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The audacity of Christian art: the problem with Christ | National Gallery
How do you paint a figure who is fully human, and fully divine? How do you show, in paint, that the person in a painting is a human being like you and me, and also God? It's an amazingly daring thing to even attempt. But artists working in the Christian tradition have done exactly that for nearly two millennia. Christian paintings form about a third of the collection here at the National Gallery and, as Curator in Art and Religion, my role is to try to understand more about their religious content and context. My background is in theology and I'm particularly interested in these paintings within a religious context. What do they say about God, and how do they say it? In this series I'll be looking at paintings from the National Gallery's Renaissance collection, and asking one of the greatest questions in Christian art: how do you paint Christ? Before starting, it is important to know that Christians believe in One God who is God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. This is the Trinity, and God the Son is Jesus Christ. Christians believe that he was simultaneously fully human, and fully divine. The Incarnation - the way in which Jesus Christ came down from heaven, lived and died on earth, was resurrected, and ascended to heaven again - has prompted some pretty complex theology. It has also prompted some extraordinary art. This painting, by Cima da Conegliano, made at the start of the 16th century, shows the Resurrected Christ surrounded by his disciples. We can see the wounds in his hands and feet made by the nails during the Crucifixion, and the wound in his side made by a spear after he was dead. Christ is looking at Thomas, here in the red and green and Thomas is leaning forward to touch the wound in Christ's side. After Christ's death and resurrection, he shows himself to his disciples, appearing among them when they are in a locked room. The disciple Thomas isn't with them, and when the others tell him that they have seen Christ, he says that he won't believe them unless he sees and touches Christ's wounds for himself. A week later, the disciples are again in a locked room and Christ appears among them. He tells Thomas to look at his hands and to touch the wound in his side. And he says 'Do not doubt, but believe'. And Doubting Thomas, as he's often called, immediately responds, 'My Lord and my God!' Once you know the story, it's not hard to sympathise with Thomas. He knew that Christ was human. He knew he was dead. It took an encounter with the Resurrected Christ Himself, to make Thomas recognise his divinity. Cima's painting shows us challenge facing an artist depicting Christ. In a way, using the story of Thomas is simpler for an artist painting for a Christian audience. The viewers can do the work if they know the narrative. .. But most of the time the artist has to treat the viewer a bit like Thomas. We are the ones who the artist needs to show that Christ is human and divine. The challenge of painting the united humanity and divinity of Christ is a uniquely complex one. In fact, there's something extraordinarily audacious about Christian art. If we think of the historical context from which it emerged it's astonishing that it ever did. The Hebrew Bible has a prohibition against graven images and Christian communities developed in a pagan, Greco-Roman world that was full of multiple deities who could change their appearance. But Christians believed that one particular man was God Incarnate. Not a deity who changes shape, not a man with magic powers, but fully human and fully divine. Now how on earth do you paint that? Christian art attempts to do something which no other art form has ever tried to do and the history of Christian art is, in one sense, a history of artistic responses to this enormous challenge of painting Christ. It's an attempt which must, necessarily, ultimately, fail. Neither words nor images can fully describe God. Nor can they explain how the human and the divine could be united in one person. Nevertheless, Christians have used both words and pictures pictures to explore their experiences of God and their belief in the Incarnation. . And just as some religious language explicitly acknowledges its own inadequacy, so some painters have drawn attention visually to the paradoxical nature of attempting to depict Christ. In these short films we are going to explore some of the ways in which painters create and play with paradox: how they invite us to ponder the mystery of the Incarnation, and encourage us to ask questions. The audacity of Christian art lies in this continued attempt to undertake a truly impossible task.
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