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Here is one of my favorite disturbing religious paintings. The work was completed in 1864 by the not-easily-classified 19th century French master Édouard Manet. At first glimpse the canvas seems like a conventional devotional painting of Christ just after he has been crucified and laid out in Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb, but, upon closer examination the multifold unsettling elements of the painting become manifest. The figures are painted in Manet’s trademark front-lit style which flattens the figures out and gives them a hint of monstrous unearthliness. This is particularly problematic since we are located at Jesus’ feet and his body is already foreshortened. The effect is of an ill-shaped Jesus with dwarf’s legs looming above us. Also, from his half-closed eyes it is unclear whether Christ is dead or not. Is he artlessly deceased with his eyes partially opened? Has he been resurrected already but is somehow still woozy? Are the angels resurrecting him? Here we get to the biggest problem of the painting: when is this happening? This scene is certainly not in the gospels (at least I don’t remember any episodes where weird angels with cobalt and ash wings move Jesus around like a prop). Did Manet just make up his own disquieting interpretation of the fundamental mystery at the heart of Christianity? It certainly seems like it! In the foreground of the work, empty snail shells further suggest that we have misunderstood the meaning. An adder slithers out from beneath a rock as if to suggest the poison in our doubts. Painting this kind of problematic religious work did not win Manet any friends in the middle of the nineteenth century, however it is unquestionably a magnificent painting about faith…and about doubt.
In a previous post we analyzed how the devil gradually became red and goatlike in popular imagination (even though scripture does not mention such details). Here is a stunningly dramatic gothic painting by the Sienese master Duccio which shows how the devil was conceived of at the beginning the 14th century. The painting illustrates one of the narrative high points of the New Testament: the devil tempting Jesus by offering him power over all the nations of Earth. Here is how Matthew relates the story in the fourth chapter of his gospel:
8Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; 9And saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me. 10Then saith Jesus unto him, Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve. 11Then the devil leaveth him, and, behold, angels came and ministered unto him.
Duccio illustrates the very end of the episode as the bird-footed, spiky-haired gray devil waves his hand in disgust and prepares to fly off. Additionally Satan has gnome ears, bat wings, and seems to be cast in a permanent shadow of decay. Androgynous angels in voluminous robes approach Christ from beyond the horizon to tend to him after his forty days and nights of fasting in the desert. The head of Jesus is naturally at the apex of the composition. All around him, the architecture of the world is represented in miniature: the crenellations and towers of the delicate pink and cream colored buildings look like dollhouses beneath the feet of Christ. The pomp and power of the world’s cities is empty and small compared with divinity.
On the Christian Liturgical calendar, yesterday was Palm Sunday—the day Christ entered Jerusalem for the week of the passion. Here is one of my favorite religious paintings depicting Jesus saying farewell to his mother before leaving for Jerusalem (and for his death). The painting was completed by Lorenzo Lotto in 1521 and it reflects what is best about that eccentric northern Italian artist.
In many ways Lotto was a kind of shadowy opposite to Titian, who was the dominant Venetian artist of the era. Whereas Titian remained in Venice, Lotto studied in the city of canals but then moved restlessly from place to place in Italy. Titian was the height of artistic fashion throughout the entirety of his life (and, indeed, afterwards) while Lotto fell from popularity at the end of his career and his work then spent long eras in obscurity. Titian’s figures seem godlike and aloof: Lotto’s are anxious and human, riddled with doubts and fears.
Yet there is something profoundly moving in the nervous and unhappy way that Lotto paints. The jarring acidic colors always seem to highlight the otherworldly nature of the Saints and Apostles. Everything else, however points to their humanity. The figures imperceptibly writhe and squirm away from the hallowed norm (and toward mannerism). Instead of a glowing sky here is a dark roof with a globe-like sphere cut into it. The perspective lines do not lead to heaven or a glittering temple but rather to an obscure cave-like topiary within a fenced garden. Only Christ is serene as he bows to his distraught mother, yet he too seems filled with solemn sadness.
A remarkable aspect of this painting is found in the ambiguous animals located in the foreground, midground, and distance. In the front of the painting a little alien lapdog with hypercephalic forehead watches the drama (from the lap of painting’s donor, richly dressed in Caput Mortuum). A cat made of shadow and glowing eyes moves through the darkened columns of the façade. Most evocatively of all, two white rabbits are the lone inhabitants of the periphery of the painting. They scamper off towards the empty ornamental maze. The animals all seem to have symbolic meaning: the dog stands for loyalty, the cat for pride, and the rabbits for purity–but they also seem like real animals caught in a surreal & gloomy loggia. The living creatures might be party to a sacred moment but they are also filled with the quotidian concerns of life, just as the apostles and even the virgin seem to be moved by the comprehensible emotional concerns of humanity. Lotto never gives us Titian’s divine certainty, instead we are left with human doubt and weary perseverance.