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Setting his face like flint

14 March 2014

Richard Harries continues his Lent series on Christian works of art

"The implacable Christ": Ecce Homo by Jacob Epstein  

"The implacable Christ": Ecce Homo by Jacob Epstein  

ONE of the iconic images during the Second World War was Graham Sutherland's painting of the bombed Coventry Cathedral. It was fitting, therefore, that after Jacob Epstein's death, his widow should donate his statue Ecce Homo to the newly built cathedral, whereit now stands in the ruins of the old one.

For me, this is, above all, animage of the implacable Christ: the one who will not be deflected from his purpose, or defeated, whatever the heavens rain down.It brings to mind some lines of R. S. Thomas about Iago Prytherch, a Welsh shepherd, describedas "an impregnable fortress Not to be stormed even in death's confusion".

By the beginning of the 20th century, traditional Christian imagery had gone dead on most people. In addition, the classical tradition, which had dominated European art for so many centuries, had lost its vitality. Jacob Epstein (1880-1959), one of the key figures in the revival of a living European sculpture, found new inspiration in African, Oceanic, and Aztec art, and had one of the best collections of his time.

The influence of such art canbe clearly seen in this Ecce Homo. Epstein earned his living with his fine bronze portrait heads, but his real passion was carving in a style that had been influenced by the art of those other, often earlier, cultures.

These carvings were shockingto a public steeped in classical conventions, and were greeted with howls of outrage. Indeed, so despised were they that some were purchased by a man who showed them in a Blackpool peep show fora penny a time.

Ecce Homo was carved in 1934-35, when Epstein had not had a commission for one of his monumental carvings for some 20 years; and it may be that this is reflectedin the fierce determination of Christ's face. Needless to say, the public outrage at this carving exceeded anything that had gone before. The Daily Mirror received plaudits from its readers for refus-ing to print a photo of it. Interestingly, Epstein noted: "Actually, my religious statues have strong support from the clergy."

It was well received by the art critic Anthony Blunt, who noted at the same time that he thought that a living religious art had died not just a few years earlier, but centuries before.

As a result of his Jewish upbringing in New York, Epstein was steeped in biblical stories, and, not surprisingly, he did some powerful work on Old Testament themes in works such as his Adam, and Jacob and the Angel, which can be seen in Tate Britain.

But he also did a number of works on Christian themes: The Risen Christ, which is now in Edinburgh, which he saw as a protest against war; a sculpture on the theme of the Last Words of Jesus in St John's Gospel, "It is finished"; Lazarus, for New College, Oxford; and St Michael and the Devil, in a more accessible style, which can be seen on the outside of Coventry Cathedral.

When he was a teenager, Ep-stein had read the New Testament, and Dostoevsky, which gave him a feel for the Christian faith, and he was friends with a number of Christian intellectuals. When Epstein died, T. S. Eliot wrote to his widow to say: "It is as if some of my world has crumbled away. We loved him."

As for his faith, Epstein wrote: "My tendency has always been religious. . . it may not be known, but that is a fact. Most great sculpture is occasioned by faith. Even the African sculpture, which we don't understand, is full of their faith."

Every age and culture has its own favourite way of picturing Jesus.In the Early Church, for example, Jesus was sometimes shown with a beard, with associations of Zeus, and at other times as a beardless Roman youth, bringing to mind Apollo, the god of beauty. Sometimes, both appeared in the same church, without any sense of contradiction.

For our taste, many Victorian and Edwardian depictions are soft and sentimental images; our own time sees Jesus as a much stronger figure, as in this Epstein sculpture. Here is the "Strong Son of God", as a hymn line puts it.

The scene in the Gospels where Pilate brings Jesus out to showhim to the people with the words "Here he is" (literally "Behold the man" or "Ecce homo", John 19.5)is a powerful one, Not surprisingly, it has been a favourite with artists. From about 1400, there was an emphasis on showing Jesus alone, apart from Pilate and the crowds, as an intense focus of devotion.

Usually, the focus has been on Jesus bound and led like a sheepto the slaughter, helpless and suffering. In Epstein's version, however, although the hands of Jesus are held by a rope, the arms across the chest are defiant, the jaw strong, and the eyes look beyond the horizon of this world. This isan undefeated Christ, do the world what it may.

The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is the former Bishopof 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 book.

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