Faith Lent series: a question of perspective

by
23 March 2018

Jonathon Brown concludes our Lent series with an artist’s-eye view of portraying the Passion

Reproduced courtesy of the artist

Breaking Bread with Disciples at Emmaus (from Stations of the Cross as from the eyes of Jesus) by Jonathon Brown, 2006

Breaking Bread with Disciples at Emmaus (from Stations of the Cross as from the eyes of Jesus) by Jonathon Brown, 2006

WHEN I was first inspired — almost against my will — to execute a series of Stations of the Cross, a counterpoint of modesty and ambition told me that I could only make such images as seen from the eyes of Jesus. I felt unable to depict Christ; yet I also needed to move closer than the images that make up the long, rich history of depictions of Christ, either on the cross or on his way towards death. I wished to redeem the awfulness depicted in his final suffering by including images of the resurrection; to fold Easter Day into Good Friday, so to speak.

Indeed, I began to resent — or at least to resist — these traditional depictions: that miserable, bearded man over there, lugging a cross, done to death; all on a scale between beastliness and beauty: between the beastly gore of some of the 15th-century crucifixions of Germany and the Low Countries (think Grünewald), and the beauty of con­temporary images from Renaissance Florence (think Michel­angelo). The phrase that rankled was “over there”. I sensed that I needed to bring the story nearer — to us, and to me; and to close on glory, not gory.

A first consideration was that these Stations would plainly be a focus of worship and devotion, and, to be worthy of that, would require a certain resonance, without demanding the power to convert. Indeed, for me, they have more of an element of experiment in belief than expression of belief. The question whether, perhaps, conversion is better achieved by comparing our shared doubts more profoundly than through repeated emphasis was important for an uncertain spirit such as mine.

My dilemma was that few have the right to see through the eyes of another, let alone through those of one they have not met, and, above all, those of Jesus. Yet my signature work as an artist has been to depict landscape as seen from a steering-wheel, on the move, in the car, complete with dashboard and wing mirror: seen, in other words, from my eyes — thereby emphatically suggesting from your eyes. I could not, therefore, resist the idea that I had to approach the Stations from his eyes.

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The theoretical antidote to the dilemma came simply enough in that, if suffering is not somehow immediate is not mine its message is diluted. And, somehow, an image of Jesus as a bearded man “over there” fixes things in a possibly unhelpful manner, both too remote (over there) and too specific (gaunt, bearded). I hope an image that places us in his perspective may liberate useful thoughts and empathy that are unavailable from the viewpoint of a “third party”.

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THE question of perspective has a deeply theological and philosophical history, since optical perspective’s ever-increasing hold on Western art was shadowed by a shift from propaganda for the Testaments — that is to say, illustrations to woo, or warm, an often illiterate congregation, who liked to imagine biblical events happening in their own landscape — to propaganda for the patrons, who liked to imagine that they were themselves present at the glorious biblical events depicted.

Increasingly, images of Christ became vehicles for what the artist wanted to explore — whether in technique, or (often quite erotic) fetishes — and in answer to the patron’s whimsy or vanity.

Of course, most pictures are “from the seer’s eyes”, but we don’t think about that — and, crucially, nor do the pictures themselves draw attention to it. We seldom notice how much of ourselves we see when we look on the world. If there is a finger across the lens, we think the photograph is spoiled, and we take another; yet, to give a different example, those of us who wear glasses do not merely see the world, we see the glasses, too.

I realise how distant we are from so many depictions — those unnatural rectangles that we are allowed to look through. We are not quite “there”. Surely, I thought, with Christ’s suffering, we should be there ourselves.

When Jesus takes the cross, I want us to know that he takes it in his hands, inches from his eyes, a raw, splintery rifle-sight of railway sleepers that few of us could even carry to the car, let alone uphill to our death. The splintery wood is against his cheek, just an inch or two away; and I want it inches from yours. (As with pictorial tradition, I have Christ carry the whole cross, although this may not have been the case.)

In the resurrection image reproduced here, we are the He that breaks the bread at Emmaus; that looks into the eyes of gladly bewildered disciples; that ponders the meaning of a simple door, through which he will disappear.

 

AS I worked the pictures out in preliminary sketches, I found that the more we are with him, or as him, in a marvellous way we are also all the more with us: as we look at the others who join him, we cannot avoid knowing that, ultimately, we are the onlookers. In their faces, we confront the act of looking.

By some strange, paradoxical chemistry, we see ourselves better in the onlookers and perpetrators than we would, I feel, in a conventional view. We become unavoidable to ourselves — as does the plight of Jesus.

This story is, I started to think, a story ever more resonant in seeing; in sight; in close sight, and drastic perspectives; in how we see — and thus how we are seen — by those who look, be it in love or loathing; in understanding, bewilderment, or indifference.

Where do such pictures fit? As a teller and exploiter of parables, Christ was a broadcaster who, in modern terms, would surely have known better than I how to master Twitter. The simple people who found a beacon of faith in Giotto’s benign shapes, Fra Angelico’s soft light, and Piero’s perfect geometries, were right to do so: they were not res­ponding in awe to an estimate in a Christie’s catalogue, but to images that taught them of the sacrifice of Jesus to the Father.

Imagery belongs in belief. It reports experience, but, crucially, it also creates it. Perhaps the possibility of conversion is stronger than I suspected. As Rowan Williams wrote to me at the time, in relation to images of the crucifixion, “I’m always struck by how continuously these images feed and prompt artists.” As I discovered, it strikes us artists, too.

 

This essay is based on a talk given at St John’s, Catford, as part of their 2017 Lent series, “A Violent Beauty”.

www.stjohnscatford.co.uk/

www.facebook.com/stjohnscatford

 

Jonathon Brown’s second set of Stations of the Cross will be on display during Holy Week at the West of Severn Benefice, Gloucester. He repeats his talk on Sunday evening, 25 March, at one of its churches, Hartpury; and images of both sets of Stations can be found on his personal website, villaparasol.com.

www.westofsevernchurches.org.uk

 

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