The National Gallery offers a powerful but partial view of transgression
RELIGIOUS ART has at least two forms. In one (covering Buddhist sculpture and Islamic calligraphy as well as classic Christian iconography) the creator is intensely engaged with the transcendental realities which the work tries to express. The second sort, more loosely defined, uses themes from religious texts because they are good familiar stories, but with little interest in their spiritual content.
In the art of Renaissance Europe, there was a shift from the first category to the second. Painters still drew on the Bible, as well as pre-Christian mythology, but their work reflected a humanist spirit which celebrated Homo sapiens and openly or subliminally overturned the medieval Catholic world-view.
All that creates a contentious background for “Sin”, an exhibition opening at the National Gallery in London on October 7th, which aspires to take a sweeping, unconventional look at the Christian notion of sin and see whether it has resonance today. The works on show include seven old masters from the gallery’s collection, ranging from the 16th to the 18th centuries, plus seven borrowed works, including three modern ones. There is no work from before 1500, so it is only a slight exaggeration to say that the exhibition seems to start at the very moment in European cultural history when passionate religious feeling wanes.
So it is hardly comprehensive as a selection of Christian-related art, but it does present stunning pieces in provocative juxtaposition. A scene of the Garden of Eden by Jan Brueghel, dated 1613, has been borrowed from a private collection in Hong Kong; it sets off a familiar rendering of Adam and Eve, fig-leaved and munching the forbidden fruit, by Lucas Cranach, from a century earlier.
This sensual delight in Adam and Eve’s near-nakedness is a cheeky response to medieval notions of decency. But a bolder, almost pornographic rebuttal is delivered by Bronzino’s famous interpretation in about 1545 of a classical scene: Venus is erotically kissing her bottom-waggling son Cupid as he fiddles with her crown.
This, the show’s most sacrilegious item, was seen as a kind of anti-Madonna which provoked horror when the Gallery acquired it in 1860. More in step with Victorian religiosity is a rendering of the scapegoat, the animal that in ancient Israel was cast into the desert to take away the people’s sins, painted by William Holman Hunt in 1854.
If one work in the show really probes the Christian idea of sin, it is the haunting, near-monochrome rendering by Pieter Brueghel of Christ forgiving an adulteress (pictured). A kneeling, venerable Jesus writes Dutch words in the dust while the woman’s would-be stoners watch in bewilderment.
The modern items include a neon sign with the words “It was just a kiss” by Tracey Emin, and an equally laconic proclamation by Andy Warhol—”Repent and Sin No More”—which recalls the words of Christ to the adulteress. The starkest modern image is a sculpture by Ron Mueck of a man who is gazing at his stab wound. In the words of Joost Joustra, the curator, the image’s “ambiguity is meaningful and holds many possible answers. Is he another Christ or perhaps another scapegoat…left to die far away in a metaphorical desert?”
In the show and catalogue, Mr Joustra tries honestly to ask whether the traditional concept of sin makes sense for secular modernity. A fair question, given that these days the word is mostly used sarcastically. In advertising copy, for example, it can denote any pleasure, from the erotic to the culinary, which killjoys dislike. Yet Mr Joustra insists that sin in the old sense does retain meaning. We still do things we regret, and as Ms Emin’s scribbled sign suggests, we “confess” these errors, but usually to friends not priests.
Unfortunately his catalogue’s ambitious rendering of Christian history has gaps. He describes Catholic and Protestant teachings, broadly rooted in Augustine’s concept of original sin in which guilt is inherited from Adam. But he fails to mention that hundreds of millions of Christians, from the Copts to the Orthodox to many Baptists, belong to groups that regard that doctrine as misleading. In other words, they reject Augustine’s suggestion that we inherit guilt genetically from the sinful pair in the Garden of Eden. So they see classic Catholic and Protestant teaching not as opposites but as variations on a flawed theme.
That lacuna affects Mr Joustra’s exegesis. For example, his show presents a depiction by Velázquez of the Virgin Mary, painted around 1618 to defend the doctrine that she was conceived without sin. (Traditional Christian, and indeed Islamic, teaching holds that Mary was a virgin when she bore Jesus; a separate question is how Mary herself came into being.)
As Mr Joustra notes, the Marian doctrine that Velázquez proclaimed was an edgy one, only formalised in Catholic theology in the 19th century. It would have been helpful to add that for critics, the Immaculate Conception of Mary is a dogmatic answer to a non-problem. Only if you see every act of insemination as a transmission of the guilt of Adam do you start fretting over how the all-pure Mary can have been conceived.
But most visitors will happily ignore those fine theological points. They will simply drink in the masterly strokes of Velázquez as he renders a demure downward-gazing Mary, with her robes billowing against a cloud-covered moon.
“Sin” is at the National Gallery, London, from October 7th 2020 until January 3rd 2021
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