Meeting the risen Jesus at the National Gallery: Michelangelo and Sebastiano

For some time now I have been thinking that imagination is a much under-rated faculty for prayer. There is a suspicion of imagination as if what has to be imagined is somehow fictional. Yet memory is not far removed from imagination. When we remember something, we are imagining it, picturing it. Perhaps a better word would be visualisation? If we visualise something we make it present, real to ourselves. When we are on the phone to someone we visualise/imagine them. When we visit a cemetery we remember/imagine the dead who are gone from us. Why not also imagine / visualise / remember Jesus? Jesus who called on us to remember him in bread and wine. Perhaps the difficulty of transubstantiation is just a failure of imagination?

I think of myself as quite a visual sort of person. I like to create a space that is pleasant to work or live in, both in my immediate environment and wider.  Visual images are important for me in worship. So it is always good to have my imaginative range extended. Like many Christians, I have walked the Stations / the Way of the Cross and imagined Jesus at those points in his life: as he prayed in mental torment in the garden, as he is betrayed, whipped, crowned with thorns, carries the cross and so on. The Christian world is full of artistic creations portraying these terrible moments of suffering. But then we get to the most important part of the story and our minds go blank. What do we do to imagine the resurrection? What is the risen Jesus like?

If I’m honest I don’t think I have given this much thought. I tend to imagine Jesus as the teacher, the friend, the one whose company is easy. If I want to imagine him in glory it is the transfiguration that I turn to and the iconographic representations of it.

So I am thrilled this Monday in Eastertime to have had something of a revelation. Squeezing in an hour between meetings in London and managing to get a ticket to the Michelangelo and Sebastiano exhibition at the National Gallery was an hour I will savour for a long time. An extension of my imaginative range.

Just six rooms, the exhibition pairs the work of Michelangelo with that of his slightly younger friend Sebastiano. It does the latter no favours. Michelangelo’s work sings, Sebastiano’s only flatters his friend. Having seen this exhibition there is no reason to doubt Michelangelo’s fame in comparison to those around him.

I thoroughly recommend the audio guide. An hour was (just about) long enough to listen to each of the commentaries on particular pieces and some of the more detailed accounts.

Perhaps the real triumph of the curation is the use made of the sketches, their lightness and fragility liberating the solidity of sculpture and paintings. The incompleteness of many of the items, unfinished for a variety of reasons also add to this translucent quality, a sense of looking through or beyond the thing, and, particularly with the sculptures, of the image emerging, bursting from the stone.

The first room contains the marvellous ‘Taddei Tondo’, a roundel of the Virgin with Child with John the Baptist. What is startling is the muscularity and movement, and this continued for me to be the theme of the exhibition. These are fluid portrayals of active people; human beings acting and reacting. In this first major piece, the child Jesus is reacting with repulsion, pulling himself away from the Goldfinch that the Baptist holds, sign of the Passion, and pushing himself into the bosom of his mother. It makes Jesus intensely human and likeable.

The next most interesting piece for me was Michelangelo’s Pieta, or at least, the cast of it. I have seen the original in St Peter’s Basilica, but there the plinth on which it sits is too high for close examination. Here, you can almost walk around it. The detail is – I want to say – impossible. How could stone be made to flow like fabric or show expressions like flesh?

It was something I hadn’t noticed before, but is pointed out in the audio commentary that really struck me. The youthfulness of Mary. The Virgin is surely little more than a teenager or young woman. She has all the tenderness and fragility of the Virgin with Child, but she carries the dead body of her adult son. With the corpse in her arms, it is she who portrays a sense of strength and virility; holding the muscular and doubtless weighty cadaver. It is she who radiates life and intense passion, focussed on the subject in her arms. It feels like the weight of the body will make it slide to the ground, but she holds on and will not let go. She is not repulsed by death but energised by love.

The final (before the Risen Jesus), pieces I want to draw attention to are the two versions

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of the face of St Francis of Assisi. In the penultimate room, the Borgherini Chapel is re-created. In a side panel, facing St Peter, is Francis. But his face must be seen together with the chalk and ink sketch made, presumably in preparation for the painting. In the painting Francis appears severe and gloomy, almost unapproachable, his reading a leather bound, clasped book does not make him any more approachable. But the sketch comes alive. A half-smile plays across his lips, it could almost be the Mona Lisa. Is he really smiling? It’s hard to tell. But this is an infinitely approachable face; wise, gentle and playful.

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The playfulness of this face leads straight to the room that, for me, was a revelation. The Risen Christ. Two sculptures dominate the space, Christ as the perfect Greek man, naked, muscular and bearded. Each figure grasps a cross, too small for them to have been crucified on, and one with the pole and vinegared sponge, held against the cross. But the life in these statues is as nothing compared to the life in the sketches on the walls. Here the figure of the Risen Christ swirls and dances, twisting with energy, reminding me of Matisse’s dancing figures. But unlike them lonely, alone, isolated, bringing something like sadness into the dance.

Once the sketches have been seen the statues make sense. They capture a moment in the

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dance, the weight is off one foot, ready to turn, charged with energy.

There is something even more delicious in the first of these sculptures. Something that speaks profoundly of a theology of risen life in brokenness. The first sculpture was abandoned by Michelangelo after he discovered a thin seam of black in the white marble, that streaks across Christ’s face, down the side of his nose and through the beard. The sculpture was finished only later by a less talented artist. The hand and arm by Michelangelo pulsate with life, the hand and arm by the lesser artist look dead and pallid in contrast. This, surely, the crack in perfection, the resurrection of an abandoned piece of stone, the imperfection and brokenness of the Risen One, speaks to any of us hoping against hope.

There is, of course so much more in this exhibition. Unusually, I even bought the catalogue (‘book of the exhibition’). If you are in London and get time before the 25th June, even just an hour, it will be an hour well spent.

In the music I use for the Divine Office, the Benedictus antiphon for Eastertime, (from the monastery at Crawley Down) is especially beautiful with a dance-like melody based on Orthodox chants for the season. I now have a visual image to match the dance of that music. An image of the dancing, risen Christ, scarred and imperfect, wounded and the work of many hands, but Risen and dancing the Risen life. A Lord of the Dance not just for Good Friday, but for Easter day. My imagination will run run riot.

Chant

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2 Comments

  1. “Yet memory is not far removed from imagination. When we remember something, we are imagining it, picturing it. Perhaps a better word would be visualisation? If we visualise something we make it present, real to ourselves.”

    One problem is that “imagination” has two quite distinct, even contradictory, meanings (though one can see how they are related to each other).

    One is simply “visualisation” (as you observe), where the object is either real – or based on reality (“Imagine a horse with six legs”).

    The other is to refer to the inventive faculty. “She is a very imaginative child” (which clearly doesn’t mean “She is good at visualising things”). Imagination in this sense is both powerful, and potentially very valuable (without it new scientific discoveries or artistic achievement would be much rarer), but like many powerful things it is also potentially dangerous as leading us into a morass of unreality.

    I think it’s the risk that imagination in the former sense may lead into the latter (and thence into unreality) that accounts for the Eastern Orthodox suspicion of the Western tradition of “meditation” (e.g. meditation on the Stations of the Cross as you mention, or the Mysteries of the Rosary) as the route into “contemplation”, and prefers a more concrete route (e.g. the Jesus Prayer, attention to the breath).

    Incidentally, isn’t it odd that in English the term meditation is used in a Buddhist context (and secular “mindfulness” derived from it), but what is referred to seems (unless I have misunderstood either mindfulness, or what mystical theology means by “meditation”) to be much closer to contemplation than to “meditation” in the Christian sense.

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    1. Dafydd, thank you for this, an important point which I will put my mind to. References to criticism of Western meditation techniques would be welcome.
      On the last point yes, ‘meditation’ for what Buddhists do is an interesting use, I wonder when it developed? Perhaps in the 19th C when ‘contemplation’ in Christian terms had been almost overtaken by meditation – the opposite problem to now in my view!

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