Yesterday I went to see an exhibition of paintings – mainly Francis Bacon, but, thanks to some sensitive curating, some paintings which influenced him. I cannot get on with Bacon. There is something morally squalid in his paintings – as though, judging the human race by his own view of himself, he liked it not at all. I can get the power in this, but find him too disturbing to be in his company for long. As an Irish Protestant brought up in Catholic Ireland, he was fascinated with the crucifixion, and I have a sense his art came from intense internal pain – so much so that one hesitates to intrude; there is something unwholesome going on. The curator placed opposite Bacon’s ‘crucifixion’, Alonso Cano’s sixteenth century painting, pictured at the head of this post. It was only when my wife joined me that I realised I’d been standing in front of it for half an hour.
Where Dali’s picture looks down from the perspective of Heaven, and where many others capture the three crosses and the sorrow of those at the foot of the Cross of Christ, this one captures the cosmic loneliness of that sacrifice – ‘it is finished’. The spirit has gone – for now – the body is displayed there, on the Cross – which is what, I think, inspired Bacon, who saw the human body as though it were meat on display. But Cano’s Catholic sensibility transports us to the meaning of the sacrifice, rather than simply to the body on the Cross – even though the full-sized picture foregrounds the suffering Christ. We are, I think, just after the words recorded by Mark:
“And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Eloì, Eloì, lamà sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’”(Mark 15:34).
The suffering has passed at this point – death has taken him – he has, as we believe, descended into hell. We are at the still, turning point of history. Painters and film-makers have focussed, as the Stations of the Cross focus – on the sufferings of the crucified Lord; but here he is beyond them: the suffering is over – for him. Those who will take him down are still on their Calvary, and we are a good deal of time – a world – away from the events of that first Easter Sunday. He is dead. The world pauses. We – mankind – have killed the King of Glory. He who created the heavens and the earth is there, poised between them on the Cross. This is the price of obedience; this is the service of love.
Standing and staring it came to me that at that point the universe paused – faith pauses, perhaps even, for a moment, echoing the words of Psalmist which Christ had just spoken. It is the point where faith alone sustains us. There is not even the thought that the mission seems to have ended in failure – every thought is focussed on that dominating figure, shining out of the darkness. Cano takes us to the quietness of that moment – if faith is wrong, everything is wrong, and we are crucified in the darkness of an uncaring universe – we are effectively the human meat in a Bacon painting, and there is no hope nor joy nor help for pain. But in Cano’s portrayal, there is the sense that all will be well. Christ has gone before us, hell will be emptied, and on the third day he will rise again – the first fruits of the redemption; and we shall rise with him – if we can but die with him and in him.