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  • David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (1/4/2022)

(A review of Exhibition on Screen's Easter in Art)

The events of Holy Week are central to the mystery of the Christian faith. Visual representations of the Crucifixion must have appeared before the Alexamenos graffito, which dates from the second century. But the Early Church preferred to celebrate the living and risen Christ and images relating to Good Friday seem to have been rare in both the Western and Orthodox traditions before items like the Utrecht Psalter of 835. In Easter in Art, the latest entry in the excellent Exhibition on Screen series, director Phil Grabsky explores the ways in which the Passion, the Deposition, the Entombment and the Resurrection have been depicted by painters and sculptors alike.

Opening remarks from The Times art critic Rachel Campell-Johnston, King's College, London art historian Jennifer Sliwka and David Gariff from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC place Christian art in its socio-cultural context and remind us that the images have a universal relevance and insight into human nature that exceeds narrow religious boundaries.

We are then taken back to Palm Sunday, as extracts from the Four Gospels are read over Enrique Simonet's `Flevit Super Illam' (c.1892) and Giotto's `Entry into Jerusalem' (1303-05). The Cleansing of the Temple is recalled via Nicolaus Haberschrack's `Panels of the High Altar' (c.1468) and El Greco's `Christ Cleansing the Temple' (pre-1570), while the efforts of the Scribes and Pharisees to remove this threat to their authority is captured in Giotto's `Judas Being Paid'. Gariff claims that artists have long sought to interpret the words of the Evangelists and suggests that Giotto's astonishing frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua are like frames in a film. Over a shot of the 16th-century stained glass Passion of Christ at Église Saint-Aignan in Chartres, Sliwka notes that such images were vital in teaching the Gospel story to those who couldn't read and enabled them to focus their devotions, while also learning about human interactions.

Returning to Jerusalem c.AD 33, views of Vincenzo Civerchio's `Christ Instructing Peter and John to Prepare for the Passover' (1504) and a 6th-century Byzantine School mosaic of The Last Supper, we hear about the events of what has become known as Maundy Thursday. The events in the Upper Room are reflected in Salvador Dalí's `The Sacrament of the Last Supper' (1955), Giotto's `Christ Washing the Disciples' Feet', Plautilla Nelli's `The Last Supper' (c.1560) and Leonardo da Vinci's `The Last Supper' (c.1496-98).

The latter mural is housed in the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan and Sliwka explains that scenes of the Last Supper were often reserved for altarpieces, tabernacle doors and refectory walls. In the case of dining areas, the scene prompted monks and nuns to reflect on the communal nature of their meals and the need to give thanks for their bounty. Altar panels were also decorated to focus the mind of the congregation on the events that were commemorated in the Mass. Works like `Altarpiece With the Passion of Christ' (c.1440) by the Master of the Schlägl Altarpiece tell complete stories through side panels divided into four frames either side of a central Crucifixion scene. She also points out how the host would be raised during the consecration with items like Matthias Grünewald's `The Isenheim Altarpiece' (c.1512-16) in the background.

Over `Salvator Mundi in a Landscape' (c.1510-30) by the Master of the Mansi Magdalene and Andrea Mantegna's `The Agony in the Garden' (1455), we learn about what transpired on the Mount of Olives and in the Garden of Gethsemane. It was here that Judas Iscariot came with an armed escort, as is shown in Giotto's `The Arrest of Jesus (Kiss of Judas)' and Albrecht Dürer's `Betrayal of Christ' (1508), which both show the severing of the ear of the High Priest's servant. A contrast with the latter's etched monochrome comes in the dramatic lighting of Anthony Van Dyck's `The Taking of Christ' (1618-20) and the poignant intimacy of Caravaggio's `The Taking of Christ' (1602).

As we see the Master of Cappenberg's `Christ Before Annas' (c.1525-30), the Master of Guillame Lambert's `Christ Before Caiaphas' (c.1480-90) and Giotto's `Christ Before Caiaphas', the New Testament takes us to the court of the High Priest, where Jesus is struck by onlookers during his interrogation and condemned to death for claiming to be the Son of God in the face of false evidence against him. Meanwhile, Peter fulfils a prophecy from earlier in the evening in such devastating pieces as Rembrandt's `The Denial of Saint Peter' (1660) and 1610 and c.1620-25 canvases of the same name by Caravaggio and Gerard Seghers.

A similar scene of shame is presented in Giovanni Canavesio's `The Remorse of Judas and The Crucifixion' (1491) and Gariff and Campbell-Johnston reflect on how these images of human frailty impact upon viewers. The latter remarks upon the connectivity of a work like Franciso de Zurbarán's `Agnus Dei' (c.1635-40), whose symbolic depiction of the Lamb of God has helped place suffering at the heart of Western culture.

As the High Priests and Scribes lacked the power to order an execution, they had to send their prisoner to the Roman governor of Judea. The Gospel account is read out over `Christ Before Pilate' (c.1520-40) by the Master of the Beighem Altarpiece and a 1636 Rembrandt print of the same name. As Pontius Pilate was unwilling to condemn Jesus, he sent Him to King Herod for questioning, as Antonio Ronzen shows in `Christ Before Herod' (c.1517-20). However, he was also unable to detect any guilt and sent Jesus back to Pilate, who is seen washing his hands after the crowd called for the release of Barabbas in Jacopo Tintoretto's `Christ Before Pilate' (c.1666-67), Dürer's 1512 identically titled print from The Passion, and a third interpretation from c.1520 by the Master of Cappenbeg.

With the crowd growing increasingly agitated in calling for crucifixion, Pilate sent Christ to be scourged. The humiliating agony of the punishment is captured in Caravaggio's `Flagellation of Christ' (c.1606-10), Jaume Huguet's `The Flagellation' (c.1455-60) and Diego Valázquez's `Christ After the Flagellation' (c.1628-29). The imposition of the Crown of Thorns is shown in Peter Paul Rubens's `Ecce Homo' (c.1612), Guido Reni's sober canvas of the same name from c.1639-40 and Antonelio Da Massina's `Christ At the Column' (c.1476-78). Hieronymous Bosch recalled the antics of the Praetorium guard in `Christ Mocked' (c.1510).

Citinge examples like `Christ Washing the Feet of His Disciples' from the Aachen Gospels of Otto III (c.1000) and the unattributed `Christ Before Pilate With Pilate Washing His Hands' (c.1500), Campbell-Johnston reflects on the evolution of Western Painting and how refined techniques and a better understanding of composition and perspective make it easier for onlookers to identify with the figures in devotional pictures. Over Lodovico Cardi's `Ecce Homo' (c.1607), Titian's `Christ Shown to the People' (c.1570-76) and Giovanni Battista Tiepolo's `Ecce Homo' (c.1757-1760), Sliwka notes how painters tended to push characters into the foreground so that they involve and implicate the viewer in the subject matter.

Christ's sense of dejection as Pilate presents him to the baying crowd is conveyed with an affecting simplicity by Honoré Daumier's `Ecce Homo' (c.1851) that contrasts with the controlled bustle of Bosch's c.1490 work of the same name. Having been handed over to the Jewish authorities, Jesus embarks upon the Via Dolorosa, whose start is depicted in Giotto's `The Road to Calvary', Titian's `Christ on the Way to Calvary' (c.1560) and Cornelis van Poelenburgh's `Christ Carrying the Cross' (c.1620).

A picture from Raphael's workshop, `Christ Falls on the Way to Calvary' (1515-16), reveals the physical exertion of carrying the heavy wooden cross, even with the assistance of Simon of Cyrene. The brutality increased at the place known as `The Skull' and Campbell-Johnston comments on the vulnerability of Christ's body as it's being fixed to the crucifix in works like Rubens's `Raising of the Cross' (c.1610-11). Yet, she notes the skillful depiction of the anatomy, as `the corporeal is made divine' to remind viewers that they are made in the image of Christ.

The stark reality of Golgotha is conveyed in Valázquez's `The Crucified Christ' (c.1632) and Grünewald's `Isenheim Crucifixion' (c.1512-16). Campbell-Johnston explains that the latter altarpiece was commissioned by a plague hospital and she suggests the contorted Christ was an invitation to the viewer to take solace from the suffering that He had endured on their behalf. No less impactful is Grünewald's `The Small Crucifixion' (c.1511-20) and Gariff compares this Germanic interpretation with Italian items like Pietro Perugino's `The Crucifixion, With the Virgin, Saint John, Saint Jerome and Saint Mary Magdalene' (c.1482-85). This emphasis on excruciating pain can also be seen in the Expressionist Emil Nolde's `The Life of Christ' (1911-12), Thomas Eakins's `The Crucifixion' (c.1880) and Henti Matisse's 1951 mural for The Rosary Chapel in Venice.

There's more physical serenity, yet still a crushing sense of loss and despair about Dalí's `Christ of Saint John of the Cross' (c.1951). Contrast this with the Renaissance pageantry on the periphery of Jan Mostaert's `The Crucifixion' (c.1530) and the conflicting emotions of the bypassers in Edvard Munch's `Golgotha' (1900). The thieves executed either side of Jesus can be seen in Mantegna's `The Crucifixion' (c.1457-59), while the Ninth Hour is presented in Bernardo Daddi's `Triptych' (1338), El Greco's `Christ on the Cross, Adored By Two Donors' (c.1590) and Roger van der Weyden's `The Crucifixion, With the Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist Mourning' (c.1460).

Following a black-fading pause for thought, the story resumes with Rembrandt's `Descent From the Cross' (1634) and Jan Gossaert's c.1520 depiction of the same theme. The Master of the Saint Bartholomew Altarpiece includes the women who had attended Jesus in `The Deposition' (c.1500-05), while Joos van Cleve inserts Joseph of Aramathea into `Descent From the Cross' (c.1517-20). Edouard Manet provides a variation in `The Dead Christ With Angels' (1864), which descends from Renaissance articles like Rosso Fiorentino's `Pietà' (c.1530-40), which, in turn, owed much to Michelangelo's `Pietà' (c.1498-99).

Sliwka points out that there is no explicit reference to Mary holding her lifeless child in Scripture, but it's one of the most instantly recognisable episodes in Easter art. She also notes that Michelangelo returned to the idea in carving his own tomb monument, which is now known as `The Rondanini Pietà' (c.1550-64). The Germans use the word `Vesperbild' to describe an incident that occurs outside time and Alain Senez's `Pietà' (2008) capably captures that essence. Yet, the Resurrection has rarely inspired artists, although Sliwka detects allusions to the triumph over death in Michelangelo's unfinished altarpiece, `The Entombment' (c.1500-01),

The Evangelists record this sombre moment, as we see Caravaggio's `Deposition' (c.1600-04), Tintoretto's `Christ Carried to the Tomb' (c.1555-60) and Van der Weyden's `The Entombment of Christ' (c.1460-64). We learn how the Pharisees asked Pilate for a guard to prevent the disciples from faking a resurrection in accordance with Christ's prophecy and one can sense the desolation among the followers in Haberschrack's `Three Marys at the Tomb of Christ' (c.1470).

However, Jesus proved as good as His Word, as can be seen in Fra Angelico's `The Resurrection of Christ and the Pious Women At the Sepulchre' (c.1442) and Pietro della Francesca's `The Resurrecion' (c.1460). The moment of triumph is rather undercut by Campbell-Johnston dismissing Christianity (and all religions) as a method of socio-political control and how the Roman Catholic Church used artists as propagandists to keep its adherents in awe and in thrall with the vague promise of a future reward in Heaven for a life lived well on Earth.

The confusion of Mary Magdalene at the Tomb is conveyed in variations on the `Noli Me Tangere' by Giotto (1303-05, Titian (c.1514) and Hans Holbein the Younger (c.1526-28). She passed on the Lord's message to the Apostles, who witness the scene for themselves in Hans Memling's `Triptych of the Resurrection' (c.1490). After Christ sends the Eleven to convert all peoples, he appeared to two disciples on the road, as Altobello Melone shows in `The Road to Emmaus' (c.1516-17). Caravaggio completes the story in `The Supper At Emmaus' (1601), when the men have their eyes opened to the identity of their travelling companion.

Further visitations occurred over the ensuing days, as Van Dyck reveals in `The Appearance of Christ to His Disciples' (1625-26). Caravaggio depicts the moment that Thomas the Twin had his doubts removed in `The Incredulity of Saint Thomas' (c.1601-02), a title also used by Guercino around 1621. Campbell-Johnston links this episode to humankind's wider need for the Truth and, as we see Eugène Delacroix's `Christ on the Cross' (1853) and Mark Wallinger's `Ecce Homo' (1999-2000), Gariff and Sliwka concur that Christian painting has meaning for those believers, atheists and those of different faiths, as it conveys what it is to be human. Indeed, Sliwka avers that we can't understand ourselves or see where we have been and where we may be going unless we look at devotional art.

Our story concludes with Rembrandt (c.1636) and Giotto's versions of `The Ascension of Christ'. His final instructions are related over the Novgorod School's 1543 `The Ascension of Our Lord' from the Malo-Kirillov Monastery before the picture closes, where it began, at an Orthodox service on Easter Sunday at the Vladimirsky Cathedral in Saint Petersburg.

Deprived by Covid of its customary topicality, Exhibition on Screen has plumbed for a timeless topic that has a built-in paschal recyclability. Inevitably, there's a degree of overlap with Andrew Hutton's Easter in Art: Betrayal, Crucifixion, Resurrection (2013). But there's no doubting the extent of Grabsky and co-writer Philip Rance's knowledge of the paintings and there is much to commend about the way in which they are used to complement the Gospel readings being given by Rupert Farley (Matthew), Glen McCready (John), David Rintoul (Luke) and Matt Wilkinson (Mark). The result is an illustrated Stations of the Cross that will be used by many for years to come as part of their Lenten and Easter duties.

While one can understand Campbell-Johnston, Gariff and Sliwka's efforts to affirm the significance of the works under discussion to non-Christian or non-believing viewers, the reluctance to embrace the piety of those who created them can feel strained, as though the film-makers are afraid of being accused of cultural imposition, as opposed to appropriation. Whether we may like it or not in 2021, the foundations of Western culture lie deeply rooted in Christendom and the beauty and sincerity of the religious paintings produced over the last two millennia should be celebrated as much as the talent that wrought them. The sins of those who commissioned them are, of course, another matter entirely.

As one presumes the pictures were largely photographed during the pandemic, the visual style is more restrained than usual. But the trademark glides across gallery floors are deftly replaced by editor Clive Mattock with cut-ins to dwell on details within the canvases, as they pertain to the passages being described on the soundtrack.

More might have been made of the historical background, as the Church served by the likes of Giotto and Michelangelo was very different from the Counter-Reformation institution in existence in the time of Caravaggio and Titian. Something might also have been said about the contrasts between Catholic and Protestant depictions of the Easter story, especially during periods of iconoclasm. Nevertheless, this is a timely and valuable survey that will provide comfort and inspiration for decades to come. Maybe EOS can take the texts of Homer and Virgil and do something similar for the mythologies of Classical Antiquity?

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