A few weeks ago I attended an exhibition entitled ‘The Sacred made Real’ at the National Gallery in London. The collection was focussed on Spanish hyper-realism (painting and sculpture) between 1600-1700. Some of the more famous artists included in this collection were: Velazquez, Zurburan and de Mena. The intent of these artists was to provide life-like depictions of the suffering of Christ in order to invoke feelings of sympathy and awe in the observers. These artists wanted to create a form of spiritual devotion through the simulated presence of the Passion. I was surprised at my own response.
Having served my mission in Ireland, I am familiar with the Catholic iconography that is present in many of their Churches. Having been raised Mormon I am familiar with the critical attitude toward these types of statues and paintings; and yet as I surveyed these works of art, some of them had a real impact upon me. Statues of the lacerated Jesus or of the dying Jesus or the crucified Jesus forced me to hold back tears for fear of embarrassment. Even a bust of the Virgin Mary moved me deeply. I sensed that it is a real loss to Mormon culture that we do not readily engage with these products of devotion.
Much of the LDS art that I have seen of Jesus seems banal and insipid. We see a calm, collected and/or kind Jesus; and yet he is rarely depicted in any of the extremes of suffering or joy that was surely part of the humanity of his life. I am aware of exceptions; but even these pail in insignificance to what these Spanish artists created. I believe that Jesus was, at times calm, collected and kind; but I also believe he experienced the full range of human emotions (good and bad). I believe his model for living was abundance.
More confusing to me is that the LDS ‘Lamb of God’ video is different. It makes an explicit attempt to evoke this type of passionate response in the audience by alluding to the vicious suffering of Jesus. Why is it that film is more acceptable as a means of presenting this kind of devotional material? Is this merely a cultural distinction, an anti-catholic hangover from Nineteenth century America, and if so is it not about time that we extend Priesthood legitimacy to all worthy forms of Art.
Perhaps Eugene England was right when he said that Mormons do not experience the ‘tragic’ as frequently as others because of the success of our religion, but I doubt it.
Yet this raises another question, why do we need to use these different media to help us connected with Jesus and his suffering. Are we more able to sense the visceral reality of his wounds if they are shown to us? Can we more easily believe in the atonement if we can see the suffering of Christ? If this is so, would not these type of ‘passion’ iconography be a useful medium to help latter-day Saints explore their relationship to our Lord?
Perhaps Mormons need to more fully explore the spiritual artistic heritages that are rooted in other faiths as well as trying to promote our own. I certainly feel that my faith has been enriched by some of what our extended Christian heritage has produced.