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Film review: Easter in Art

01 April 2022

Stephen Brown reviews a documentary being screened in Passiontide

Exhibition on Screen

EXHIBITION on Screen’s latest film, Easter in Art (Cert. PG), begins with Jesus weeping over Jerusalem, before it covers the biblical story with an anthology of images up to the ascension. Sometimes beautiful, often brutally shocking, these were shot on location in galleries around the world. We ponder the scenes while hearing the Gospel accounts. In addition, we are afforded critical analysis and insights from art experts.

Film has the advantage of offering us viewpoints largely denied to the ordinary spectator. The Scrovegni Chapel, in Padua, displays Giotto frescos from ceiling to floor. Sparing our necks, the camera provides close-ups. Thus, we clearly see Judas as he kisses Jesus, enveloping him in his yellow cloak. There appear to be two heads in a single body, depicting the inextricable link in the destinies of the pair. Dr David Gariff describes the frescos as being virtually what we would call today cinematic. “Each frame, the way an editor would cut a film and show you, image to image to image, is the ultimate form at that time of communication.”

Painters are creating challenging images by which to explain the Word. These frequently go beyond what is recorded in scripture. Caravaggio‘s The Incredulity of Thomas has the disciple placing a finger in Christ’s wounded side. Other artists follow suit. despite St John’s Gospel’s never saying whether Thomas did any such thing. A Michelangelo painting of Jesus being carried to the grave bears no effects of torture and execution. Its perfect body, upright in position as if walking, is anticipating resurrection rather than burial.

Rubens does something similar, raising the human anatomy to a celestial level. Thus, a commentator suggests, we are being called to become an image of God ourselves. Exceeding biblical accounts, in scenes by the likes of Velázquez and Hueget, of the scourging of Jesus, angels are seen ministering to him. Completely non-scriptural situations that we see include numerous Pietàs, including one in a contemporary setting, in which Alain Senez’s dead Jesus is sporting a watch.

The tenet that the Passion conveys a fundamental universal yearning to discover the truth of what it means to be human, suffer, and die is supported by various contributors. Dr Jennifer Sliwka maintains that those uninterested in these works miss out. To understand where we have been is to understand where we are going. That is true; but what Easter in Art lacks is a survey of modern-day artists’ attempts to grapple with the story. With two exceptions, we aren’t shown any works of art later than 1951. Also, despite the film’s title, there is far more concentration on the Passion than the resurrection.

The strength of the film lies in demonstrating how artists throughout the centuries have striven to make Christ’s story our story, too. Whether it is Bosch, Titian, Rembrandt, or others. they persistently invite us to take part. This can make for highly uncomfortable viewing at times, but there is. paradoxically, occasion to rejoice. As St Paul wrote. “It is my happiness to complete in my poor flesh the full tale of Christ’s affliction here on earth” (Colossians 1.24).

Released in cinemas from 5 April.

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