MOTHER Teresa and Adolf Hitler are not often found side by side, particularly in a church. Yet in the nativity scene at the society church of La Madeleine, in Paris, they are located together. Christ came to earth to save mankind, but even this theological truism is a little hard to embrace fully when it comes to the Führer; when he is placed next to St Teresa of Calcutta, who embodies good in humanity, it is particularly challenging, unless it is to demonstrate evil in humanity.
This nativity scene is the seventh in a series of provocative contemporary art nativities in La Madeleine. Made by Samuel Yal (born 1982), it shows the sleeping infant Jesus, surrounded by disconnected arms reaching out to him, on top of a crib made from shredded black-and-white photographs, which in turn is on a floor covered by further images. It is within this floor that the dichotomy of Mother Teresa and Hitler appears.
La Madeleine is itself something of a dichotomy. Taking 85 years to be built, it went through three designs, and several different proposed uses: church, temple to the Grand Armée, expiatory chapel for Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, and, finally, church again. It faces the Place de la Concorde, as it was renamed after the Terror and again during the July Monarchy, to bring an end to the horrors of the guillotine there.
The artist, Samuel Yal, is best known for his recent animated short film, Nœvus (2016), which combines both his interests of porcelain and film-making. For Avènement, he has replaced his usual preferred material of porcelain with wax. The effect, however, is not of the somewhat gaudy wax limbs offered by the faithful at shrines such as Lourdes or Fátima, but a brilliant, illuminated white.
The Christ-child, at the centre of the nativity, has his hands hidden. The hands and arms that surround him are ours. They are suspended between ground and air. The crib of straw on which the baby rests is shredded photographs: they are, according to Yal, the humus of history, and of humanity. The stories of history combine together. Yal describes this as being in solidarity with what crosses us.
Given that the historical figures out of which the crib rises include a mix as diverse as Stalin, Brezhnev, Einstein, and Anne Frank, that sense of solidarity sounds, in the abstract, difficult to attain. Yet, in this display, there is a sense of the solidarity of humanity being present in the Christ-child, which is neither jarring nor artificial. The separate but combined arms above seem to outweigh the history below.
In the exhibition notes, the Roman Catholic writer Fabrice Hadjadj concludes that, in Avènement, two verses of the Psalms meet in this nativity: “The mountains melt like wax before the Lord” (Psalm 96.5) and “God fills his beloved when he sleeps” (Psalm 126.2). This gives a scriptural context to the installation. A text (in a slightly different form, usually and erroneously attributed to St Teresa of Ávila) is also included in the notes: “Christ has no hand, he only has our hands to accomplish his work today.” And it is this impression that remains as the visitor leaves La Madeleine, towards the Place de la Concorde.
“Avènement” is at Église de La Madeleine, Place de La Madeleine, 75008 Paris, until 2 February, open daily, 9.30 a.m. to 7 p.m.