THE dominant Christian image in the 20th century was the cross
of Christ. This was not just because it had been so prominent in
Western art since the Middle Ages, but because it resonated with
the unspeakable horrors of two World Wars and the Holocaust. The
cross became a symbol of universal human suffering.
During that century, and indeed in our time, artists have shied
away from the resurrection of Christ. This is not only because
suffering is to the fore of our minds, but for other reasons as
well. First, how on earth do you depict the resurrection in the
first place, without falling into unbelievable literalism?
The Orthodox Church is wiser and truer than the Western
tradition in expressing its faith in the Anastasis (which
in the West is called the Descent into Hell), in which the
resurrection is depicted symbolically.
Then, in a century so soaked in Freud, it is easy to dismiss the
resurrection of Christ and the associated hope of our future with
Christ beyond death as so much wishful thinking. Finally, even if
one believes in the resurrection of Christ, and think it can be
depicted artistically in some way, how can this be done without
cheapening the suffering which comes before? Suffering is real. How
can the resurrection be shown in a way that comes across as no less
real, and equally authentic?
In the earliest Christian art, for example on the Passion
sarcophagus in the Catacomb of Domitilla from the mid-fourth
century, the cross and resurrection are shown as integrally linked
together as part of one saving event. In recent times, two
paintings thatI know of try to convey that same truth. One is by
John Reilly and shows Christ on the cross, but Christ almost
dancing off the cross into the circle of eternal life.
The other one is The Golden Crucifixion by Norman Adams
(above), painted in 1993. This shows Jesus on the cross
andother figures associated with the crucifixion, such as soldiers
with their helmets on the bottom right-hand side, wailing women
with their arms outstretched, and a woman kneeling in grief on the
At the same time, however, the painting is dominated by
resplendent butterfly wings. The butterfly is an image of great
beauty, and, not surprisingly, it was sometimes seen as a symbol of
the soul. Here, filling and permeating the whole scene, it conveys
resurrection hope; not a hope apart from the cross, but a hope that
takes the cross into account, and includes it.
Norman Adams (1927-2005) was associated during his lifetime with
semi-impressionistic scenes drawn from the countryside of Yorkshire
and, above all, from the sea and landscape round Scarp in the Outer
Hebrides, where he had a croft. He also taught, and had a
prestigious career, ending up as Keeper of the Royal Academy.
At the same time, he did a number of paintings on religious
themes, which have become much more widely known since his death.
Especially impressive are some of the large watercolours he did
towards the end of his life, when the encroaching Parkinson's
disease which afflicted him made it difficult to work in oils.
There was recently an exhibition of some of these in Guildford
Cathedral (Arts, 11 October). Tragically, a fire a few weeks ago
destroyed some of them, together with a great cache of other
religious works, at his studio in Yorkshire.
The religious work which meant more than any other to Adams
himself was the set of Stations ofthe Cross which he executed
forthe small church of St Mary's, Mulberry Street, in Manchester.
When my wife and I first saw them at the Royal Academy, before they
were taken to the church, we were both knocked over by the anguish
that the artist had managed to convey.
Colour, so powerful in that set of Stations, was fundamental to
the world of Adams as a whole. He agreed with Ruskin, who said: "If
the artist has to choose between form and colour, go for colour,"
although he did not in the endthink that there was any final
tension between them. Certainly, in The Golden
Crucifixion, while the form is essential, it is the colour
that gives the painting its emotional impact.
The black on Christ's face andon the butterfly wings, together
with the khaki of the soldiers gathered in a sinister huddle, make
it clear that this is no Pollyanna escapism. Indeed, the novelist
A. S. Byatt emphasised the lack of sentimentality in Adams's
paintings, and the art critic Peter Fuller saw a thread of sadness
running through them.
Yet the yellow gold, which fills the painting, and the blocks of
red give it a joyful exuberance which transform that darkness. It
is not surprising to learn that Adams had once experienced a moment
of revelation when he had looked at a butterfly, and realised that
it existed just for its own sake - and that whatever else there
might be in a picture, beauty needed to be part of it.
Although not a conventional churchgoer, Adams described himself
as a "compulsive believer", and saw his paintings in terms of the
human journey though joy and sorrow, conveyed in forms of colour.
As he said in one interview: "I discovered art before I discovered
religion. . . What art . . . did for me was to open a new way. It
showed that religion was not all about death, but about life. I
think art is about life - about people - about living."
The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is the former Bishop
of Oxford, and the author of The Image of Christ in Modern Art
(Ashgate, £19.99 (CT Bookshop £18); 978-1-4094-6382-5)
(Books,20 December). This Lent series is based on the