In the week before Holy Week, St Francis Parish, Sheffield was host to Lavinia Jones, an art lecturer who spoke about the theme ‘The Road to Salvation’ in art.
Sharing her deep knowledge and love of art, she selected pictures and sculptures ranging from the 13th century Cimabue, through the Renaissance Masters and the Impressionists to the modern art of Stanley Spencer, George Roualt and Maggie Hambling to illustrate her theme.
She contrasted the styles of the painting of the crucified Christ from Northern and Southern Europe. In Italy, paintings by artists such as Raphael show a beautiful and healthy Christ, with a halo and ministering angels, whereas Rembrandt in the Netherlands shows a human, tortured Christ, with no halo, but someone who is like us. She showed a number of depictions of “Ecce Homo”, the words spoken by Pilate when he presented the scourged Christ to the throng. Many of them take as their theme “the extraordinary in the Ordinary”. These range from a picture by Rembrandt where Jesus is not the main focus to the extraordinary sculpture by Mark Wallinger which had temporary pride of place on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar square. She showed a number of photographs of the statue, taken from different angles. It shows a life size man in a loin cloth and a crown of thorns. It contrasted nicely with the triumphalist statues of British war heroes such as Nelson that surround it. Another depiction of Ecce Homo is Jacob Epstein’s statue which is now in Coventry Cathedral, which was perceived as ugly, alone and had been rejected, a bit like Christ.
A different style is the modern picture by Lovis Corinth which depicts the suffering and the degradation of humans through violence and war. In a rough drawing he shows a brutalised Jesus, a modern soldier and Pilate dressed as a physician.
Continuing the theme of the extraordinary in the ordinary, many pictures show everyday life going on around the suffering of Christ. Breughel’s ‘The Road to Calvary’, where Jesus is hard to spot in the crowd (like ‘Where’s Wally’) and Stanley Spencer’s ‘Entry into Jerusalem’, set in Cookham, near Maidenhead, were good examples.
Lavinia then discussed two sculptures by Michelangelo on the same theme, Jesus being taken down from the cross. The early and famous Pieta, in St Peter’s, is a perfect sculpture tackling a very tricky composition. Perhaps it is too perfect. The faces of Jesus and Mary are beautiful and young, as was the artist, who was in his early 20’s when he created it. The later, less well known pieta, has Mary Magdelene, the Virgin and Nicodemus supporting a suffering Christ . In this sculpture, the figures are no longer perfect. The face of Nicodemus is said to be that of Michelangelo himself, and still shows the chisel marks, possibly because Michelangelo died before he had a chance to polish it smooth, but also possibly to show the effort involved in its creation. The sculpture was intended for Michelangelo’s own tomb and depicts a vision by a man who has suffered in life.
All in all, the talk was both entertaining and educational, and a perfect meditation on the way Christ has been perceived throughout the ages in the run-up to Easter. Thanks to St Francis Parish Pastoral Council for arranging it.