Ben Meyers has given yet another penetrating reflection on Christian art. This time, comparing the Icon of the Holy Cross to Grünewald‘s own great work. We are privileged to hear his considered reflections. I would like to disagree, though, with one of his central indictments against the icon.
“Is not history – the history of Jesus – completely fixed and immobilised in this representation? Is it not suspended in eternity like a beautiful figure inside a glass ball?”
For Ben, as with certain Protestant aesthetics, the icon represents our own fantasies, a muting or even denial of the via crucis.
“The presence of the saints makes the cross safe, familiar, and accessible. There is, the icon assures us, a proper human posture that corresponds to the event of the cross.”
I would like to suggest, though, that the reverse is actually true. It is the unceasing and unthinking (because no meaning can be made of the Cross) gaze upon the dead flesh that completely fixes and immobilizes the history of Jesus. There is, on this take, no history for Jesus after the cross. The truth of God is utterly and without reserve made manifest in this one moment. There is nothing of God left and no true thing can be known of God — only the ‘brute fact of the cross of history’ remains. It is important here that Grünewald depicts below the crucifixion, not death, hell, and the grave, pierced by the cross as for the icon, but simply the corpse of Jesus. The body can be done away with now; sealed up in stone, covered and abandoned. The disincarnate word has now the characteristic of geist, it can be spoken everywhere, but felt nowhere.
But for the icon, the revelation of the cross is not an end. It is not the last word. Ben’s own words are, perhaps, telling. The icon speaks of truth, but Grünewald of fact, of immediate presence, but not of relationship nor therefore of reconciliation. The icon in fact speaks of new life, of freedom, of movement, of the continued unfolding of what has happened. We find this iconic truth in the icon of the Nativity. In the Nativity, the whole history of Jesus is shown. There is no fixed point at which to rest. While the center is, of course, Jesus, our eyes are led to the Cross, to Hades, to the magi, etc… Here, who Jesus is cannot be reduced to any one part of his life or death, and the circular pattern of the icon, forever drawing our attention to Jesus and forever drawing it out to the entire and inexhaustible scope of salvation, forecloses the possibility that Jesus is to be found alone in one historical place. It is also to be found in the Gospels, in for instance, the quote of John which entitles this reflection. The dramatic date of the crucifixion indeed was as it is for Grünewald, and we dare not make it otherwise. It was, for the moment, absolute negation, total abandonment, sheer meaninglessness. As the women looked on, it could have been nothing but this. (It is curious that attention is not drawn to the whole Grünewald altarpiece which also includes an overwhelming resurrection scene. A consideration of the whole work leads more to my interpretation of the icon; perhaps even the Altarpiece is iconic.)
Yet for the icon, as for St. John’s Gospel, that was not the whole truth, because Jesus now can be known in greater depth than he could otherwise ever have been known had he remained on the hard wood of the cross. There is more to learn about what has happened. Jesus’s identity can be, in fact, added to, learned about — his life is not confined to a single corpse now, it has been broken and can therefore be distributed and ingested, nourishing and revealing, judging and reconciling.
The resurrection is not the abandonment of real material history, as John Updike, himself a barthian of sorts, knew. In his Seven Stanzas at Easter he comments,
The stone is rolled back, not papier-mâché,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.
The dead god, the one who remains in the tomb, is rather the one who can now be done with. The rotting body of Jesus is, for Updike, what secures our fantasies because to us the resurrection is an offense.
Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
The cross is still the door, there is simply no other path to new life than through death.
But ‘Death, be not proud.’