It was my second visit to the exhibition featuring Gainsborough’s works at the Rijksmuseum at Enschede. Having seen the first few galleries, I moved through them swiftly and started where I had effectively left off on my last visit. When I saw his painting of Christ being lowered from the Cross. I’d glanced at it the last time, but was too tired to take it in. This time, fresh and ready to go, it was practically the first thing I clapped my eyes on.
It hit me like a hammer. A tear rolled from the corner of each eye, my throat constricted to the point of being painful. I was rooted to the floor by its raw emotional content.
I can tell you, I have never, ever, ever met a painting as sublime or as graceful. There are ones that are pretty, ones that are majesterial, there is Raphael’s Madonna in the Meadows which we will meet later in this post. But there is literally nothing on this planet that even comes close to the effect this painting had on me. Even Tom Thomson fades into the background, but then, that was his own way of depicting the sublime.
It’s not as if the painting’s even finished! But that’s part of its beauty, which you will understand if you have read my posts on Frans Hals (1) or my last post concerning Thomas Gainsborough (2).
Now whilst Gainsborough had studied the mannerof the Dutch artists, he still painted in the English style, and here he had painted an even colouring for the background and using the sable brushes used for oil paints in those days, sketched out the figures. In that easy manner that all the great artists possess, he needed but two dozen strokes to bring a man to life with a little blocking in to add a hint of colour. Each brush-stroke aids and abets its neighbour, like the muscles that run down a ballerina’s back which allow her to join her hands above her head in a graceful pose. On its own, the brush stroke has a gesture, unique and of itself; put them in context, they literally come to life. Context in this case implying a relationship with each other – which is key to understanding this painting.
The figure of Christ is naturally central to the painting, or as near central as needs be to catch the eye of the beholder. His image is almost finished, certainly enough to bear witness to the grace even a dead human body has. The other complete figure is the old man next to him, Joseph of Arimathea, the man who donated his grave to the man he now touches. The brush-strokes of his beard show just how meticulous Gainsborough could be, when he wanted to, and as importantly, he had the courage to restrain himself too and leave well alone.
Beneath the stricken body of Christ is a man, who you can almost hear groaning under the weight of the carcass. A carcass, even one so noble as that of Christ himself, has had everything that brings levity into the human removed. That is death, it is as heavy as lead. It’salso why children feel heavier when they’re tired, albeit that the scientists can only say that this is merely subjective. But in art, the subjective is all, and this entire essay is to study the way Gainsborough entices the observer into engaging with the imagery.
Then there is Christ’s mum. The term is fully appropriate given the way she looks upon her dead son, for here is the searing pain that comes with the tearing asunder of a loving relationship. Her grief is fathomless, which is clearly visible even with the barest of intimations put to canvas. Another face shows an air of perplexity: how could such a loving man could be put to death? It makes no sense, and this makes her grief the harder to accept. It’s not as if he’d been to war, been in a bar brawl or driving a fast chariot. Quite literally, he’d done nothing.
But that is the power of evil, and that was in fact the power of Christ’s death.
Only the surprising thing is that this painting isn’t really about Christ’s death: Christ as we know, was in hell for the three days after his crucifixion. All we have here are his mortal remains – a physical shadow of his true being, as it were. Yet all the eyes are focussed on this, for nobody knew at that point what was actually going on. Christ had yet to rise by this point in the story, and none of them really knew what he was about, save that he’d been a surprisingly nice guy to have around. It’s not as if he didn’t tell them, but simple folk whilst natural and necessarily naïve, do not make good philosophers.
The man who is bearing the weight of Christ’s body isn’t alone, though. Above him, situated diametrically across the canvas, is someone trying to help him. You can imagine the two of them looking to each other and asking each other to adjust their hold. The point here is that there is a relationship not just with Christ, but with each other.
Not only that but their gentleness with the collapsed form of this one time friend is palpable. Well, it’s the least they can do for him, pay their respects and all that kind of thing.
All of the friends have a relationship to the body of Christ. The poor guy underneath is feeling it all too physically; Mary is feeling it because she is looking him in the face, as does Joseph of Arimathea. The other women are simply looking at him as if stunned and the man in the top right is holding onto a cloth that somehow got tangled up in the story from the Gospel. Christ on the cross was naked, the soldiers had drawn lots for his clothing because it was woven in one piece and they thought it too good to tear into dishrags or footcloths.
As with all the most sensitive of illustrations, the metaphor is hidden in plain sight. It took me a while to work out, and only came to me when discussing the painting with a fellow visitor. Having readily imbibed my enthusiasm, he asked me why Gainsborough painted it this way, and not with Christ whilst still on the cross. My first answer was to say that I didn’t know, but then it struck me: this was a modern painting, for modern Christians. With the reformation came the unveiling of the fact that each individual could have their own relationship with Christ – yet in doing so, they all have a relationship with him, and thus with each other, and it is this which is portrayed here.
Depicting Christ on the cross with his nearest and dearest standing around beneath him would only emphasize the hierarchical nature of the old ways and the distance this brings. Gainsborough chose to show the lowering of his body from the cross because of what it meant for Christians of his day: their gathering together in his name. What is more, there barely any blood. Christ’s body really is a pale shadow of his former self, but this only makes the relationships between the human figures the more powerful still. Blood, gore and murder are for those who need the titillation, need the shock of knowing Christ’s hands were nailed through the palm. Here the shock is all internalized, and the shock was the more powerful for all that.
As I said, it hit me like a hammer.
The effect was as instant as it was effective. The emotion was unmistakable, and it was aimed with the accuracy of a sharpshooter. There can be no mistake, no other interpretation, and it is this which is the mark of the master communicator. Compare this with Malevich’s “the supremacy of pure feeling” (3). Malevich tried to form emotion in an objective sense, the problem is that emotions only arise through being shared. They are immediate and they are subjective, anything else will stop them dead. In imagining an objective emotion as Malevich did, he stripped his paintings of any emotional content! It merely leaves you standing there, wondering what the hell he’s babbling on about. It really was a case of the lost traveller in Ireland asking for the way to Dublin, and the local farmer giving him the response: “well, I’d not be starting from here, that’s all.” Malevich should have turned to retro wallpaper design. If you want to communicate, you do it straight if you want to be understood.
But there is another side to all this: one has to engage directly with the picture if one is to bring out the best in it. I described the process in broad, public terms in my last post concerning Gainsborough’s paintings (1). The point is if a person wishes to withdraw into themselves and remain ‘objective’, they are going to make the mistake Malevich made. If this state of objectiveness has become habitual to the point where it is no longer conscious – and in our day and age, this can happen well before school age – it means there is literally no way in which such an individual can even hope to enter into a relationship. That is to say, see the painting in a subjective, intimate and personal way. There is an unseen, invisible barrier standing between the observer and the observed and neither can span it. Gainsborough was painting at a time, and for a people who had not yet entered this forlorn state of mind. To them, the relationships were still very real, and objective, intellectual thinking was left to a rare few clerics and professors.
In conclusion, I want to state that it is the most perfect painting I have ever had the good fortune to behold. Before this, it was Raphael’s ‘Madonna in the Meadows’, which is a truly mediaeval painting. I adored it from the moment I beheld it, its simplicity of composition was captivating. It was painted for a time when people had grown up and would spend their entire lives in a small community where the windows of the church told the stories from the Gospels. Raphael’s viewers would know the story of the Virgin and the Child from their infancy, and it would grow with them as they coursed through their life. The Madonna was perfect because everybody knew she had to be: she couldn’t be anything else if she was to bear the Son of God. To the people of the time, it stood to reason in a far deeper way than any belief that is held today. Mary was chosen not because she was the next girl in line for a bun in the oven, Raphael depicted her with the beauty that befits the only girl in the whole of creation who was good enough. Those who beheld the very beauty Raphael gave her, would have seen his reverence and his piety, which would have made their soul sing.
Two hundred and fifty years later, Gainsborough painted his scene with all the means open to one of the greatest painters that ever lived. Yet he never finished it, and for that I am truly glad: for its immediacy is the closer for its very incompleteness.
What a gift to leave mankind!
She was the wife of Pieter Olycan the brewer. He would became mayor of Haarlem in Holland and have the money to engage Frans Hals to make paintings of them. So much for the blatant facts! You know me, I don’t just regurgitate Wikipedia on this site. Because there’s something going on here that’s really important.
(2) Gainsborough: Conversations In Paint.
Gainsborough painted his brother in law, Philip Dupont when he was already famous. I can’t say that he was at the height of his powers as an artist, because artists like Gainsborough aren’t the kind who develop. They just are. Their work, like their life, has a consistentcy and liveliness that others lack.
The Supremacy Of Pure Feeling.
In 1913 Kasimir Malevich drew a pencil figure of a square on a white piece of paper. It became Malevich’s central motif: whatever he did it was tightly formed and rigorously geometric. It was his protest against all he saw around him: mere depiction in paint or film. Paintings in embellished frames whose painters sought to catch the shadow of each leaf.