break. Maybe others could offer some thoughts too?

I'd like to think the Cats can go one better than last year's Prelim Final. Mind you, we'll need to find a back line very quickly.

Thanks for the comment. I's wish you a happy easter too, but being anonymous I have no idea who you are. :-)

Anonymous said...

'This' did walk again, spoke, ate with friends. They didn't just go back to their jobs, they knew what they had seen and heard and spoke it, to their own hurt.
The question worth pondering is why does it still bother you that it persists? If you don't (or don't want) to believe it should rest there.
Somehow it niggles, and must be argued against. Happy pondering.


Anonymous said...

The comment removed above, to which you've replied was signed " Peter", in the same manner that "Mick" above has
Regards, Peter

Anonymous said...

"They knew what they had seen". Well, in our own times, after Elvis Presley died, there were a great many who could not believe that, and swore they had seen him alive. There was a similar case after Zapata the Mexican rebel leader was killed in April 1919 - many swore they saw him afterwards. And these were known real people, rather the mythical person Jesus.
Largely the christian myth *does* lie there; if you want to believe that sort of thing, go ahead. It's when there is wowserism and when there is interference, like the euthanasia question in the name of Jesus, that it goes beyond niggling.

Peter Cresswell said...

Idiocy always bothers me, Mick.
Have a great holiday. ;^)

Peter Cresswell said...

Funny too that those who wrote about those they said saw Him waited many decades before bursting into 'print.'
So the myth only began being made a very long while after the alleged events. Take as much as you want from that.
PS: Ah, Peter. Just saw that.

Anonymous said...

The impact of the Gospel persists because its meant to by design - maybe its not mythology? People continue to find comfort and courage in it even when facing the most severe persecution for believing. In many dark and dangerous places it makes a difference and the ideas around ethics, honesty, compassion, education and service outside political groupings and are seen for the first time. It also frees people from the religious devotions that smack of legalism for political control rather than personal benefit.

I agree with Mick; the resurrection is the heart of the matter and without that the whole thing is bollocks. No one seriously argues that Jesus was still alive when taken down from the cross and were he so, with a body being available, the Jews would have been prancing about for weeks and it would be trumpeted loud and clear in their theology. The impact of Jesus was such that the Jewish leaders persecuted the newly forming church to try to make the pesky thing die but we see they were unsuccessful despite brutal punishment being handed out. People don't have to believe it but writing the mystery off as superstition that did not happen because they don't like the idea of it sells it well short. Atheists cannot sustain the burden of proof for their beliefs any more than I can for God but I've seen plenty of signs of the practical changes in attitude that come about when people looking for meaning get the Gospel.

The other thing I take issue with, at a distance because I haven't studied the old "pagan" religions, is that there are many similarities with Christianity so its pinched a bunch of theology that preceded it. What I found comforting having read a bit of stuff by theologians that have studied ancient texts and religions, the likes of John Walton, is that having some expectations of parallels they found the ancient stuff was vastly different from the Bible accounts despite some superficial points you would see as similar at first glance. As is frequently the case the devil is in the detail and philosophical issues as deep as these are not well served by attempts to make it all look dodgy by way of a shallow critique.

We were chatting about The Life of Brian today over hot cross buns after church and it was a pretty popular watch. Michael Palin writes about the film in his long book "The Python Years". They found it difficult to make, it got fiddled with over a long period of time after supposed completion, and Palin thought the ending was poor (as I recall). I think its generally hilarious but tend to agree with Palin about the ending which leaves the character of Brian hanging.


Peter Cresswell said...

PS: Just noticed an admin has deleted your comment above. Not sure why. Sorry.

Anonymous said...

Many decades? The gospels and New Testament letters were not all written decades after the events and were often written within the lifetime of people who were about at the time of the events. One passage admonishes people who doubted because they saw the things written about or were aquainted with people who did. The gospels withstand scrutiny unless you expect them to read like a newspaper article of today.


paul scott said...

yes I can answer this one > the myths are just myths.
The myths are simply stories to bolster man's genetic tendency to be guided by a father figure, God, or here God's son. The father figure is a continuation of the real life father who in most cases is wished and seen as a profoundly good, and providing man, even self sacrificing. And so God bless you Mr.Cresswell this easter and always.

Peter Cresswell said...

The first gospel was Mark (not written by Mark but, like all the gospels written by an anonymous source) most likely written *at the earliest* in the seventh decade AD. So around four decades and more after the events it purports to describe. (The three other gospels, all mutually contradictory, were written decades later.)

So how would you go recounting from memory events that happened in 1975?

Peter Cresswell said...

"People continue to find comfort and courage in Buddhism even when facing the most severe persecution for believing."

"People continue to find comfort and courage in Hinduism even when facing the most severe persecution for believing."

"People continue to find comfort and courage in Harry Potter even when facing the most severe persecution for believing."

You see, in difficult times people can find comfort and courage in anything. But that doesn't speak to the veracity of that thing, and leaves aside whether they could actually find something better in which to find solace.

I agree with Mick too, that the resurrection is the heart of the matter and without that the whole thing is bollocks. But even more bollocks is the ethic of sacrifice at the heart of the fiction, which is total anti-human bollocks.

The point about many of those stories from pagan religion is to say that Christianity is not unique in either the terrritory it tries to cover nor the manner in which it has. And also to say (when one looks at the chronology) that in most cases the Christian fabulists have simply adopted whole a story already in existence, and usurped it.

I agree too that Brian is hilarious, and the ending somewhat poor. But always looking on the bright side of life is far better than extolling human sacrifice.

So Blessed be the Cheesemakers, and continue having a great break.

Peter Cresswell said...

You say that "the impact of the Gospel persists because its meant to by design - maybe its not mythology?"

Maybe it's because it *is* mythology (mythology simply being other people's religion), and maybe that's because mythology and rituals *are* important. But that means they must have something to say better than calls for sacrifice.

The Bunbury Baker said...

Good ole 3:16.

The gospels most assuredly do not withstand scrutiny.

Where is the corroborating account of

Matt 27:52

Matt 27:51 - odd the Jews didn't notice that.

Matt 4:8 - so Jesus thought the earth was flat?

Matt 4:9 - how could Jesus be tempted by Satan offering him what was already his?

The Bunbury Baker said...

My memory of 1975 is of Edward Whitlam being sacked as Prime Minister by an old drunk in a top hat.

Anonymous said...

The dates of authorship are not the big deal you make them out to be. Likewise, authorship is not as disputed as you claim - Matthew was accepted for a long time as the author of Matthew with debate arising relatively recently as to whether he used Mark's Gospel (or not). It may date from the early 50's AD. Mark's Gospel was accepted by the early church as being written by John Mark and may date from the late 50's or early 60's. It is generally accepted he was being dictated to by Peter. Luke and Acts are generally accepted as being written by Luke and may again date from the late 50's rather than much later. John is accepted as being written by John. The earlier view of it being written in AD85 or later is now questioned with dates around 50AD and no later than 70AD being speculated.

That the accounts are not identical is to their benefit - they are not written solely as a record of events and reflect the target audiences whose religious positions were all over the place.

Regretfully in some instances, I recall quite clearly much of my painful youth from well over 40 years ago. Life changing events are not a common feature of my pretty ordinary life but I would suspect that things that were huge political upheavals for those involved would not pose a recollection problem where oral tradition was more important than today.


Peter Cresswell said...

The dates may not be the big deal they seem to many scholars, but being written so long after the events they purport to describe and and by others not involved with them means they are certainly a bigger deal than you seem to think.

Because FWIW neither dates nor authorship (or lack thereof) are seriously disputed. Sure, the letters from Paul are probably earlier (the first being around 50AD or so), but Paul was a chancer who never witnessed a thing -- hence his need to make up the story of a special and personal command performance by the holy ghost acted out just for him -- and only around four of the letters with his name on were probably written by him.

The gospel named Mark had to be later than this because he talks about the war in Judea (66-70AD) and the persecutions of Nero (after the fire of 64AD). And his was the gospel from which the events of those named Luke and Matthew were largely filched, which came a couple of decades or so later. So nearly a century after your boy was supposed to have been born. (Like me writing an eye-witness account of the events in Anzac Cove without the help of the histories written since.)

Unless you know more than I do however, no serious scholars attributes Mark to Mark, nor gives any room to the idea it was dictated by him to Peter. Sorry.

MarkT said...

I'm not religious at all, but isn't it fair to say the Christian theme for Easter is more about 'rebirth' than it is sacrifice? There's an element of sacrifice, and the sacrifice happens on the Friday - but the festivities conclude with the rebirth on the Sunday. It's how the story ends that counts more than how it starts. The coming of Spring after a hard Winter, bringing forth new life and better times was the original natural event aligned with Easter festivities, and that seems to me the dominant theme.

Unknown said...

Why then do churches display the cross, but not the open tomb? When reenactments happen it's the crucifixion, not the discovery of the missing body.

Christians are blessed by the blood of Christ, but not his rebirth. They eat his flesh drink his blood at every communion, but I've yet to see any sacrament that worships the empty tomb (or any other symbol of the resurrection)

Christmas, now that celebrates birth, happiness, goodwill to all mankind, and "Baby Jesus, meek and mild" to quote Hitchens.

Easter (at least traditionally) is all about death, sacrifice, sin, and repentance.

It's not a happy celebration but a somber remembrance.