Sunday, April 08, 2007

Seeing Salvation: The Image of Christ

CARAVAGGIO (b. 1571, Caravaggio, d. 1610, Porto Ercole)
Supper at Emmaus
Oil on canvas, 139 x 195 cm
National Gallery, London

Seven years ago, The National Gallery in London put on an exhibition to commemorate the Millenium: Seeing Salvation: The Image of Christ.

It was the most visited art show in Britain that year, and the fourth most popular in the world. It beat heavily hyped contemporary shows such as the Turner Prize exhibition featuring Emin's soiled bed at the Tate; Apocalypse, the follow-up to Sensation at the Royal Academy, or the first exhibition at the new Tate Modern gallery.

Neil MacGregor, then National Gallery director, said that he had been astonished. Seeing Salvation boasted paintings of Christ through the ages by Mantegna, Titian, Bellini, Dali , Kathe Kollwitz, Stanley Spencer and Otto Dix and was the only major cultural extravaganza in Millennium year in Britain to focus on celebrating Christianity.

Unveiled just after Tate Modern opened, the exhibition even had difficulty finding a sponsor.

MacGregor attempted an explanation of why such an exhibition was relevant to modern times:

He described how the Protestant reformers, suspicious of the image, insisted on the word alone, whereas the Catholic tradition with its rich sacramental understanding had always defended representation.

'Theological concepts must be given human dimension and if only words can tackle abstract mysteries, paintings are uniquely able to address the universal questions through the intelligence of the heart'

There is a recognition that we come to understand not simply through rational thinking but also through a felt intelligence, that of the heart. Artistic images of theological ideas or scriptural stories perhaps should not be seen merely as illustrations, but as another way of ' seeing'.