John 10:22–42 is one of the texts that early Christian theologians regarded as central when trying to understand how Christ related to the one God of Israel. This and other passages, including those elaborating on the role of the Holy Spirit (Mathew 28:18–20; John 3:5–6; 14:26), contributed to the emerging dogma of the Trinity in the fourth century. It is a doctrine that has occupied not only theologians but also artists ever since.
If the challenge of how to think about God as both one and three posed immense problems to theological reasoning, how much more difficult would this prove to be for artists, most of whom did not have the same theological training, faced with trying to image the mystery in painting and sculpture.
The three works in this exhibition span over four hundred years and three countries. One was completed in England in the epoch of the Renaissance and the Reformation. Another was executed as a Christian teaching-aid in mid-eighteenth-century Peru in just the period when—thousands of miles away in the ‘old world’ of post-Enlightenment Europe—the new critique of religion was making itself felt. The final image under discussion was completed in 1900 when what is now usually referred to as modern art was first establishing itself through the developments of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. It displays a more personal–subjective relation to its theme.
It has frequently been remarked that the nineteenth century was a time in which religious subjects were relegated to the margins of art. It was the age of Karl Marx, Ludwig Feuerbach, and Sigmund Freud, a time in which most leading artists manifested progressively less interest in Christian themes—despite notable exceptions such as the Pre-Raphaelites, the ‘Nazarenes’, and the Symbolists. Much religious art was now made by second- or third-rate artists who lacked imagination and the artistic brilliance required to create outstanding works of art with religious subject matter.
The eighteenth-century painting from Cuzco may help us to understand some of the reasons for this decline. With its strong didactic emphasis this, and other such works of the time, lack subtlety and spiritual depth.
The manuscript illumination from c.1510 and Edvard Munch’s work from 1900, on the other hand, convey something of divine mystery, artistic–theological imagination and feeling. The Book of Hours, an aid to devotional prayer, reveals the Trinity as embracing the whole universe by analogy with the way that the sun, a pre-Christian and Christian symbol of the divine, pervades all being with the divine light. Yet, at the same time this Trinity conveys the sense of divine transcendence and mystery in being mostly hidden by the superimposed sun. One might speculate that the image was painted by an imaginative illuminator—or commissioned by an imaginative patron—who was not afraid to be inventive, possibly even original, in trying simultaneously to capture both the inner relations of the Trinity as perichoretic (or mutually coinherent) and the ‘economic’ dimensions of the Trinity’s relation with creation.
The Cuzco work aimed to teach the Christian faith; the Book of Hours—made for Thomas Butler, 7th earl of Ormond (d. 1515) or possibly for another member of his family—was intended for personal meditation. Munch, four hundred years later—in an increasingly post-theocentric age, and having rejected his morbid pietist Lutheran upbringing—operates in a rather changed context. His work, unlike the other two, is not intended to be used for religiously-didactic or explicitly devotional purposes. Without the external stimulus of a commission (from the Church or a wealthy Christian patron), Munch painted Golgotha on his own initiative, and from personal desire. The fact that he chose the archetypal Christian iconography of the Crucifixion and presented himself as the Christ figure makes evident that despite his rejection of the stifling pietism he had experienced as a youth, he had apparently not lost his faith. On 8 June 1934 he wrote in his notebook: ‘I bow down before something which, if you want, one might call God—the teaching of Christ seems to me the finest there is, and Christ himself is very close to Godlike—if one can use that expression’ (Bøe 1989: 29).
In its very personal rendition of the Crucifixion the work may be interpreted as a personal statement of belief, independent of the church. Yet with its subtle hinting at the relations within the Godhead, it acknowledges, as John 10:22–44 does, something of the Christological–Trinitarian faith of Christianity.
Anderson, Jonathan A., and William A. Dyrness. 2016. Modern Art and the Life of a Culture: The Religious Impulses of Modernism (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press)
Bøe, Alf. 1989. Edvard Munch (Barcelona: Ediciones Polígrafa)