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'Jackson Pollock in 1950' by Hans Namuth
Dance (Dance II) by Henri Matisse
Wall of Light Sky by Sean Scully

Hans Namuth

'Jackson Pollock in 1950', 1950, Gelatin-silver print, 20.3 x 20.3 cm, Associated with 'Jackson Pollock', 19 Dec 1956–3 Feb 1957, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Courtesy Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona © 1991 Hans Namuth Estate

Henri Matisse

Dance (Dance II), 1909–10, Oil on canvas, 260 x 391 cm, The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg; Entered the Hermitage in 1948, originally in the Sergei Shchukin collection, ГЭ-9673, Photo courtesy of the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Sean Scully

Wall of Light Sky, 2000, Oil on linen, 243.8 x 365.8 cm, Dublin City Gallery; Presented by Patrick and Margaret McKillen, 2005, Reg. 1992, © Sean Scully

Dancing to Glory

Comparative Commentary by
Read by Ben Quash

This remarkable chapter, Jesus’s final message to his disciples as a group, gathered together for the Last Supper, is the culmination of John’s record of Jesus’s gradual revealing of his identity as it develops through his Gospel. The Gospel’s magisterial first chapter begins with its climactic ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us … we have beheld his glory’ (John 1:14), and is succeeded, episode by episode, by the long sequence of signs, deeds, and teachings through which Jesus gradually reveals his true glory to the disciples. Slowly they, the disciples, and we the reader, realize that this human, embodied person, Jesus, is the Son of God the Father.

And now, in John 17, the evening before his passion and death, Jesus extrapolates forward to the ultimate revelation of his glory that will become evident in his cross and resurrection, and he prays that all those who have grasped (or perhaps, better, been grasped by) his kinship with the Father may have the same relationship with each other as he has with the Father, a relationship of mutual love. Thus at the culmination of the Fourth Gospel, John reveals not only how the glory of God is mediated through the flesh of the Son, but also calls for the disciples (and thus all Christians) to manifest the same relationship of love for each other as Jesus has with the Father.

And even when Jesus has returned to the Father, there will not be an absence between him and the disciples, for the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, who has been celebrated in the previous chapter (John 16:7; cf. John 14:16), will be with them, reminding them of Jesus’s presence, encouraging them to glorify the Father through the Son in worship (doxology—literally ‘giving glory’).

For Christians today, how is this relationship between Jesus and the Father as expressed by the Spirit best communicated? Given the emphasis in the Fourth Gospel on seeing (as opposed to blindness), and on glory, which is often expressed using visual imagery, the visual arts are potentially a valuable and valid means of communicating the glory of God.

For example, in the work of Jackson Pollock, we see a profound analogy for the relationship between Father and Son in an artist so totally identified with his artwork that the artwork is the artist; the artist’s vulnerable inner self, scarred yet beautiful, is awesomely manifest in the artwork. This is, perhaps, mainly because his ‘paintings’ are as much action as they are object. An object is inevitably distinct from its creator, whereas an action implicates the enfleshed being of the person who performs it. Jesus’s life perfectly expresses the glory of the Father.

Henri Matisse’s Dance takes up this sense of movement necessary to any potentially great work of religious art. His dancers invite us (like John Bunyan’s pilgrim) to shed the burden of sin and shame, to enter the paradise of open-hearted relationship characteristic of the profound unity for which Jesus prayed on behalf of all who behold his glory, and to dance out in joyful, generous, and carefree expression their mutual love. They invite us to join the round-dance of the redeemed to which all are invited by the Spirit.

Sean Scully’s triptych is also a dance, albeit in a different mode. The complex inter-relationship of the three differentiated panels creates a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. The dance of the complex elements of the triptych presents a unity in diversity—just as Jesus prayed that the always-fissiparous fellowship of diverse believers that is the church might be united in worship of the glory of God revealed in the flesh of his Son to which they are invited by the call of the Spirit.

Scully’s triptych is a modern day analogue of Andrey Rublyov’s great icon of the hospitality of Abraham (Genesis 18). An icon is not only an object but also a gaze—an icon initiates a relationship with the viewer. A triptych inevitably presents a subtle hierarchy (the central panel is unconsciously read as prominent) but a good artist can use this to create a dynamic relationship between the three panels, so that the eye constantly moves across the work, following the ‘dance’ of the panels. Scully’s work here invitingly mirrors the complex prayer of those who together have glimpsed Jesus’s enfleshed presence as the final revelation of the divine glory of the Father and who respond to the invitation of the Spirit, caught up in ever-changing contemplation of the mystery of God, and the desire to express that mystery in worship and in mutual love.