Thursday, 31 May 2012

The image of Christ

© Godric Godricson
I’ve been very busy recently in relation to this blog and I’ve had the opportunity to visit a lot of beautiful Churches in Norfolk. The sites are invariably ancient and replete with sculpture. In fact, many Churches are often little more than funerary parks full of genealogy and history on the walls and set in to the floors. The image of Christ repeated in artefacts and wall paintings has become an object of fascination. It becomes quite clear that medieval man and more recent ancestors saw something of comfort in the image of a crucified Christ that is often depressing by contemporary standards.

The image of Christ on the cross is enormously powerful and something that is well understood in the West. However  gruesome the idea of crucifixion is to modern man the image is fixed in our consciousness and in Latin art. We have seen in an earlier posting how the Orthodox have dealt with the  matter of blood and death whilst in the West we are a little too literal and fixated on blood and gore.

Resurrection theology is intended to counter the effect of an all too evident and prevalent human death. The image of Christ on the cross is intended to be powerful enough to give strength,  encouragement and hopein the face of the negative effect of death.  Death and burial separates a person from their body which is taken away to a separate place and left to decompose in either the vault or in the soil. This separation from friends and family is personally and intellectually painful and despite the occasional burial of the body within the domestic setting we find that humanity has usually felt the need to serapate the living and the dead.

© Godric Godricson

Death  geographically separates us from our loved ones in a very real way although the monuments often say “loving wife” or something about a wonderful husband. Inevitably, though the death of a loved one always says something about physical and emotional separation from the old world and an entry into the great (other) world beyond. The image of Christ is a sort of talisman and the cross is a sort of ticket that mystically admits humanity onto the other side and into the Kingdom of Heaven. Serene and with all pain erased from the image, the crucified Christ is no longer Jesus the man. Instead, the serene image is divine rather than human. Paul often indicates the next world is the best world and earlier postings indicate how this can be a problem. Death also points to the futility of life and Christ is said to give meaning to life. The calm, cool and untouchable Christ hangs there for all eternity robbed of humanity as he waits for the souls of the departed. Death that brings an end to human fellowship is to be endured and even embraced as we are encouraged to transit from this world to the next. Christian imagery all to often tries to apologise for the harshness of this age and facilitate a move to the other side.

The image of Christ hangs there as a hope and as an expectation for the future. The emaciated and torn flesh that sometimes reflects human existence has become somehow sublime and unattainable. The separation of humanity from God is ‘threatened’ if we move away from the image. Death becomes very real if we move aside from Christ and for medieval man, the presence of the Cross became a totemic image that would make a falseness out of death.

I am always impressed by the way in which the image of Christ in a symbol of victory over death and the decay of the body "Death is swallowed up in victory. "O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?" The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Cor. -57). The image of Christ is intended to reassure humanity that the separation caused by death is not permanent for believers in Christ. The promise of meeting again is given as a sort of corporate reunion.

© Godric Godricson

The modern world has largely lost religious belief and Christ is no longer the celestial talisman that protects, saves and transforms. The mystical pass to the other world was the cross although  that cross now serves as reassurance to fewer and fewer people. Despite this falling away of Christians in society the Churches continue to hold their power as cultic centres. Churches remain as centres of ancestor worship and as a site for funerary art.

Serving many purposes; the Church is full of power on a number of levels although sometimes the most powerful image is a simple image of Christ in a little parish Church hidden away in Norfolk.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Sir Henry Josias Stracey, Bart (1802-1885)

Norfolk Annals
       A Chronological Record
 of Remarkable Events in the
Nineteeth Century, Vol. 2
"Died, at Rackheath Park, Sir Henry Josias Stracey, Bart.  A prominent member of a well-known county family, Sir Henry for many years occupied a distinguished position.  Born in 1802, he was educated at Eton, and afterwards served for several years in the 1st Dragoons, and on succeeding to the baronetcy, on the death of his father in 1855, he entered with considerable ardour into politics.  Just previously he had been returned without opposition as one of the representatives of East Norfolk on the retirement of Mr. Edmond Wodehouse.  On the dissolution of Parliament in 1857 Major-General Windham, in the flush of the fame he had gained in the Crimea, was brought forward for East Norfolk with Sir E. N. Buxton, and there being divided opinions in the Conservative camp, Mr. Burroughes and Sir Henry Stracey declined to contest the seat.  On the death of Sir E. N. Buxton in June, 1858, Sir Henry was again nominated, and was defeated by the Hon. Wenman Coke.  In the following year he was returned with Sir Edmund Lacon for Yarmouth, defeating Mr. (afterwards Sir E. W.) Watkin and Mr. Young, and sat for that borough until 1865.  In 1868 he stood for Norwich in opposition to Sir W. Russell and Mr. Tillett, and was returned at the head of the poll, but was unseated on petition.  In 1874 he again came forward, in conjunction with Mr. Huddleston, was unsuccessful, and thereafter took no share in polities. 

Sir Henry married, in 1835, Charlotte, only daughter and heiress of Mr. George Denne, of the Paddock, Canterbury.  He served the office of High Sheriff in 1871, and was a Deputy Lieutenant and magistrate for the county of Norfolk".

Sir Henry Josias Stracey, Bart  (1802-1885)

All Saints Church - Rackheath

© Godric Godricson

Martin Shepheard - Lost at sea 1865

© Godric Godricson

Sunday, 27 May 2012

A dark world

The Pentecost programmes  are on TV today and, once more, I began to muse on the world of the dead and the attachment of Christan teaching to a dark and future existence when the sun shines so brightly and creation is wonderful. In their attachment to death Christians wilfully ignore the world of the living.
Albrecht Altdorfer 1515-1516

Christianity is, I am sure, a mystery cult of the dead. We have seen in this blog that the dead came into the Church at the start of the Christian story and if we rewind a little we can see that Christians hid in the catacombs of Rome and celebrated their rituals amongst the filth of the humid tombs of Rome. One can only imagine the stench down in the tunnels as Romans mouldered away in the heat of an Italian summer. Christianity is a cult of the dead and although it is dressed up in the clothes of ‘ever lasting life’, it seems to satisfy a basic human need for security and reassurance that we are on Earth but will sometime be transported into heaven. Death is, for Christians, a major part of their faith. However, the image of the crucifix has always been difficult to look at and even admire.

I'm no art historian although the crucifix is an entirely miserable and depressing artifact and is not the support to faith that it is supposed to be. Instead, we often find the emaciated and very dead looking Christ hanging there on the cross.  I know that there is supposed to be a Resurrection that reanimates the body to new life but that is for another day. My feeling is that Christians had their ideas of death framed by their ideas about Christ and the cross. An image that is so repellent can only have served to twist and torment the minds of medieval humanity as they looked up to the rood cross and saw the image of Christ hanging there and appearing very dead. Not only dead. Instead, Christ has been horribly tortured and forced to endure the indignities of Roman torment. Christ has been abused and stripped of his clothes, his dignity and later his life would be taken. Inhumanity is nothing that we need to be told about. Life is full of death and suffering and the medieval experience would have been witness to starvation and hunger without reference to religion. The starving and emaciated flesh of the living and the stench of the wounds that wouldn’t heal would always be with the medieval mind. So, why would they wish to be assailed by the Crucifixion to remind them even further of the death of another man?

Christ Pantocrator
In religious circles the image of Christ has been called an outpouring of  “torture porn" where we are assailed again and again by images of the pain and suffering inflicted on Christ. I am sure that Jesus existed and I am sure that he was tortured and I am sure that he died although I am unsure of what is to be gained from dwelling on the bestial treatment of a young Jew from Galilee. Yes, he was mistreated by the legal system of the time and we would say that his civil rights were abused. Yes, he was tortured and he was murdered by the Authorities all of which can and does happen today. Jesus or Christ as he became died a horrible death and very much he suffered a visible and public death. It is also true that his death is paraded to medieval humanity again and again in a cavalcade of pain and humiliation. Who has not shed a tear at the story of The Passion? Mel Gibson certainly tapped into the idea of The Passion and we can see the traditionalist view where the more blood that is shed and the more skin that is lashed from the body then the better film that is made. The more blood the better and this is in a  very medieval context and it is this context that has warped our present perception of faith and religion and faith and burials. Christians have, from the earliest times, been addicted to death. Rather than rejoicing in the light they have surrounded themselves with the bones of the dead and have revelled in death with images of the ‘Momenti Mori’. Death, pain and suffering are natural for the Christian as they use Earth as a mere waiting room for immortality as opposed to a place to live in the joys of the world. I am not purveying an hedonistic life here. Instead, I am suggesting that Christians always got it wrong from their earliest days and that their world was twisted from an inherent link to death and a cult of the dead.
Christ Pantocrator

For me, the Orthodox of the world have this image more in balance with the world. When they wish to imagine Jesus they have wonderful images of Christ Pantocrator. The serene and unchangeable image of Christ that looks down from the walls of the Church and sends forth his blessing and wisdom without recourse to the depressing images of the cross and suffering. The Orthodox can witness the crucifixion and they have icons for that  although these images are balanced by ideas of Kingship and majesty that do not require the death and gore of the cross. For the orthodox, Christ is always Christ. At this time of Pentecost; I am reminded that Christians are once more dwelling on the death of this young Jew and revelling in the blood and the gore.

This idea of the transience of humanity is fine but it also questions why the Christians remained a cult of the dead instead of moving on and into the light. Will Christians forever remain attached to their catacombs, vaults, crypts and dark places?


© Godric Godricson

Photography in the UK is more difficult at this time of year compared to any other and a blue sky isn't always the easiest background to manage.