Christology at the National Gallery

by Bruce Harbert, appearing in Volume 5

In the spring of this year, visiting the Northern Sicilian town of Cefalù, I went to see the famous mosaic of Christ that dominates the apse of its Cathedral. Poised, posed, and static, Christ looks directly and confidently—even sternly—at the worshipper. In his left hand he holds a book on which is written his words recorded in John’s Gospel, “I am the light of the world; whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). This is a powerful Christ who leaves us in no doubt that the initiative is his. He is Christ the Pantocrator, the divine judge.

That same month I saw a very different picture of Christ in London when I went to the National Gallery’s exhibition “Seeing Salvation,” which explored ways of portraying Christ in visual art. Prominent among the paintings displayed there was Holman Hunt’s “Light of the World,” inspired by the same Johannine text as the Cefalù mosaic, and painted at the beginning of the twentieth century to hang in Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London. In Hunt’s picture Christ—crowned, wearing a rich cloak and carrying a lantern—knocks at a closed door around which weeds have grown. It is the door of the human heart. Christ awaits a response, but seems ready to move on if the door is not opened. The painter has depicted a moment when the initiative belongs to man. Christ is ready to be rejected and his facial expression, though calm, shows his vulnerability. Here we see a human Christ.

The style of the Cefalù mosaic is one that we now associate with Eastern Christendom. The standard pattern of churches of the Byzantine rite includes a figure of the Pantocrator over the altar, in the same position as at Cefalù. Orthodox icons show Christ in a similar way. They regularly incorporate features seen also in the Cefalù image: the right hand raised in blessing, three fingers held up to indicate the Trinity, and two fingers joined to suggest the two natures united in his person and the two strands of hair on the forehead which also recall the two natures of Christ. But Cefalù Cathedral is a Latin church, not a Byzantine one. Roger I, Norman king of Sicily, built it in the mid-twelfth century, when much of Sicily was Muslim and most of its Christians were Orthodox, as part of his program for the strengthening of Latin Christianity in the island. It was to be the centre of the newly re-established Latin diocese of Cefalù. Cefalù shows how close were the Western and Eastern traditions of Christian art—at least in the Mediterranean region—as late as the twelfth century. As if to suggest that Latin and Greek Christianity are not rivals but complement one another, the Johannine text is written on Christ’s book in both Greek and Latin.

The “Seeing Salvation” exhibition told the story of the divergence of those traditions in the second Christian millennium. It showed how Western theology and spirituality—and consequently art—came to focus more and more on the humanity of Christ. In doing so, it highlighted a problem that faced nearly all the artists whose works were exhibited: how is it possible, when focussing on Christ’s humanity, also to depict or suggest his divinity?

This dilemma was exemplified in the exhibition by a picture painted by the Spaniard Murillo in 1681-2 called “The Heavenly and Earthly Trinities.” In it, the child Jesus, aged perhaps five years, stands on a rock between Mary and Joseph, while above him can be seen God the Father surrounded by cherubs and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. The relationships between those depicted are unclear. The face of the Father who looks down on Jesus appears gentle, affectionate, yet not without pain. Jesus looks heavenward, with an expression that suggests both submission and apprehension, while his stance appears confident, as though he is about to move forward. He stands on a rock, which may be intended to suggest an altar. Mary gazes up towards him. He clings to her finger as children will, but she seems ready, even eager, to release him. Joseph looks directly out of the picture towards the viewer with a questioning expression. As the exhibition catalogue rightly suggested, this mysterious picture raises many questions: “In representing Christ’s dual nature, Murillo also expresses human ambivalences.”

The suspicions of any reader familiar with the traditional language of Christian theology will be alerted by that last sentence. They will be confirmed by the fact that an entire section of the exhibition bore the title “The Dual Nature,” for it has been recognized since the very early days of Christianity that Christ cannot be understood if his nature is conceived of as an amalgam of divinity and humanity. In him, divine and human natures remain intact and unmixed. Christ has two natures, not one “dual” nature. Both Tertullian and Origen taught this in the third century, and it was affirmed as Christian dogma by the Council of Chalcedon in 451.
Nevertheless, I found stimulation in this departure from inherited theological language on the part of the organizers of the exhibition. It provoked me to look again at the story they told, and this article is the result.

They sought to interpret images of Christ by exploring theological ideas, intending “to focus attention on the purpose for which the works of art were made, and to explore what they might have meant to their original owners.” A central theme in their account is the well-documented process by which, from the twelfth century onwards, the Western Christian sensibility became preoccupied with Christ’s humanity and his suffering. As the catalogue says, this process is due to the influence of Saints Bernard and Francis. Saint Anselm might also have been mentioned as an earlier source. In histories of art this movement is usually represented as beneficial because it contributed to the growth of “realism.” But Neil MacGregor, Director of the National Gallery, recognizes that, although a third of the pictures in the Gallery are of Christian subjects, many of its visitors are not Christian, and “it is clear that for most this is a difficult inheritance.” What has been good for art, then, may have been bad for Christianity.

In the thirteenth century, when the Franciscan movement was gathering pace and representations of Christ were becoming more naturalistic, Thomas Aquinas pointed in a different direction. He knew the teaching of Chalcedon, of course, with its assertion that the divine and human natures of Christ remained after the Incarnation “without confusion, without change, without division, without separation.” But Chalcedon made no definition regarding the way in which the natures were united, and so offered little guidance as to how we should conceive, speak of, or depict the unity of Christ. In the last few years of his life, Thomas developed a keen interest in Chalcedon’s successor, the Second Council of Constantinople, held in 553. Thomas often called it “the Fifth Synod,” because it was the fifth of the councils recognized as ecumenical. Its proceedings were not well known to Western theologians, but Thomas made the effort to get hold of its documents and study them, and he was impressed. He saw that the Fifth Synod provided a necessary complement to Chalcedon by pointing to the danger of so separating Christ’s two natures that the human Christ and the divine Christ seemed to be two different people. Following the Fifth Synod, and using also ideas from Boethius and John Damascene, Thomas developed his mature Christology, according to which Christ’s two natures are united in his one person, his humanity being the “instrument” of his divinity.

A problem remained: when we say that Christ “took human nature,” he obviously did not take all human nature—he did not become every human being. He must have taken a single instance of human nature. But had that single human nature an individual existence prior to its assumption by Christ? Thomas said no. Christ’s human nature owes its very existence, its esse, to its assumption by the Divine Word. Thomas’ preoccupation in developing this metaphysic was to safeguard the unity of Christ. It is hard to understand, as Thomas acknowledged, but he followed his master Albert in reminding his readers that it is not surprising if the metaphysics of the Incarnation have no parallel. His was a lone voice. Most medieval theologians held that Christ’s human nature had its own separate esse.
The problem that Thomas saw, of creating a unified picture of Christ, is the problem faced by many Western artists, as the National Gallery exhibition amply demonstrated. Histories of art show painters of the Renaissance, particularly in Italy, breaking free of the “shackles” of the iconic tradition and learning to portray Christ as a human being. Had Thomas been more influential, Western Christianity might have remained more ready to represent the divine person in art, and have retained more of its Eastern inheritance. We might have had more images where the divine person gazes at us through his human nature, as in the icons or at Cefalù. Not that this thin stream has ever dried up entirely: one thinks of Piero della Francesca’s majestic portrait of the Risen Christ at Urbino, or the image of Christ by Graham Sutherland that dominates Coventry Cathedral, one sketch for which was exhibited at the National Gallery.

If the divine person of Christ has faded from fine art in the West, it necessarily remains in the popular religious art that is required for the purposes of devotion. The low quality of much western devotional art is surely a result of the reluctance of fine artists to represent a Christ who is recognizably divine—that is left to the makers of sickly plaster statues and holy pictures.

Painting with the broadest of brushes, we might say that the Christ of the first millennium in Christian art is the divine Christ, and that in the West the Christ of the second millennium is the human Christ. This leaves as an open question the appearance of Christ in the third millennium. The Second Vatican Council encouraged us to look back to early Christian tradition for the sources of renewal. Thomas Aquinas looked back to the sixth century to find a Christ whom the West has largely forgotten. Artists looking for fresh inspiration would do well to follow his lead.

The Cefalù Christ is surrounded by images of saints and angels. Beneath him stands his Mother, her hands raised in prayer. The iconographic complex of which he is the focus surrounds the altar. A worshipper entering Cefalù cathedral finds before him a concrete representation of the Preface in the Mass, which reminds us that we praise God the Father in the company of all the angels and saints. The Cefalù Christ is a Christ in context, and that context is liturgical. The arrangement of the mosaics suggests that when we celebrate the liturgy we are in a sense already in heaven.

This is an ancient tradition. Six centuries before the building of the Cefalù cathedral, in 547, the church of San Vitale was dedicated in Ravenna. There, too, a powerful figure of Christ surrounded by saints and angels dominates the apse in which the altar is set. Near to him stand figures from the time before his incarnation, who are thus represented as types, foreshadowings, of the Eucharist: Abel lifts up a lamb in offering, and Melchisedek a loaf of bread, while Abraham sets bread before his angelic guests and, in another part of the same picture, raises his knife to slay Isaac. Thus the Eucharist is set in a historical as well as a cosmological context.

In some churches, the iconographical scheme extends throughout the building. One such is the Basilica of Saint Mary Major in Rome (5th century), which contains a series of mosaics representing the history of salvation that extends from the entrance all the way to the altar and apse. The worshipper entering the church, often a pilgrim from far away, is thus invited to see himself as part of the history of salvation, a member of the pilgrim people of God on their journey to the eschaton. A similar marriage of iconography and architecture is to be found in the cathedral of Monreale, Sicily, built some forty years after that at Cefalù. Here not only the apse, but all the walls of the Church are covered in mosaic. The body of the church contains scenes from the Old and New Testaments, while the apse is reserved for the apostles, the angels, the Mother of God, and Christ himself, who dominates the altar.

Further north in Europe, where Greek influence was weaker, the decoration of churches took different forms, but still, in the Middle Ages, sought to integrate individual images into an architectural—and consequently theological and devotional—whole. In many of the cathedrals of medieval France, Christ appears as judge, not over the altar, but over the entrance to the Church. The effect on the worshipper is at once challenging and consoling. He is reminded of judgement, but to enter into the Church is, as it were, to pass through judgement and to be already in heaven.

Theologically, we may say that a church-building that enfolds the liturgy and the worshipper in its iconographical scheme, which sets the image of Christ within the Church while evidently acknowledging him as the Lord of the Church, is itself an image of the church as the totus Christus, the whole Christ. The effect of such buildings, formed by the theology and spirituality of the first Christian millennium, is to encourage the worshipper to see himself as being in Christ, rather than merely seeing Christ. This effect is perhaps stronger in churches of the Roman rite, which allow more continuity, less distinction, between the body of the church and the sanctuary.

Such images were hardly available to the organizers of the exhibition at the National Gallery. Being held in, and largely sourced from, an art gallery, it was inevitably made up from objects that could fairly easily be moved. There were no frescoes, no mosaics, and little sculpture. Though objects of devotion of many kinds were displayed, artistic merit was concentrated mostly in the oil-paintings. Consequently, the Christian art exhibited was mostly of the second Christian millennium, and preponderantly of the latter part of that millennium, the period when techniques of oil-painting were developed and refined. Some of these paintings had been made originally for a liturgical context as altarpieces, but have now been removed to galleries. In particular, Holman Hunt’s “Light of the World” was painted to hang on the wall of a building that has no iconographical scheme. Soon after its completion it was taken on a world tour and exhibited in galleries which offered for it no less appropriate a surrounding than its cathedral home. What we had in “Seeing Salvation” was for the most part the Christian art of the last few hundred years, either detached from its original context, or else produced for no determined context.

Those who have difficulty with the representations of Christ in the National Gallery, or in any art gallery, cannot be said to find the whole treasury of Christian art difficult. Christian art has much to offer, not only in terms of techniques and materials, but in terms of theology and spirituality, that cannot be accommodated in an art gallery.

Painting with the broadest of brushes, I venture to suggest that the Christ of the first Christian millennium was the divine Christ, and in the West the Christ of the second millennium was the human Christ. If Christ is represented as merely human, then he is merely one of us: we cannot see how he could be divine, or how we could be in him and he in us. On the threshold of the third millennium, Christian artists would do well to look back to the first and—finding afresh in the writings and artifacts of that period the divine person of Christ, Head and Lord of the Church which is his body—draw thence inspiration for a revitalizing of Christian art.