Death, Art and Christian Worship

Vittore Carpaccio, 'The Dead Christ'. 1520.

In a week marked by Halloween and All Saints Day, it seems very appropriate to write about death. Over the last few weeks, I have been pondering the place of death in Christian worship.  How do Christians represent death in their worship? There is a strong temptation to produce soft representations of death that hide the pain and sadness so often associated with it. And there is the opposite temptation to regard death as the un-representable; as an absurd element in God’s good world for which Christians cannot adequately give account. I sympathize with these views because death is not something I (or perhaps anyone) enjoy talking about, but I also wonder if these views are symptoms of a problematic orientation toward death in contemporary Western society.

My thoughts on the place of death in Christian worship have been spurred on by two recent experiences.

First, on a recent trip to Rome, I visited a church dedicated to St. Andrew (Sant’Andrea della Valle, built 1590-1650). On entering this church, I was dumbstruck by a larger than life painting of St. Andrew tied to his cross. This painting was immense and dramatic enough to leave anyone impressed. For me, it was particularly striking because I also attend a church (built in the 19th century) dedicated to St. Andrew. At my church, we have an image of St. Andrew above the altar. I can see him in my mind standing, nonchalantly, against a cross that might serve equally well as a hockey stick. The Roman St. Andrew, on the other hand, meets his death on a cross that is (at least) two stories tall.

Second, last Friday, Ben Quash spoke at the seminar of the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts (ITIA). He offered a fascinating paper on the very curious inclusion of Job in Vittore Carpaccio’s painting The Dead Christ (above). Christ lies dead at the center of the painting as many gather around him, and closest to him, sitting against a tree, is Job. In Carpaccio’s painting, everyone is acting in response to the dead Christ. I am most intrigued by Job, and this contemplative figure leads me to ponder the mystery of Jesus’ death.

Reflecting on these two experiences prompts me to think more about how death is represented in Christian worship. The death of Jesus is a common, though I think underplayed, theme in contemporary Christian worship. But what about the death of martyrs and the experience of death in general? Let me suggest two reasons why representations of death should play an important role in Christian worship

1. Death probes our deepest fears, anxieties and insecurities.  In his book On the Incarnation, the early church father Athanasius argues that martyrdom points to the power of the resurrection. He is at a loss to understand why Christians would give up their lives for the gospel if it were not for the power of the resurrection. While martyrdom is no proof of the resurrection, his main point remains: Death is surely something that many fear. But only those who no longer have a reason to fear death can really look death square in the eye. By representing death in our worship, Christians can rejoice in a God who overcomes death through Jesus.

2. Death exposes our deepest loves, desires and fulfillments. It is for this reason that death gathers a community around itself. At the ITIA seminar, Ben Quash made this point when reflecting on his time working in a hospital. The experience of death, he pointed out, has a way of generating profound encounters and forging strong bonds of family and friendship. While the death of Christ is the heart of Christian community, our common experience of death is woven into the sinews, veins and ligaments that bind the body of Christ together.

Do you think that death should have an important place in Christian worship? How should Christians represent death in their songs, poetry, painting, drama, etc.? In your own experience, is death marginalized or placed in the center of Christian worship?

2 Comments

  • ryan stander says:

    Hey Jim…Great thoughts. I would agree that death is underrepresented in liturgy…as is lament in general.

    I will say that as I moved up the proverbial liturgical ladder from Baptist life to life within the Anglican world, I did find additional resources. In particular Holy Saturday. (You can read the liturgy here http://www.bcponline.org/ ) Before our last move, I asked our priest if we might add it to all the other services of Holy Week. He found it odd that as the only artist in the community I was the one that was drawn to the most sensually deprived liturgical service of the calendar year. Perhaps it was its poignancy amidst HW. Perhaps it is the empty space of scriptural records on the day. Perhaps it is the contrast of the liturgical pause to consider death, ours in particular, while most are our preparing for celebration. But, I would argue that the liturgies of Holy Week in general are an excellent time for the subject of death but we must resist the temptation to jump through the uncomfortable days to the day of celebration.

  • Leticia Cortina Aracil says:

    Dear Jim,

    You are really touching a fascinating topic and I find your thoughts on it very interesting, thank you for sharing them!

    I think that the artistic representation of Christ’s or martyrs’ death is also of importance looked from the doctrinal aspects the different Christian confessions emphasise. I think that is implied in the comparison you make of the two St. Andrew’s churches.
    A good example of this would be the comparative study of death in Catholic’s Baroque and Protestant’s Baroque:

    Speaking grosso modo, for Protestantism the crucifixion is an explicative category, the sign of God’s judgment that falls on Jesus because of his solidarity with the fallen nature of men (or because his divinity and humanity are not understood as hypostatically united). For this reason, the cross and Jesus’ death are the revelation of God’s avenging hand on the world, but not an event on its own because Jesus Christ is not the real object of the punishment. Jesus’s death is not important as a fact, but in the light of an interpretation. So in order to pay the proper attention to the crucified seems precise to resign to the cross to prevent that from eclipsing what’s truly important: his teachings.
    For that reason Protestant’s Baroque art is more focused on the representation of the message of Redemption, and leaves Passion in a second order.
    From the Catholic point of view, the Crucifixion and Resurrection are core events. They emphasize the double nature of Jesus Christ (hypostatically united) and the paradox of his suffering and death. The crucifixion is seen as an act of reconciliation of all humanity in him: the suffering and death of Jesus Christ don’t come from God; they are the ontological consequence of the sin of mankind. Christ freely takes that on himself and needlessly experiences them going beyond them with his Resurrection (transforming them). For this his Passion and Resurrection are seen as the definite act of salvation of which humanity can participate with their own.

    And this difference of approach to Jesus Christ’s death is made plastic in art. While Protestants are more inclined to represent abstractions of the cross focusing on Christ’s and the saints’ lives, Catholics are more inclined to represent the Passion and martyrdom. While Protestant art has a heavy moral intention on which death is an act of divine justice, the Catholic art is more intended to devotion, and death and suffering is presented as the path towards redemption.

    This is very well shown (your mention of the crucified St. Andrew made me think of it) in the hyper realistic religious images of the Passion of the Spanish sculpture and paintings from the XVII-XVIII. They focus intensely on the death and pains of Christ during the Passion.
    As an example:
    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/1b/Segovia_-_Catedral,_Capilla_del_Descendimiento-Cristo_Yacente_de_G._Fernandez_(1631-1636).jpg (Death Christ by Gregorio Fernandez)
    http://www.elpais.com/recorte/20100223elpepucul_15/XXLCO/Ies/tallas.jpg (Ecce Homo by Pedro de Mena de 1673)

    This comparison of the artistic representation of death can also be traced with the different sensibilities in Eastern and Western Christian worship, as Eastern tend to emphasize more the mystic aspects.
    And I find it particularly interesting to examine the sensibility of today’s religious art about death, as our societies have gone through the modern process of secularization that often makes it hard for people to approach to art in terms of cult, or devotion… But in terms of coded message or ideology.

    Thank you again for your thoughts!

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