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Songs of Experienced Innocence

Comparative Commentary
Commentary by
Jacob Phillips

The Book of Psalms has accompanied people in prayer for centuries, forming the basis of regular patterns of prayer and worship. It has been argued that the full sweep of human experience in faith is somehow caught up in its 150 poetic songs (Brueggemann 2002: 8–10). The book as a whole can be approached as starting out with straightforward living in faith (Psalm 1), then entering into the experience of deep challenges to this faith, before finally (Psalm 150) ascending into a cacophony of praise (Brueggemann 2002: 12). These are not just songs of innocence and experience, but also songs of innocence regained, or better, songs of an experienced innocence.

Psalm 88 is the very nadir of this exitus and reditus; this departure and return. It does not in any way resolve its lament with promise or hope. It ends like an echoing question searching for an answer, which rebounds around the walls of a cavernous tomb. It is associated with the entombed Christ in the abyss between death and resurrection. In many Christian traditions, it is prayed at night prayer on Fridays, marking the darkness of nightfall after the crucifixion, before the dawn of the resurrection has begun to colour the horizon.

The human moments to which this Psalm speaks are of course moments of sorrow and loss. But by ending without comfort, its lament offers what might be termed a ‘finality of non-resolution’ (Janz 2004: 21–22), capturing the sheer incomprehensibility of some human sorrows. The Psalm thereby unearths something of human encounters with the God who is intrinsically beyond human understanding, the God who can act in a sovereign freedom which is not accountable to any creaturely demands for justification whatsoever.

In this exhibition, three intersecting moments of a peculiarly confounding sorrow are portrayed: individual/personal (Lucas Cranach the Younger), civilisational/historical (Karl Schmidt-Rottluff), and architectonic/cosmic (Roger Hiorns). Taking these images together, the manifold ways in which Scripture discloses itself as authoritative and meaningful in contexts vastly different from the world in which it was written can be glimpsed.  

To read the Psalms, rather than pray them, may be like viewing Cranach the Younger’s painting as an art object, rather than devotionally engaging with it. Cranach sets up a divine-human encounter in the form of a very difficult dialogue (indeed, a ‘dialogue’ which has only one speaker whose petitions seem to go unanswered). The fact that the psalmist continues to lament in the face of such desolation might be interpreted as a refusal to accept that there is not some other horizon out there somewhere, even if such a possibility is utterly impossible to envisage at that moment. There is no glimmer of resurrected glory, yet Cranach’s Christ is not only, or straightforwardly, dead.

Schmidt-Rottluff sets up a relationship between viewer and object which is very different, but communicates the same sense of confounding sorrow. Here, Christ resembles a wooden sculpture, quite literally, but his halo emits dramatic rays of light. The image contains both promise (allusions to traditional iconography) and that promise’s brutal contradiction. The date ‘1918’ speaks of the ‘finality’ of death, whose weight the Great War visited emphatically on the world’s consciousness, and yet frames it in the ‘non-resolutional’ context of a once-given promise that might yet still hold.

Hiorns’s sculpture shows how the world of art, like the world of Scripture, can provide meaning in contexts vastly different from their original ones. By its acknowledgement of how history dismantles the fixed edifices of earlier times, his work provokes reflection on the task of interpreting Scripture in a world from which Scripture is exiled. In Gothic cathedrals, images of salvation history were intricately wedded with a cosmic vision of geometric harmony. But the universe is far bigger, older, and more volatile than the Gothic architects could have imagined, and even once-mighty cathedrals might now seem dated and even insignificant attempts to harness the power of nature and to buttress human audacity, rather than offerings to the greater glory of God. Hiorns’s work suggests another grim finality—the decay of meaning as of materials. But even this finality remains unresolved as long as the horizon of the scriptural text can somehow brought to bear upon it—a task for which Psalm 88 seems uniquely equipped.

The strange tension of the Psalm may be perceived in all three of the artworks discussed here: the tension of trying to live in the midst of death, of being unable to forget promises even after they are broken, and of homemaking in exile. In each artwork, songs of innocence can no longer be sung, but neither can they be extinguished completely by the deafening song of experience.

 

References

Brueggemann, Walter. 2002. The Spirituality of the Psalms (Minneapolis: Fortress Press)

Janz, Paul. 2004. God the Mind’s Desire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)