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Camouflage Cranach

Comparative Commentary
Commentary by
Matthew Milliner

The third chapter of Romans is less another contribution to a human culture that imagines its own steady advance than an attempt to bring the entire project to a halt.

A potent barrage of scriptural citations is unloaded on Jew and Gentile alike (Romans 3:9–19). Objectors who think they might have kept God’s exacting standards are immediately shushed, and shown to be forgetful of the law’s purpose (Romans 3:20). To speak in terms of the British Museum’s Law and Gospel woodcut by Lucas Cranach the Elder, only when the heat of this message is experienced, does the unexpected ‘chest-splash’ of relief arrive (Romans 3:23–24).

Protests that Paul’s Romans 3 broadside is inapplicable to modern people stop short of a deep investigation of the human condition. Sociologist Alain Ehrenberg (2010) identifies a recent shift from the axis of the permissible (‘should I do it?’) to the axis of the possible (‘can it be done?’), in which the failure to show ourselves both competent and efficient results less in neurosis than depression. This predicament is equally susceptible to Paul’s diagnosis, for the message of grace over works affords a stop button on the treadmill (frequently literal, for fitness-obsessed moderns) of generating our own self-worth.

Like a good sermon, the Hagia Sophia Deësis mosaic, without losing Cranach’s dichotomy between law (Christ’s left, our right) and gospel (Christ’s right, our left), personally draws the believer into the field of Christ’s just and loving gaze. The two images, Cranach’s Law and Gospel and the Byzantine Deësis, work in tandem in bringing Romans 3, which is both universal and personal at once, to the eyes. This comparison affords a visual corollary to the Finnish interpretation of Luther that has identified compatibilities with Eastern Orthodox theology (Braaten and Jenson 1998), even while it subverts Cranach’s own polemical consignment of the Deësis to the left side of the British Museum panel to signify merely law.

But the law and gospel message of Romans 3 can be read not only backward, but forward in time. Annoyed by those who call the Tate Modern a secular cathedral, Andrew Marr demurs: ‘We should be nervous of the simile between art and religion. … Art may “ask questions”, console and delight, but it rarely presumes to offer new ways to live’ (Morris 2010, 15–16). But these ‘code[s] by which to live’ which Marr believes constitute religion is precisely what Romans 3 attempts to terminate, replacing law with liberty and grace.

As if to highlight the very point, Martin Creed’s Work No. 232, ‘the whole world + the work = the whole world’, is an inescapable proclamation that greets elevator-ascending viewers on level 4 of Tate Modern, London. Beneath the neon words, gallery seating urges visitors to contemplate, perhaps, the transience of the cultural accomplishments that fleetingly occupy the massive turbine hall. Work No. 232 may even remind some viewers of the olive branch extended to Protestant understandings of grace in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, where St Thérèse of Lisieux (1873–97) remarks, ‘In the evening of this life, I shall appear before you with empty hands, for I do not ask you, Lord, to count my works’ (CCC, 542).

If this message is absorbed, Tate visitors are invited to cross the nearby bridge to the same museum’s Blavatnik building. Ascending to the tenth-floor viewing room, another of Creed’s neon messages awaits above the elevator: ‘EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT’. Referring to this more positive work, Creed remarks: ‘To me it’s optimistic. But to me it also contains the negative, the opposite’ (Martin Creed 2006). Or as Luther put it, ‘You know that God has sent two kinds of preaching into the world, one of the Law, the other of the Gospel. One must have them both…’ (Pelikan and Lehmann 1955, vol. 58: 199, 200).

Creed leaves interpretation of his work militantly open-ended, but if his message is received as consolation, then visitors can return to the art of the galleries below, experiencing them apart from idolatrous expectations of art’s ultimate value. In the same way, the believer justified by faith is still expected by Paul to gratefully perform good works, but without investing such accomplishments with saving significance (Romans 3:31), for salvation belongs to God alone.

Tate Modern itself would thereby become the largest Cranach panel yet, as public an encapsulation of the message of Romans 3 as the pediment that illustrates St Paul’s blinding conversion apart from works on the Cathedral across the Thames.

 

References

Braaten, Carl E., and Robert W. Jenson (eds.). 1998. Union with Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans)

Catechism of the Catholic Church. 2003. (New York: Doubleday)

Ehrenberg, Alain. 2010. The Weariness of the Self: Diagnosing the History of Depression in the Contemporary Age (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press)

Morris, Frances. 2010. Tate Modern: The Handbook (London: Tate Publishing)

Pelikan, Jaroslav, and Helmut T. Lehmann (eds.). 1955–1986. Luther’s Works, 56 vols (St Louis: Concordia)

TheEYE: Martin Creed. 2006. (Illuminations media)