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Friday, 10 April 2009

And so to Easter...

This post has become in part a continuation of my previous one on Myth. That was not how it started out. I had intended to present merely those Easter images that over the years, and at different times, have moved and influenced me to the greatest degree. I was resolved to simply post them and let them speak for themselves. That is not what happened. First, a bit of personal history.

The first image I can recall seeing that - in my mind - had anything to do with the Easter story was Holman Hunt's The Light of the World. "But," I hear you object, "it has nothing to do with the Easter story." And neither does it, which is why I inserted the phrase in my mind. I have no idea how it came to be so associated, but it did.

Moving on, and some few years later, on a visit - I think my first - to The Tate Gallery, I bought a poster-sized print of Salvador Dali's Crucifixion - the one depicting Him and His cross floating, rising, rocketing, soaring - I was never quite sure of the most appropriate verb - above a sleeping world. I saw this as a statement that Christ was the active participant in his passion, that he was, if not triumphant, then at the very least, the hero of the action. It was also smack, bang in the middle of my surrealism phase, so that may have had something to do with it.

Just recently I have been moved by his other crucifixion, the one featuring the blocks which seem to have offended many traditionalists. I can quite see how that might be so. I have to admit to having been shocked myself when I first saw the image, but now it just seems full of power and - I would even say - majesty.

Between those two, though, three others were to hold sway in my imagination: the Stanley Spencer, the Mathis Grunewald and the Graham Sutherland. These, however, did not fall into line and form a neat progression somehow reflecting my progress from A to B. They skirted around each other, permanent rivals vying for my favour.

It was at this point as I thought about what to post that it occurred to me that Easter is a perfect example of one of the most common myths in the history of man's thought and faith. Indeed, it seems to be universal. The myth of descent and ascent, the going down and the rising again. William Blake thought that all gods were creations of the human poetic genius and pointed out that they have had a political function in the control of the populace, but more importantly - certainly for us now - they have a poetic function. We usually speak of it as being to explore our humanity, but he pointed out that beyond that it actually creates the humanising aspects of the self.

So the Easter story is but Christianity's take on the myth of descent and rising again, the myth that occurs also, for example, in the narratives of Orpheus and his descent into the underworld. St Paul, telling the gospel story, shows no interest in the domestic life of Jesus. There is no biography to speak of. He plunges straight in with a powerful poem of Christ emptying himself and taking the lowest form of humanity, then soaring heavenwards to take the most exalted place of all. This is a myth that has been taken and adapted by the modern day psychiatrist. The patient is taken down into the murkiest depths of his or her unconscious in order to rise again and be made whole.

Traditionalists - and especially traditional Christians - will - complain that I have told only half the story, that I have focussed on the death at the expense of the resurrection, whereas it is the latter that is at the heart of the Easter story/Easter myth. And they would be correct to make that protest.

The fact is that I can think of no work of art depicting the resurrection that has moved me in the way that these images of the crucifixion have moved me. This morning (Wednesday) The Times stole my thunder with a four page insert on Easter art, one heading in which read: Artists Still Overshadowed by the Cross, however it turned out that it did not mean what I at first took it to mean. Even so, they were able to come up with only two versions of the resurrection: Fra Angelico's and that by Piero della Francesca. Furthermore, in their list of the top ten works was only the Francesca. They were also the only two to occur to me. The Francesca I greatly admire, but beyond that it leaves me cold. Even after reading the Times's worthy text on the significance of its various aspects, it fails to move me as these others have moved me. The Angelico I do appreciate, it does resonate with me, but still it has never had the deep emotional - and lasting - effect on me that my other selections have had.

I do find it incredible though, this imbalance between great deaths an d great resurrections, if I can put it that way. You could argue that the artists of the past were doing the bidding of those who commissioned them, and were not free agents in this. But that makes it more unlikely, not less, since the commissioning agent was usually the church, for whom the resurrection is at the very heart of all faith - and not just Easter.

And what of this fugitive from my past? Can anyone come up with a role for The Light of the World in the Easter story? I'll make it an Easter challenge!

And to each one of you out there in blogland, may you have exactly the Easter you would choose for yourself.


Butler and Bagman said...

I had not thought of it before, but there are fewer images of the resurrection. It is the crucifixion part that gets the focus. We humans seem to be unable to turn away from disasters. Resurection saves the human race but crucifixions sell newspapers. Sad.

Dave King said...

Butler and Bagman I hadn't thought of it before either, but it does seem to be the case. As you say: sad.

Derrick said...

Hi Dave,

Happy Easter to you.

If you will forgive my simplicity, I think that we concentrate on the crucifixion because it shows that Christ suffered for us. The resurrection is intended to give us everlasting life but we must die first.

There are churches that do not depict Christ on the cross in perpetual agony because He is risen. It is a nice thought but I don't know which image conveys the greater meaning.

For your challenge - perhaps The Light of the World could be associated with Easter because it was after Christ's death and resurrection that He truly brought us out of darkness?

Dave King said...

Yes, I accept all that you say, but still find it surprising (to say the least) that there seems to be such a focus on the one at the expense of the other. To my mind you have to take them together to get anywhere, they are the two sides of the one coin, to quote the cliche.

Thanks for your good wishes, and a very happy Easter to you and yours.

Midlife, menopause, mistakes and random stuff... said...

Thank you Dave for the reminder of the true meaning of Easter Dave. We need to remember the Crucifixion don't we?? As Butler and Bagman said.....we tend to only look at the happy parts of things and turn our heads away from the atocities that man can do to other human beings.
Without the crucifix there would be no happy resurrection story to tell.
Thank you Dave for the lovely snaphots and the reminder.
Have a blessed easter and a nice chocolate egg :)

Steady On
Reggie Girl

Stephen Dell'Aria said...

Excellent post Dave. I have also been moved by the Dali’s crucifixions, especially the one looking down from above (I‘ve only seen it in reproduction). I’ve come to think, in a world with such drama and rapidly changing events the only image of Christ that could possibly hold our attention would be one loaded with dynamic perspective and theatrical lighting. Personally, the painting places Christ right at home in our contemporary world. I think the forces of splitting the atom was for Dali the most cataclysmic event ever; that is very apparent to me in the second crucifix painting as objects divide evenly. These images are powerful and also spiritual. Dali’s Last Supper use to hang in a stairway at the National Gallery of Art, here in Washington D.C. and it struck me almost as an epiphany when one saw it coming up the escalator stairs. It is, to this day, the most popular painting in the gallery. If someone could convince me once again I would gladly become a believer, until then, these paintings will have to do.

Karen said...

The Light of the World - absolutely the Easter story - shows the whole point of Christ's death and resurrection: the light of the world is ready, available, and reaching out to mankind. Opening the door (like opening the tomb) allows the light to come in, drives out the darkness. Conquers the night.

Karen said...

By the way, the Dalis are two of my favorites.

Dave King said...

Midlife, menopause, mistakes and random stuff
Yup, thanks very much, and yourselves likewise.

Some interesting comments there, a new insight or two (for me), no less. Sp something to think about. Much appreciated.

Well said and many thanks.

Cathy said...

The Dalis are quite moving. I had never thought of the resurrection being so neglected in art until now. It is true there is more focus on the crucifix. I would like to believe that is more to hit people with the selflessness of the act. To have someone love you enough to die for you is powerful. So much more powerful to be resurrected and come back to say I can give you eternal life if you follow me. I believe in the history of the acts not because of what is written but because of the effect of the faith in my life. I believe in a higher power. I believe in God and Jesus but where they are and from where their true origins are I'm not sure. I see my Bible as a manuel for living written by men and only men. Maybe my reading of SciFi for all these years is starting to really make me think we just don't have the whole story. For now, I will celebrate the resurrection.
Happy Easter Dave!

artslice said...

Lovely post...love the last image. Easter tidings to you and your family.

ken armstrong said...

I always look for Good Friday material on Good Friday and your post hit the spot extremely well.

Regardless of what I believe as an adult, this stuff was embedded deep into me as a child and it doesn't ever really work it's way out.

The Weaver of Grass said...

That Holman Hunt hung in my home when I was a child and always made a profound impression on me. Ken Armstrong, above, says exactly what I feel about it. I can't see any difficulty in fitting it into the Easter story - in it he is risen and fulfilling his designated role - so surely that fits in perfectly.

Meri Arnett-Kremian said...

The scarcity of resurrection images compared to crucifixion images is interesting, especially when you consider that Easter itself does not celebrate the crucifixion (that's the function of Good Friday) but the "good news" of the resurrection and its regenerative implications. And when I consider the paucity of artistic celebration of resurrection along with the mystical implications of the teachings attributed to Jesus ("The kingdom of God is within")
the lack is all the more surprising. Perhaps it's harder to envision in concrete terms something so supernatural. I do love the Dali works.

Anonymous said...

Interestingly, Dave, I posted 'The Light of the World' at Christmas. I speaks to me of days at Sunday school when it was on the classroom wall. I will, however, make a tortuous connection with Easter.

Easter is the time of resurrection or re-birth (hence the mythic connection with chicks and eggs). The caption to 'The Light of the World', as I'm sure you know is 'I stand at the door and knock', taken from the book of Revelations. To knock, Christ would necessarily have had to have risen.

In art, I think it is the symbol of the cross adorned with a human form (although for Christians less correct) that is significant. I like all those painting except the one with the three crosses and the pretty pink (Spencer?) because it lacks the strength and dynamism of the others.

Your posts continue to offer much on which to reflect.

San said...

The Light-bearer. The Door-opener. Yes, that fits with Easter. Often our own wounds encourage us to open that door to vastness.

Anonymous said...

What do you think of the Dave Fryer sculpture of Christ on an electric chair? It's currently being exhibited in a church in Gap, France. Here's a link to see it:

I think that it's a thought-provoking as any cruxifiction image.

Linda S. Socha said...


The light of the world...The ultimate Easter promise and prediction for our condition. Great Post Dave

lakeviewer said...

You never fail to illuminate. Retelling the story of Easter and connecting it to more humanistic myths makes it more universal, beyond rituals and religions.

May we all find renewal each time we despair.

hope said...

The first painting seems to capture it all; agony, sacrifice and yet the colors for some reason remind me of peace and hope.

Alas, I did try to send you the "Spring is Sprung" as an e-mail postcard. Your e-mail system spit it back out...a week later. :)

Next year I'll get your proper mailing address and trust it to the old fashion method.

Happy Easter to you and yours!

dominique eichi said...

Dave, I wanted to thank you for your post and the elaborate descriptions you gave of each pics,. and how they move you.
I appreciate your thoughts has they resonate with mine. May God be glorified in our surrender in-spite of what we think we understand. Blessings to you.

willow said...

I saw one of the copies of Hunt's The Light of the World in St. Paul's Cathedral. I've always loved it. Hunt painted the door without a latch, so Christ is knocking, symbolically at the door of the world, bringing his light. And in my opinion, this would be after the resurrection, so yes, it plays a role in the concept of Easter.

willow said...

PS...I've always liked Chagal's White Crucifixion.

Lucas said...

Excellent post, Dave. The day Good Friday is full of significance and never fails to make me dwell on its meanings. I agree that the preponderance of paintings featuring the Crucifiction is quite mysterious. I think that the painting The Light of the World supplies the missing link. There may also be Blakian equivalents. Glad Day?

Janette Kearns Wilson said...

I am not fond of any crucifixion paintings in the church context, it reminds me of the early Methodist testimony meetings...then I was bad now I'm good stuff.The church needs us to focus on the sin and guilt and hence the crucifixion, rather than the optimistic Creation and Resurrection, that is why I am so fond of Mathew Fox.
Thanks for your blogs always

Sheila said...

Always cooking up a wonderful menu to bring us interesting food for thought. Blessings to you my friend!

Poetic Artist said...

Thank you for this post. Yes we as humans look at Christ on the cross but he had to die for our sins to show of the love for us.
Have a blessed Easter.

Fantastic Forrest said...


Thanks for this Easter treat! I remember being intrigued by Caravaggio's 1603 "Doubting Thomas." It had a Norman Rockwell-like quality that I loved. Maybe that sounds unsophisticated, but it made Jesus seem real to me.

Marc Chagall's "White Crucifixion" made a big impact on me as well. It certainly doesn't have the realism that Caravaggio's picture does. But I love Chagall's work.

I've been thinking about "pictures of Jesus" in a different way. Time has a neat feature article about the "Top 10 Jesus Films" at http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1890518_1890479_1890481,00.html

It's inspired me to pitch a new mini course to the director of the division at the college where I sometimes teach: Jesus Christ, Movie Star. (I stole the title from Time's sidebar.)

Have a wonderful weekend! I'm off to dye eggs with my two little chicks.


Art Durkee said...

I remember from when I studied art history and Medieval art, several art historians have noted that, since the Middle Ages, the emphasis has almost always been on death over resurrection, because it's a more emotionally powerful image for most people, as it leads them to contemplate their own mortality. At its crudest, it keeps the flocks in line with threats of death and damnation. (Derrick's comments above are spot on target, BTW. There are doctrinal reasons why some churches do not depict the crucifixion at all, and others do.) The crucifixion makes people aware of their own immortal souls, and they might be reminded to repent of their sins. There's a whole special area of study in Medieval art history on this topic.

Images of death are still "sexier" than images of transcendent overcoming. We still think this way. I've read more than one book analyzing our contemporary culture as death- and pain-obsessed. One of those, written by a psychologist, is titled "The Sadomasochism of Everyday Life." (Another book, with "in" instead of "of" in the title, is a study of modern culture's power dynamics, from a post-Sartre viewpoint.) We market everything with sex, and our stories, our fictions, our contemporary myths strongly emphasize death and violence over love and overcoming. We can show violent bloody deaths on American TV every night, but we still can't show people making tender love without getting censored.

Another difficulty is that it's very easy to sentimentalize the resurrection. It takes a very great artist indeed to effectively paint, or sculpt, such an ecstatic experience. There are some great resurrection poems; perhaps because it's a topic that easier to talk about than to directly experience. It's hard to depict transcendence without becoming clich├ęd, or using symbols that are so familiar that they don't pack the same emotional punch as images of death do. (BTW, that emotional punch is one reason Freud decided that the death-fear was so central in his model of the unconscious. I don't agree with Freud that it is of primary motivation, but his insights are valid nonetheless.)

Personally, Mathias Grunewald has always been one of my favorite artists. The resurrection panel from the Isenheim altarpiece is one of my favorites: it depicts Christ literally exploding out of the tomb, flying as though like an angel or superhero, enveloped in a sphere of glowing luminous light. His flight from death is the point of light illuminating the darkened landscape.

Light itself has often been used as a symbol of resurrection and transcendence. The light coming in the cathedral windows was a symbol of God, who is Light and Radiance.

One modern painter who used light very powerfully in this way in his paintings was Mondrian. Look at his late figurative paintings from just before he began going abstract, and you'll see what I mean.

Joseph Campbell wrote compellingly about the death-and-resurrection mythos. So did Jung, among others. You have to die to be reborn: and each of us experience smaller crucifixions in our lives, which to overcome we too are reborn. It's part of the Hero's journey pattern, and goes back very far in Western culture. The goddess Innana, from Sumerian myth, died and was reborn; and the trope is also in the Gilgamesh myth.

Death images contain drama, high drama; we're all afraid of death, to some extent. But not all of us experience the ecstasy of rebirth: it's a fundamentally harder topic to relate to, for most people. There ARE some great artworks depicting the resurrection, including some from the Middle Ages, but they're usually sublime rather than dramatic, so to be blunt they don't hold the attention of hte average viewer quite as long as death images do. They're around, but not even the art historians discuss them as often as they do the images of death and damnation.

Adrian LaRoque said...

Happy Easter David!

Lyn said...

There's a real parallel to be seen here. In the Tarot Deck, The Hermit is depicted as a robed man carrying a lantern. A card of introspection, analysis and purity. it indicates a desire for peace and solitude, a time to think, take stock. A time of withdrawal, leading to enlightenment, illumination and clarity. The Hermit also represents setting your values above temporal things.
Placed side by side, The Hermit,and The Light of the World are quite similar, seem to be on the same path, lantern and all.
Challenging as usual..thank you!

Jenn said...

This is a myth that has been taken and adapted by the modern day psychiatrist.

Brilliant insight. This goes to show how we as humans tend to attempt to analyze our past (birth -- life) as a means to understanding our future (death). It only saddens me that so many people miss that whole time in between the 2 miraculous events.

I wish you and yours a wonderful holiday full of good times, great food and barrels of laughter :o)

Conda V. Douglas said...

Haunting images, Dave. I remember the first time I saw Grunewald's in real life. I gasped and my stomach flipped. Incredible.

Happy Easter--it may even be Easter where you are!

Jeanne said...

As others before me have said, stories of great joy don't really have a hold on our emotions, but tales of great tragedy -- now you're talking our language. At least in the West -- in the East, the Buddha's story seems to focus more on his joy, and less on his suffering.

Cloudia said...

After reading and enjoying this post I finally feel Easter ressurection in the air. Thank you, D.K.

Ian said...

Dali's crucifixion painting in Glasgow is the most memorable for me.

Dave King said...

Some powerful comments there, too. Thank you for them. It is true that all the folk I have known who have had that sort of fath have believed the narratives because they first believed, not the other way around. I am not a sci-fi reader, but I, too, believe that we do not have the whole story. A very happy Easter to you.

Welcome and many thanks and much blessing to you and yours.

Well said. It was deeply embedded in me as well, and you are right: it never does work its way out!

PurestGreen said...

Thank you Dave, for another insightful, thought-provoking post. Big Eostre happiness to you.

Barry said...

Happy Easter Dave! May you remember the joy of it and let the pain go; although, as you point out, it is the drama of pain that captures our attention and infuses our art.

Carl said...

Hi Dave,

I may not be able to find an Easter theme to the last image either, but It is beautiful and powerful and comforting so I say include it. It shows Christ in a light Christians and Non-Christians can gain inspiration from.


DAVE the Mathis Gothart Niethart is the best, for me the worst thing is a surrealist Dali? Perhaps a precursor of hyper- realism with distortion? Happy Easter I ´STILL KEEP MY EYES IN YOURS POSTS .

Dave King said...

The Weaver of Grass
Yes, I am sure that is right and is the general feeling. Maybe I' was beening too litera;. Thanks anyway.

I do think your explanation might be on track, because if we look at something like Giotto's Arena frescoes, where he tells what is obviously intended to be the whole story of Christ's life, there is, after the Crucifixion, first the Lamentations and then the scene in the garden after the Resurrection, the Noli Me Tangere, but a very physical Christ all the same. I certinly do not get the sense that this is a resurrected Christ.

I agree that the Spencer lacks the power of the others, but I like it for its "homeliness". It could be on anyone's common or in anyone's back garden. All your comments are interesting, though, and worthy of further reflection.

Good point. Thanks for that.

Sounds interesting, but unfortunately I couldn't connect to it. Apparently thre web page has no redirect loop - whatever that means! Thanks anyway. I will try a web search.

Thanks Linda.

Indeed, I'll say Amen to that!

Good point (your first para).
davidalexking@googlemail.com should do it.

I very much like your that "in-spite of what we think we understand" bit. Thanks for your comment.

Do you know, I don't think I ever noticed that the door has no latch. Four Brownie points!
I, too, am a great admirier of Chagall's White Crucifixion. I have had it in mind for some time to post on it. Don't know if I ever will.

Yes, indeed, I did think of Blakian equivalents, but thought I might be pushing things a bit. Thanks for stepping in where yours truly feared to tread.

Shouldn't be "once I was bad, now I am good". I was always told that as soon as you have had a bath you start to need another. Thanks for your comments.

And to you, Sheila, thanks for your comments.

Fantastic Forrest
Thanks for all that. Your remarks on Caravaggio sound spot on to me - and Jesus Christ, Movie Star sounds good - maybe even a little overdue?? Thanks for all.

Many thanks for that exposition, which I shall need to dead and reflect on more leisurely. There is nothing there with which I might disagree, I think, but a few lines of thought that need following-up. Is there, for instance, a more direct connection between the madieval - and subsequent - desire to keep the peasants in check and our present death- and violence-obsessed culture? I am grateful to you for the trouble you have taken and will indeed give it further reflection.

Thanks for that

Your comments are very inspiring. For me there are new lines of thought there. I had not heard those ideas expressed before, so much thanks for that. I shall follow them up.

Good point. It is very much overlooked. I mentioned it in answer to Meri, but it is hardly ever given focussed attention.

You have the advantage on me there, I've not seen the original. Thanks.

Yes, it seems almost universal in the West. The newspapers know it well enough: good news doesn't sell papers - or anything else, seemingly.

And thank you - very much.

Yes, I've heard that said before. It has something to do with the way it is displayed, I understand. Thanks for that.

Purest Green
Many thanks for your good wishes.

But it's the joy I enjoy! Thanks.

I go along with that. Thanks.

Thanks for that.

Art Durkee said...

"Is there, for instance, a more direct connection between the madieval - and subsequent - desire to keep the peasants in check and our present death- and violence-obsessed culture?"

I'm happy to come back and address this soon, and for the moment I'm wiped out by things going on in real life. I'll come back to this soon.

Red Clover said...

Hello Dave,

I enjoyed your post very much. Isn't it interesting how so many myths are built around the concept of conquering death? As for myself I see it as a chicken/egg concept. They both came intrinsically together. That the human soul recognizes the need for death to be overcome, and our artistic expressions as societies demonstrate that. I am a Christian, and don't think it's a coincidence. Truth is readily found in the world around if we desire. (Rather like a fractal...an equation that plots many points over and over, and once it works itself through thousands of times it creates an image of perfect symmetry and eternity. Who knew math could be so inspiring? Ha ha.)
The Angelico was great. There are many moving images from the centuries past, and it got me thinking about myself and Easter this year. What art was on my mind? I actually wrote a blog post expressing my response on my other blog (http://anygirl73.blogspot.com/).
The cross was not the central image for me this Easter. I actually take liberty to dabble in the art forms of words, painting, and music. Sticking to those who have truly been in my mind. A simple response, I suppose. Hope you enjoy.

Lizzy Frizzfrock said...

Dave, this was a wonderful post. The Southerland depiction reminds me of the cubist work of Picasso. I will attempt to locate a larger depiction of the Spencer crucifixion as I would love to see the detail. It is interesting that we seem to have more art of the crucifixion than the resurrection ... hmmm

Old Knudsen said...

I look at the crucifixion and think how strange it is to worship a symbol of torture and not allow waterboarding.
We all do have to remember it is 'mythology' no matter how the History channel shows it. The true meaning of Easter being 'Spring time' and the birth of all the new plants and creatures and the rebirth of the earth itself.

We also should remember that like the days of the week Easter is named after an ancient pagan deity and goes well beyond 2000 years but the victor is the one that gets to write the history.

Its what we get from it, enlightenment, chocolate calories or a seedling breaking through the earth.
We just have to remember not to take at face value what we see and read and as you say choose for yourself.

Why does no one paint bunnies?