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Beaten by hostility and ridicule

by
03 April 2007

Behold the man? Thanks to Epstein’s genius, it’s the last thing we want to do, says Paul Oestreicher

NOT MANY of us have the inner resources to look suffering in the face. What we have not seen, we have not seen. As with the priest and the religious scholar in the story of the Good Samaritan, there is always some good reason to look away.

Many Germans, when the killing was over, swore they had no idea what had happened to their Jewish neighbours. Newspaper editors thought twice before publishing the photos of the humiliation of hooded and naked Iraqis. Readers’ protests came as no surprise. It’s doubly hard when the perpetrators are ours, not theirs.

For many years, it was my privilege to take visitors to Coventry on a dramatic pilgrimage from crucifixion to resurrection: through the bombed medieval ruin to Basil Spence’s visionary modern cathedral.

The first station was always at the altar, with its cross of charred beams, inscribed behind it the words of Jesus on the cross: FATHER FORGIVE. It was not “forgive them”, which would have pointed only at the bombers of 1940. The wartime Provost, the Very Revd Richard Howard, never tired of preaching that all have failed and need to be forgiven; that it must always mean us and them.

Many people were so moved by this simple message that they were in no hurry to move on. From there, it was only a few steps to Jacob Epstein’s Ecce Homo: Jesus arraigned before Pilate, awaiting the sentence of death.

When they looked up at the massive stone figure, with its powerful, tortured face, their most common reaction was one of estranged rejection. They wanted to move on quickly. My pointing out that this was probably the most valuable and most profound work of art that the Cathedral possessed was often met with puzzlement.

It took me time to realise that this was the measure of a great sculptor’s success, not his failure. So deeply had one Jew identified with the suffering of another that producing a popular depiction of Jesus was not an option. So devastatingly alone, abandoned, was Jesus at this moment, facing a hostile, scoffing crowd — behold the man, just look at him — that this is the last thing we want to do.

Epstein wanted his Jesus, the product of more than a decade’s arduous work, to be placed in a church. Selby Abbey was not the only one that turned down his offer. That rejection of the artist and of his vision was both hurtful and symbolic. Ecce Homo was to remain in the sculptor’s studio for the rest of his life. Only later did it find its spiritual home in the Coventry ruin.

The block of Subiaco stone that eventually became this Behold the Man was “the toughest, most difficult piece of stone I had ever tackled”, the sculptor said. “All the tools I had broke on it . . . until I finally hit on one that began to make an impression on the stone.”

“This was a sculpture”, wrote Richard Cork, “that was concerned above all with suffering and endurance. So the long travail experienced by its maker . . . informed the meaning he conveyed” (from Epstein As Carver in the Epstein Catalogue of the Henry Moore Centre for the Study of Sculpture).

Epstein had abandoned the Orthodox Jewish beliefs of his family. That gave him the freedom to identify spiritually with the dissident Jew, Jesus of Nazareth. Ecce Homo was followed by an equally monumental work Consummatum Est — It is Finished, which was inspired by listening to the Crucifixus section of Bach’s Mass in B Minor.

He experienced “a feeling of tremendous quiet, of awe. . . I see immediately the upturned hands, with the wounds in the feet, stark, crude, with the stigmata.” Is it possible to get closer to the Suffering Servant than that?

Jesus facing the judgement of the world is an example of carving that is simplified to the point of crudeness. “There is about this bruised yet resilient face”, comments Richard Cork, “a hint of self-portraiture, suggesting that Epstein identified himself with a man battered by hostility and ridicule, but stubbornly undismayed by the humiliation he had suffered. Behold the Man is a partially autobiographical work, evincing the sculptor’s determination to continue carving in the face of the most dispiriting antagonism. In that respect, it seems appropriate that the statue remained in Epstein’s studio until his death.”

Yet it would be a misreading of Epstein’s intention to personalise this totemic symbol of suffering or to reduce it to its Jewish origins. Nor is Epstein an evangelist. The redemption of the world is for theologians to interpret. His theme is the humanity of Christ, the universal, timeless martyr. Hence the face of Jesus that bears no visual relation to Jewishness, let alone to the classic Renaissance Jesus of so much Christian art.

The face that Epstein carved was outside a conventional historic framework. It seems to belong to pre-history. Epstein had studied what we condescendingly call primitive art, and found it to be moving and spiritually perceptive, particularly in ancient South American civilisation.

This strong, noble, suffering face of Jesus would not feel alien even to modern native Americans. Their ancestors had been hunted and decimated by the European conquistadors. That left its mark on Epstein’s sensitivity.

Yes, it’s timeless. But the artist was working in the century of Auschwitz and the Gulag, of apartheid, and of bloody military dictatorships in that same Latin America. Perhaps no century has produced more martyrs. This abandoned Jesus is their prototype, personifying the dignity of every tortured human being.

That dignity found its ultimate expression in his limitless compassion. He could and he did empathise with his torturers and executioners. He was with them, even in their invincible ignorance: “Father, forgive them, for they do not understand what they are doing.” Is that not a generic description of the human condition?

A GREAT DEAL of Christian devotion notwithstanding, Jesus was like us. I see his face in Gordon Wilson, the Protestant Ulsterman who was standing beside his daughter when an IRA bomb tore her apart. Forgiveness for the terrorists was his immediate response. The Irish Republic perceptively made him a Senator. Here is an illustration of what George Fox, the father of Quakerism, called “that of God” in each of us.

I see the face of Jesus in every solitary witness to humanity, abandoned by most other Christians and so often by the leaders of the Church, left to the mercies of a cruel state. Did not Jesus’s own congregation in Nazareth, disturbed by the challenge of his preaching of Yahweh’s indiscriminate love for Jews and foreigners alike, turn into a lynch-mob?

In the resolute face of Jesus, I see the devout peasant Franz Jaegerstaetter, who confronted not only Hitler’s state, but also his patriotic bishop. It was a lonely act of spiritual insight, which, in that context, was astonishing: “If I take part in a war of aggression against the people of other nations, I will be betraying my Lord.” He knew he would be beheaded. He was.

Somewhere in heaven, he will be allowed a wry smile when, later this year, he is beatified by a German Pope in the presence of his aged widow, if, by then, she has not been called to join Franz.

In the tortured face of Jesus, I see many a zealous Russian priest, abandoned by a compliant hierarchy and left to his fate in the Gulag. I see the visionary Socialist Rosa Luxemburg, in love with the poor, tossed into a Berlin canal by those who feared for their riches.

I see Sophie School, the Munich student, distributing leaflets denouncing a murderous state, and facing the hangman without hate. I see the four Jesuit priests — friends of the poor, preachers of liberation, murdered by the military in Guatemala.

It is an endlessly unfolding universal tale, recorded in the annals of God’s Kingdom, and, more mundanely today, of Amnesty International. Its heroes, most of them unsung, are women and men of every race, of every religion and of none. In an act of imagination, Westminster Abbey has found a place for some of them carved in stone on its west front.

Was Jesus really just one of them? Classically so; for there is no hierarchy of suffering. His death was the product of an unholy alliance of Church — Temple, to be accurate — and state. The protection of established religion and of public order made it necessary. The common good demanded it — an old and very modern tale. It is, for example, the story of William Tyndale, to whom we largely owe the best of the English language. To put the Bible into the people’s hands was held to be dangerously subversive of both Church and state. On reflection, it still is.

IN THE heart of London, I encountered a sculpted companion, a soul-mate of Epstein’s Christ (I take the risk of calling Ecce Homo Christ for the only time; for might it not be that, in some indefinable sense, the sculptor did glimpse something of the mystery beyond his subject’s humanity?).

My path took me through a narrow passage between the Royal Festival Hall and the railway line from Charing Cross to Waterloo. I was stopped in my tracks by a sculpted massive head, the strong and suffering face of Nelson Mandela in the days of his imprisonment on Robben Island. Ken Livingstone’s GLC had commissioned it from the sculptor Ian Walters at a time when, to Downing Street and much of Britain, Mandela was simply a terrorist.

My path took me through a narrow passage between the Royal Festival Hall and the railway line from Charing Cross to Waterloo. I was stopped in my tracks by a sculpted massive head, the strong and suffering face of Nelson Mandela in the days of his imprisonment on Robben Island. Ken Livingstone’s GLC had commissioned it from the sculptor Ian Walters at a time when, to Downing Street and much of Britain, Mandela was simply a terrorist.

This was no likeable head. No site more prominent could be found for it. This was not the genial and adored statesman the world now venerates. This was the unpopular suffering face of courage. The aesthetic and spiritual bond with Ecce Homo was and is amazing.

Some will ask: am I daring to compare Jesus to lesser mortals, albeit to the best of them? Of course I am. That is what incarnation means. The child in the stable and the man dying between two robbers was of our kith and kin. Superman is for Hollywood. That does not invalidate the mystical theology on the other side of the coin — God in man made manifest.

When the Coventry pilgrims have passed Jesus facing Pilate, and moved to the sculpture of reconciled enemies embracing, they are on the way into a 20th-century cathedral. The cathedral is testimony to the reality of Christ today, living in the hearts of all who share their love — which is also his love — with a world waiting to be healed. It is the journey from Good Friday to Easter, from a sentence of death to the affirmation of life.

This was no likeable head. No site more prominent could be found for it. This was not the genial and adored statesman the world now venerates. This was the unpopular suffering face of courage. The aesthetic and spiritual bond with Ecce Homo was and is amazing.

Some will ask: am I daring to compare Jesus to lesser mortals, albeit to the best of them? Of course I am. That is what incarnation means. The child in the stable and the man dying between two robbers was of our kith and kin. Superman is for Hollywood. That does not invalidate the mystical theology on the other side of the coin — God in man made manifest.

When the Coventry pilgrims have passed Jesus facing Pilate, and moved to the sculpture of reconciled enemies embracing, they are on the way into a 20th-century cathedral. The cathedral is testimony to the reality of Christ today, living in the hearts of all who share their love — which is also his love — with a world waiting to be healed. It is the journey from Good Friday to Easter, from a sentence of death to the affirmation of life.

But, when the alleluias have been sung, a few, like the beloved disciple and the women at the cross, may quietly return to the ruin, and sit in the stillness of the evening before the gates are shut, to contemplate gratefully as they behold the man.

The Revd Paul Oestreicher is a Canon Emeritus of Coventry Cathedral and Quaker Chaplain to the University of Sussex.

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