The Theotokos and the Pomegranate
an oil painting by Sharon A. Hart, 2008
Edward Hopper, the American painter, believed, “If you could say it in words there would be no reason to paint.” Artists have long used symbols to convey greater truth that can not be fully communicated via the spoken language.
But, exactly what is a "symbol"?
The word symbol derives from the Greek verb symballein, meaning "to throw together"; its noun is symbolon, meaning "mark," or "sign." Symbols are means of communication.
A symbol is classically defined as an object, animate or inanimate, that stands for or points to a reality beyond itself. For example, a butterfly or a rainbow are often used as symbols of hope. However, a butterfly can also represent a more specific concept --- hope forged in transformation.
Symbols are used by writers and artists to indicate and represent ideas, concepts, or other abstractions. However, it is important to understand that symbols are rich and complex and, therefore, have many layers of meaning. According to the philosopher and symbologist Rene Gueron there are few “universal symbols” because signs and symbols are culturally defined. For example, a dragon in the Nordic European tradition is understood as something “evil”, whereas in the Eastern Asian tradition, a dragon is accepted as a symbol of wisdom.
Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, whilst addressing the relationship between art and symbolism, offered this gem of information:
“ The greater part of modern aesthetics assumes (as the words “aesthetic” and “empathy” imply) that art consists or should consist entirely of such unintelligible shapes, and that the appreciation of art consists or should consist in appropriate emotional reactions. It is further assumed that whatever is of permanent value in traditional works of art is of the same kind, and altogether independent of their iconography and meaning.” – Symbols
Recently, a symbol of the cross and crucifixion has caused a furor in a cultural milieu defined by religious beliefs. According to Wikipedia.org, “A cross is a geometrical figure consisting of two lines or bars perpendicular to each other, dividing one or two of the lines in half. The lines usually run vertically and horizontally; if they run diagonally, the design is technically termed a saltire.
The cross is one of the most ancient human symbols, and is used by many religions, such as Christianity. It is frequently a representation of the division of the world into four elements (Chevalier, 1997) (or cardinal points), or alternately as the union of the concepts of divinity, the vertical line, and the world, the horizontal line (Koch, 1955).”
The cross has often been used as a sign of suffering. However, for Christians it conveys a very specific understanding of suffering and a finite event --- the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth at the hands of the Romans over 2,000 years ago.
Crucifixion (hanging or nailing someone to a cross) was a well-known and commonly practiced mean of executing criminals in the ancient world. Herodotus, the noted Greek historian, documented the Persians used crucifixion as a form of extreme punishment. Additionally, other equally valid historical sources reveal the practice was common among the Assyrians, the Scythians, the Thracians , the Celts, the Germans and the Britons. It is a historical fact that Alexander the Great had 2000 survivors of the siege of Tyre crucified along the shores of the Mediterranean.
Because of this rich history of crucifixion not being restricted to a single event or culture, some artists have drawn upon the symbol of the cross to convey concepts beyond the limited scope of representing Jesus suffering on behalf of humanity. A prime example is a wooden sculpture which is entitled Zuerst die Füsse (First the Feet) by the late German artist Martin Kippenberger. The sculpture dating from 1990 depicts a frog approximately 1 meter 30 cm high nailed to brown cross and holding a beer mug in its right outstretched hand and an egg in its left hand.
I suspect that Kippenberger would have agreed with Edward Hopper who whilst, speaking of artists in the sole context of painters, once shared, “I believe that the great painters with their intellect as master have attempted to force this unwilling medium of paint and canvas into a record of their emotions.”
The subject of personal and collective torment was a topic which Kippenberger addressed in many works; he considered Zuerst die Füsse a self-portrait illustrating human angst. More specifically, it symbolized his personal anguish concerning to our society that projects perfection but is actually hypocritical. He drew upon his experience within a society that at the end of the day drinks beer in bars and unbends to distasteful comments about sex and uses obscene language. He stated the crucified frog represents the bestial nature of humans that drink to the point of demeaning themselves, and who are unable to liberate themselves from the cross of alcohol lived as a plague. Through this sculpture, Kippenberger attempted to actively condemn a society that, on the one hand claims to be Christian and on the other, right under and before the very Christ that it reckons to venerate, can only express its worst side. Essentially, the frog represents humanity demeaned by alcohol addiction, constantly “nailed” or fixated by sex, while the egg, an ancient alchemical symbol, represents the betrayed perfection of creation.
When the sculpture was first on display at Museion, a museum of contemporary art in Bolzano, Italy, Antonio Lampis explained “a crucifixion is always an invitation to reflect on suffering” – claiming that – “in any event of contemporary art you will find more or less strong works on religion. It is part of people’s life, it is normal for it to become an ingredient of art. Society is getting used to being hypersensitive about certain themes but nobody can feel offended by a work of art”.
Despite this, numerous people have, indeed, been offended by the work which they believe to be a tasteless variation on the theme of the Christ’s death. The work has actually caused a polemic; even Pope Benedict XVI has chimed in on the subject! The Vatican released a letter in the Pope’s name, stating the sculpture “wounds the religious sentiments of so many people who see in the cross the symbol of God’s love.” Ignoring the complete history of crucifixion, key members of the Magisterium have further declared the sculpture to be “blasphemous ” although the artist in no way intended to mock the cross or the experience of Jesus of Nazareth.
In response to the polemics against Kippenberger’s sculpture, Claudio Strinati, a superintendent for Rome’s state museums, was quoted in an Italian newspaper as follows:
“Art must always be free and the artist should not have any restrictions on freedom of expression.”
Interestingly, after significant discernment the board of the foundation of the Museion recently voted to keep the this controversial artwork on display, despite the immense pressure from the Vatican to censor Zuerst die Füsse.
While I personally do not appreciate art that is specifically designed to desecrate or shock, I fully recognize that many people may be hypersensitive about certain themes and, therefore, may be offended -- especially if they are not educated with regard to the artist’s intent and understanding of the symbols used in their work. One does not need to be in agreement with or even sympathetic to the message conveyed, but careful consideration of what is actually being communicated is essential to one’s perception and interpretation of any artist’s creation. This is true whether or not we are speaking about modern art, religious icons or even the cave paintings in Lascaux, France.
While one may rage against Kippenberger’s expression, perhaps those who do are doing so at society’s ultimate peril and one day the Vatican will renounce their recent declarations, as they needed to do centuries after declaring Galileo Galilei. a heretic.
Saturday, August 30, 2008
The Theotokos and the Pomegranate