This is a piece by artist J. Kirk Richards. When I visited his house/studio last year in Provo, I saw this work in embryo. (Get a better look here.) At first glance I wasn’t sure what to make of it; it is, after all, a beautiful painting on a rather crude and makeshift piece of plywood. After seeing the finished product online, however, I can’t help but be impressed, for it now strikes me as being terribly suited to the crucifixion.
When Christ descended to Earth it was from beauty to chaos, from security to war, from Grace to Nature. In a way, this descent represents one of the few true acts of sacrifice in history, since he was really the only one who had anything to sacrifice in the first place. Christ in the flesh—Christ the man—became weak and submissive; resignation and pity is etched in his face here. The spirit, though, and I think this is the beautiful part of the picture, remains magnificent even in the depravity of the human world. It is absolute in its solitude and unmatched in its humility.
How oddly cruel, though, that it should be constructed out of cheap plywood and nails. Look closely and you can even see nail holes in the corners of the boards. More conspicuous are the oil stains and imperfections near the bottom. To look at the black oil stains is to be reminded of sins both individual and of those of a collective humanity. The crucifixion, in the end, is to be but another oil spot on this work, one that Christ probably looks down upon with pity.
The word FRAGILE can be made out among the grease stains, which is quite appropriate; for what is more fragile than a human life, both in terms of personal righteousness and the prospect of death and disease? Our history has been absurdly prone to lack of development and direction; with all of our knowledge of the past and our technology, we don’t seem to be any more morally competent than the Israelites in the Old Testament.
Russian great Fyodor Dostoevsky had one of the characters in The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan, lament the Turks’ treatment of their enemies in Bulgaria in the 19th century; before hanging their prisoners, the Turks made them spend the last night of their lives with their ears nailed to a fence. Ivan says, “No animal could ever be so cruel as a man, so artfully, so artistically cruel.” Yet while we are the only species so cruel as to do so, we are also the only species with a well-spring of compassion, capable of deep reflection. And what act merits greater reflection, and indeed greater artistic attention, than that of the Atonement?
[As a side note, the header to my blog is actually also a work of Richards’. In it, Christ stands on the abyss with a very convincing Satan at his back. There is something very captivating in his work.]