Sunday, June 06, 2010

Of the Cross: Delacroix

Eugène Delacroix 1798 -1863
Christ on the Cross (detail) 1853
Oil on canvas
73,5 x 59,7cm
The National Gallery, London

On his Apostolic Journey to Cyprus, Pope Benedict XVI gave a homily at the  Latin parish church of the Holy Cross in Nicosia on Saturday, 5 June 2010.

The theme was the redemptive power of the Cross.

Here is part of the talk:

"The Cross, then, is something far greater and more mysterious than it at first appears. It is indeed an instrument of torture, suffering and defeat, but at the same time it expresses the complete transformation, the definitive reversal of these evils: that is what makes it the most eloquent symbol of hope that the world has ever seen.

It speaks to all who suffer – the oppressed, the sick, the poor, the outcast, the victims of violence – and it offers them hope that God can transform their suffering into joy, their isolation into communion, their death into life. It offers unlimited hope to our fallen world.

That is why the world needs the Cross.

The Cross is not just a private symbol of devotion, it is not just a badge of membership of a certain group within society, and in its deepest meaning it has nothing to do with the imposition of a creed or a philosophy by force.

It speaks of hope, it speaks of love, it speaks of the victory of non-violence over oppression, it speaks of God raising up the lowly, empowering the weak, conquering division, and overcoming hatred with love.

A world without the Cross would be a world without hope, a world in which torture and brutality would go unchecked, the weak would be exploited and greed would have the final word.

Man’s inhumanity to man would be manifested in ever more horrific ways, and there would be no end to the vicious cycle of violence.

Only the Cross puts an end to it.

While no earthly power can save us from the consequences of our sins, and no earthly power can defeat injustice at its source, nevertheless the saving intervention of our loving God has transformed the reality of sin and death into its opposite. That is what we celebrate when we glory in the Cross of our Redeemer.

Rightly does Saint Andrew of Crete describe the Cross as “more noble, more precious than anything on earth […] for in it and through it and for it all the riches of our salvation were stored away and restored to us” (Oratio X; PG 97, 1018-1019). "

Delacroix was not, as far as we know, a practising Christian.

However he did paint a number of New Testament subjects. His work somprises 120 pictures and over 220 drawings depicting traditional subjects, like the Pieta or Christ on the cross. His work initiates the style of modern religious art.

Christ on the Cross was a subject to which he returned more than once.

In 1847 he exhibited a version of Christ on the Cross at the Paris Salon with received great praise. That version is in The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.

Some time after the artist's death, the art critic Ernest Chesneau wrote:

"When one considers the religious subjects that Delacroix has treated in the course of his life of painting, one arrives at an enormous total ... one must conclude that, without being a mystic nor a devout, Delacroix had not only poetry but a religious soul."

Perhaps his name - translated literally as "Of the Cross" - had some significance to his paintings of "Christ on the Cross" and that these religious paintings were more than exercises in copying Rubens as some have suggested.

The critic Michael Brenson summed up Delacroix well when he wrote:

"Delacroix came out of the academic tradition. He shared with neoclassicism a belief in the classical unities of time, place and action, but he took the ideal moment and changed it. In his paintings the moment in which everything reveals itself is inhabited by the passions and blood of women and men.

Whether the subject was Christ, immobile yet glowing on the cross, or a crazed Medea with her terrified children, Delacroix brought religious and mythical subjects down to earth, made the emotions in them ours. This was his realism, and it is as important historically as painting workers, fields and streets.

He achieved his revolution largely through color.

In neoclassical painting, form and composition were outlined and then filled in with color.
Delacroix did the reverse. It was only after he had the color - in other words, only after he had the feeling that would carry and explain his theme - that he turned to contour, which in his most painterly works does not sit on or enclose color but throbs with its energy or charges through it like a current"