IÂ´m surprised to find myself understanding anything Hegel wrote but this one is interesting, on the artistic representation of Jesus.
But where “his Divinity should break out from his human personality,” Hegel writes, “painting comes up against new difficulties.”
(I couldnÂ´t locate the citation in the unintelligible full e-text).
ItÂ´s a surprise how little Christian art deals with the Resurrection: the central counter-intuitive claim of fact my religion makes. Compared to the thousands of Annunciations, Nativities, Wise Men, and Passions, at least one in every Catholic and Orthodox church, how many Resurrections are there? I linked to this superb anonymous fresco in the Chora church in Istanbul a while ago in my first-ever post for the RBC (thanks again Mark); Michael last year to a panel of the Isenheim Altar by GrÃ¼newald. The missing one is Piero della FrancescaÂ´s masterpiece in Borgo San Sepolcro:
Piero wrote the treatise on perspective, and he plays very sophisticated games here.Â The picture apparently has two vanishing lines, a lower one for the sleeping guards and a higher one for the rising Christ; and the lines of the trees point forward out of the picture to the viewer.Â This is not happening in a normal world. Think how very easily it could become ridiculous (Shazzam! With one bound he was free!), but it isnÂ´t at all.
I donÂ´t however agree with HegelÂ´s prosaic(!) explanation that the theme is just too difficult. St. LukeÂ´s annunciation story also describes a magical, otherworldly event, but this hasnÂ´t deterred many patrons and artists from having a go at its depiction. So there are lots of bad Annunciations. The Transfiguration is a standard theme in Orthodox icons; I bought one from a monkÂ´s workshop in Cyprus twenty years ago. Where are all the bad Resurrections?
There are two possible specific explanations. One is that the New Testament offers no eyewitness accounts, so artists are on their own. For a thousand years, using initiative on this scale was doctrinally risky. You (and your patron) could be accused of being a Monophysite for a painting like GrÃ¼newaldÂ´s, or an Arian for one like PieroÂ´s.Â Both men were oddballs whose main livelihood came from other things; Piero as a mathematician and GrÃ¼newald a millwright, a humble but indispensable technician (compare today: computer network repairman). They were of course also geniuses capable of meeting HegelÂ´s challenge.
The other factor that called for a lot of nerve is that the story is on the face of it incredible. The Gospels insist on the repeated incredulity and doubts of many of the disciples, not just Thomas. The problem did not go away: Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15:12, argues with – not anathematises – some members of the infant church in Corinth who Â¨say that there is no resurrection of the deadÂ¨.Â Substantial minorities of American (and no doubt other) Catholics and Protestants today do not associate Easter with the resurrection claim.
Any artist taking on the Resurrection has to confront this. A purely naturalist human sympathy can carry you through the Nativity and the Cruxifixion – MichaelangeloÂ´s (to me) secular PietÃ s are magnificent examples.Â But for the Resurrection, you have to deal with your own doubts and those of your viewers, put yourself in ThomasÂ´ shoes, and use the doubt, Zen-style, to create an unearthly yet aesthetically convincing image. A straight unbeliever cannot do this as a technical exercise.Â The combination of the technical and spiritual qualities required to take on the Resurrection theme is very rare.