Meditation on Modern Christian Art
One sunny afternoon, I was among a group of clergy invited to view a series of art pieces in St. David’s Anglican Church in Vancouver, a series of Stations of the Cross displayed throughout the nave of the church, the work of local artist Chris Woods. A sample of them, “Station 4: Jesus Meets His Mother”, is offered here for your viewing pleasure. (The entire set can be accessed online at: chriswoodsartist.com/id46.html.)
As you can see, though Jesus is portrayed in His usual flowing robes and long hair (though looking a bit effeminate; “like a girl with a beard,” my wife says), the other figures are modern, with the soldiers portrayed as businessmen and His Mother portrayed as a type easily familiar on the streets of Vancouver where the Via Dolorosa is apparently set: short Beatle-cut hair, glasses, blue jeans, jean jacket. Locals here often see her type on the 6.00 news, in the form of a union leader, a spokesperson for Greenpeace, or a cabinet minister of the NDP (for you Americans unfamiliar with Canadian politics, that’s the left-leaning party in Canada). The intention, of course, was to make the whole thing more understandable to us moderns by transposing it into a modern cultural setting.
As I stood with the group of other clergy gazing up at the Stations of the Cross, the minister of the church naturally asked what I thought of it. His church had, after all, dropped a bundle in commissioning Mr. Woods to produce these pieces. Being a polite Canadian, I replied, “They are very powerful.” I was not lying; I could truthfully affirm that I had never been so powerfully repelled by anything in my entire life. The portrayal of the Theotokos in particular made me want to throw up on my shoes. Very powerful indeed.
I have ever since then tried to analyze my immediate and visceral reaction to the pieces. After all, they were expertly-executed (to my non-artistic eyes), and piously-intended. Why, I ask myself, did I have such a violent reaction to them? I have come to the conclusion that the problem with these pieces of modern Christian art was that Christ, along with His Mother, His disciples and by extension all His Church, had been co-opted to serve a particular political ideology. These Stations of the Cross constituted a kind of cultural hi-jacking of the Gospel to serve latent political ends. This was apparent from the dress and appearance of the figures in the pieces: the villains were businessmen; the heroes, the left-leaning activists so familiar to those living in Vancouver. Other political ideologies could have been served by using different appearances: if the soldiers were dressed as hippies (remember them?) and the disciples as short-haired, fundamentalist types in suits and ties, one would assume a more right-wing agenda. If all the soldiers were dressed as cowboys and the disciples as Indians, this would send yet another message. My problem was not only with the message of the art, but mostly with the fact that the Gospel had been made to serve a political end instead of a divine one. As far as these artistic pieces were concerned, the Kingdom is indeed of this world.
The temptation to subordinate Gospel to politics or nationalism is a very old one, and is perennial. We think of its tragic subordinating to a violent nationalism in Germany in the 1930s—a subordination protested by such heroic figures as Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Religion is a potent force in society, and politicians are often adept at tapping this force for their own ends. In Orthodoxy, which defines itself eschatologically and should therefore know better than to succumb to this hijacking of its symbols for lesser ends, the subordination is the more tragic when it occurs. And it sometimes does: I remember seeing an “icon” of the Theotokos in which the Mother of God and her Son are adorned with Canadian maple leaves, so that both are therefore wrapped in the Canadian flag. The piece goes by the name “Theotokos, Joy of Canada”. I swear I am telling the truth, and the piece resides not, as you might expect, in a “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” museum, but in an Orthodox chapel. I cannot help but imagine what the result here up north would be if someone decided the wrap Christ and His Mother in good ol’ Stars and Stripes, and present the Mother of God as the “Joy of America”. A saner and healthier understanding of the Gospel recognizes the Theotokos as belonging to all the peoples of the world, so that it resists her being so closely identified with any one nation or co-opted by any one nationalism. The usual and correct designation for her is “Joy of All who Sorrow”, whatever their nationality or politics.
The Stations of the Cross that I saw that day remain in my heart as a cautionary tale. There is nothing I suppose intrinsically wrong with altering the clothing of figures in icons to present a more modern look—after all, the angels in icons are dressed as Byzantine soldiers, the religious furniture in the Jewish Temple looks more like that found in a Byzantine church, and bishops from the early centuries wear the omphorion and vestments of a later time. But there is something wrong with losing hold of the timeless and eschatological nature of the Gospel. We are often consumed with the politics and issues of our day, and this is, if not supremely helpful, at least sometimes inevitable. But we must leave a place in our minds to remember that the Kingdom we proclaim is not of this world, and that one day all such politics and issues will be of no interest to anyone, including ourselves. The Left and the Right will both one day give place to the Eternal. Our Christian art should recall us to this insight, and place only eternal issues before our eyes.