I was walking around a big European museum with my four-year-old son lately. He wanted to know what the hell was going on with all the beheadings, cauterizings, arrow-piercings, massacres of the innocent and kindred spectacles that make up such a big part of European art before 1700. Now here is a puzzling task. He deserved an answer, but which answer to give?
a) “People in those times did a lot of horrible things.” (This I know will prompt the follow-up question, why then are these scenes painted in such loving detail with gold-leaf backgrounds?)
b) “The victims are martyrs and the pictures celebrate their suffering.” (Now explain the concept of martyrdom.)
And because this was an excellent Franconian museum with a rich medieval collection, four or five unavoidable, life-size and powerfully affecting Jesuses hung on their crosses in every room, not to mention the ones being mourned by Mary in Pietà poses or laid in the tomb by the last few disciples. A lot of blood and nails, and a lot of faces howling their grief.
Christian art is hard to explain to a child raised in a basically secular, not particularly materialistic, household where we don’t deal with each other in violent ways. In the religious illustrations that were most popular from the Catacombs to the Baroque, the gentle people are always being hacked at and strung up by the nasty ones. It looks like a warning, an intimidation. Murders abound: sometimes the fine art, sometimes the sloppy dispatch. What gives these images their claim on us, and makes them something other than colorful butchery, is the idea of resurrection. Resurrection followed by a reward in the hereafter; or for us who are living in the middle time between the Gospel and the Apocalypse, the return of the martyrs’ blood to earth in the form of grace and intercession. I resist offering my young son this quick solution to the question, however, because I find something worth resisting there. Paradise is made more vividly desirable by the horror depicted in the paintings. The more horror, the more desire for salvation; but that’s a dreadful dialectic. My feelings (including my love for my son) are being played with and I am being backed into a situation from which there is no exit but a theological escape clause.
The solution must not be theological. It would be robotic to supply transcendent answers to a problem designed to yield exactly those answers. At least, give the boy time to build up the understanding of human beings and history that will connect theology to everything else: when he has so little context to put around what I tell him, it is unfair to make my explanation repose on mysteries, particularly if those mysteries have the potential to induce even more horror than the paintings before us. (And consider the implications of the Atonement when it is a father explaining pictures to his son.)
So: “These are the bad things that the wicked emperors and priests did to Jesus and his friends. They hurt them so badly in order to make everybody scared. But when we see these pictures, we see how bad those old Romans were, and we learn not to be like them.”
My son, who had been begging to see the museum’s arms and armor collection, and had already spent an hour or two with the ceremonial weaponry of old, was not going to stop at that. “Jesus and his friends should have taken a bunch of swords and whacked those Romans. They should have done like Odysseus.” (Meaning, Odysseus’s revenge on the Suitors, a quick, this-worldly return of evil for evil.)
“But you saw that picture in the last room where Peter did that. What happened to the guy’s ear?”
“Cut off.” (And his name was Malchus—but no point in adding this detail just now.)
“And what was Jesus doing?”
“Giving him medicine.” Well observed, for in an elaboration of the story of Peter cutting of the high priest’s servant’s ear, the painter of that version of the Betrayal in the Garden had had Jesus applying some kind of restorative leaf to the bleeding wound.
“So he was helping him instead of hurting him. I think Peter must have felt very silly, because do you know what Jesus said to him? ‘If you’re going to use a sword on other people, they’re going to use a sword on you.’”
In the stories told in our house, the givers of food and medicine are most often the heroes. With Jesus established in that role, now the reliever of suffering rather than the sufferer, I felt the dialogue of pain and comfort might have been brought into a kind of balance. At least, my son’s questions moved on to other things, and I was left to wonder at the change in European mentality, roughly coincident with the return of classical models in art, that made blood-spurting martyrdoms a less attractive subject for painting than the miracle at the wedding of Cana, the Transfiguration, the Sermon on the Mount, and other episodes of scripture where the hangman has no role. A development of which my renarration of the Crucifixion—call it bowdlerized or rationalized if you will—is a late and faint echo.
It was a lot easier walking with the baby through the museum of Asian art, among the many tranquil Buddha heads. I could hoist him up to the level of each and whisper “Hi,” which made the baby smile each time as if returning the Buddha’s half-smile.
When European missionaries reached seventeenth-century China, they discovered that the hardest thing to explain to people was the bitter death and abandonment of the Messiah. That seemed to invalidate the worth of anything that Messiah might have said. Note that those missionaries had analyzed Chinese society carefully and decided that their best option was to evangelize among the leading members of society, whose conversions, if there were any, would surely be followed by the masses. But if the missionaries had looked for the kind of people who had spent their lives being broken, beaten, cheated and thrown aside, they might have found more understanding for this part of Christianity. As it was, they opted for the calmer, cleaner version.