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Unknown artist

Apse mosaic of the Transfiguration, 565–66, Mosaic, Saint Catherine's Monastery, Sinai, LatitudeStock / Alamy Stock Photo

Eric Gill

Surrexit Alleluia, 1930, Wood engraving, 125 x 75 mm, Donohue Rare Book Room, Gleeson Library / Geschke Center, University of San Francisco

Albrecht Dürer

Christ in Emmaus, from The Small Passion, c.1510, Woodcut, 127 x 98 mm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Gift of Junius Spencer Morgan, 1919, 19.73.202, www.metmuseum.org

Witnessing the Glory

Comparative Commentary by
Read by Lydia Ayoade

…full of grace and truth…

Although no artist can, like God, make word into flesh, these scenes of glory extend and clarify themselves with lettering in the pictorial design. The words or lettering are unabashedly large and legible in all three compositions.

The Sinai mosaic names all the figures except Christ, and underlines the composition with a bordering inscription identifying the Old Testament precursors whom it depicts.

Albrecht Dürer emblazons his monogram, AD, on the end of a bench in his Emmaus scene as a sign that the print and its multiples were his creation.

Eric Gill’s Christ lifts his arms above a line of inscription that, had it been a solid shape, would have been the transverse bar of a cross, but is instead the word SUR-REXIT—Latin for HE IS RISEN—as a heavenly message interrupted by his triumphant body. From the ground below, rising above the lush plants that hide the feet of Eve and Adam is the earth’s response: ALLELUIA.

Subtle reversals glorify these scenes. The positive peak inside Dürer’s suddenly sacramental drinking glass rises from a deep depression, while the concave Sinai apse de-materializes a mountain peak, and Gill’s Christ, no longer nailed to a tree of death, raises his hands in blessing.

All three scenes express the glory of Christ’s divinity offered to the human gaze through glowing or radiating light, with his figure as the central focus in a carefully balanced evocation of time and place. The central vision in the Sinai apse dissolves all sense of local space, suspending Christ, for a moment, in heaven. The barely visible ground is only a narrow band, darkening to black shadow under Peter below the all-encompassing blaze of light. For the transcendent moment in the ordinary room at Emmaus, Dürer makes the whole supper table shine under Christ like a mountain of revelation. Gill’s stylized tree has sturdily curving limbs and multi-lobed foliage hinting at the strength and endurance of English oak. It stands in undulating, leafy countryside, on a benign earthly hillock that supersedes the drama of the hill of Calvary for the couple who represent every man and woman.

In very different ways, the three scenes honour the human wish to hold on to a vision of glory by constructing a sacred space: the high, curved semi-dome at Sinai; the wide arch, as in a church sanctuary, opening into the Emmaus room; and the special enclosure shaped by the hands of Gill’s couple in front of Jesus. They join their upright, slightly cupped hands to make a miniature sanctuary of the space inside. Above this arched space, their long, extended index fingers cross in a chiasmic pose, a visual embodiment of the X or chi that is the Greek initial for Christ, and at the same time an echo of the X that is the phonetic and visual climax of the word SURREXIT, appearing under Christ’s beneficently lifted arms.

Gill’s complicated personal relationships have yet to be fully examined in relation to the evolution of his strong religious faith, but there is a deep poignancy in his depiction of this unique sanctuary of flesh created by a man and a woman reconciled and forgiven, in timeless devotion.

At Sinai, the Transfiguration comes as the crescendo of a progression of crosses where light enters or would be reflected along the East/West axis, aligned with the mosaic figure of Christ (Maguire 1990): the eight-rayed cross of beams emanating from the transfigured Christ; the identifying cross inside his halo; just above, representing him at the apex of the bordering arch of apostle portraits, a golden cross in blue circles of heaven; above that, on the face of the triumphal arch, in similar blue circles, a sacrificial lamb against the cross; and in a blue medallion darkened for visibility between the window arches, high over the rich décor of a fictive inlaid column, a cross at the very top of the east wall.

Spiritual light shines in all three works of art. Moses and his people found darkness at Sinai, where ‘the law was given through Moses’; but as John (1:17) makes clear, ‘grace and truth came through Jesus Christ’. When the three disciples on the mountain rise from their darkness of sleep, they find the brilliance of Christ’s person. Dürer, by giving his evening Christ at Emmaus a glory of radiance not mentioned in the Gospel story (Luke 24:13–35), projects the travellers’ amazement onto Christ’s risen person. Gill’s glowing outlines bring heaven to earth with emotional intensity. In all three, a radiant Jesus seems to be matching grace and truth with glory, listening to God’s voice or to human concerns with a unique understanding as he ‘dwells among us’.

 

References

Dürer, Albrecht, and R. T. Nichol (trans.). 1965 [full German text 1525]. Of the Just Shaping of Letters (New York: Dover Publications)

Fehl, Philipp P.1992. ‘Dürer’s Literal Presence in his Pictures: Reflections on his Signatures in the “Small woodcut Passion”,’ in Der Künstler über sich in seinem Werk, ed. by Mattias Winner (Wirnheim: VCH, Acta Humaniora), pp. 191–224

Maguire, Eunice Dauterman. 1990. ‘Light Visible and Invisible’, unpublished paper in Timothy Verdon’s extended session, Faith, Vision, and the Visual Arts, College Art Association and Pierpont Morgan Library, New York

Nelson, Robert S. and Kirsten M. Collins (eds). 2006. Holy Image, Hallowed Ground: Icons from Sinai (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum), pp. 16–19

 

 

Next exhibition: John 1:19–31