Friday, August 18, 2017

Treasure Consigned to the Archives

A while ago I joined on online book club.  The focus tends to be Christian literature and perhaps not the kinds of books I would naturally turn to. They can be quite academic and challenging and usually highlight how little I know about most things. The opportunity is always there to contribute to a discussion on the current chapter but I am content to merely read. I don’t feel equipped for anything more.

The current book is “75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should know” by Terry Glaspey. We are over half way through and I can count the masterpieces I have known on the fingers of perhaps one hand, certainly not two, and definitely not counting my toes as well. I have loved the sigh of familiarity as I have come across a known poem or book or painting. The sighs have been few and far between.

The Life of Our Lord Jesus Christ” is a series of over 400 pictures recording the life of Jesus in the gospels. Every story, every miracle, every encounter Jesus had is drawn and painted. James Tissot, in his early days, painted scenes of life in Paris and women dressed in the fashions of the day.  I googled his name and some of the pictures were familiar.  I’d seen them somewhere, posters on walls of cafes, perhaps. They had the “Oh, yeah,” factor but I’d never known the artist’s name.

He looked for interesting settings for his women and in on one place, the Church of Saint-Suplice, he had a religious experience, a revelation, a vision. He had been a Roman Catholic Christian, a lapsed one. You can always take the boy out of the Roman Catholic Church, but taking the church out of the boy is different thing entirely. He painted a picture of his vision.

He went on to paint a series of pictures based on the gospels.  He travelled to the Holy Land and made sketches of the landscape and people. He wanted to provide a visual guide to the life of Jesus, from a kind of eye witness viewpoint. He wanted his pictures to be realistic and not idealised, sentimental or sanitised in any way.

People queued up to see the series of pictures when they were shown in galleries around the world. They would stand before them in hushed silence or kneel weeping in front of them. This was exactly the response that Tissot was looking for. He wanted to evoke a personal response in people, help them to imagine the scenes they had read in the Bible and make it real to them. They were published in book form which proved to be a best seller. Obviously not everyone liked what they saw. They had, perhaps, been brought up on the equivalent of the series “Jesus of Nazareth” with Robert Powell and his blue eyes. Now they were confronted with the equivalent of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion” with all the blood flying everywhere.  Sometimes there’s nothing compelling about Jesus’ serenity amid horror, but people choose the serenity because it doesn’t make them feel uncomfortable.

The chapter in the book ends with these lines:- Once a large draw to the Brooklyn Museum which raised the money to buy the complete “The Life of Our Lord Jesus” series through enthusiastic public donations, the works are now rarely exhibited and are stored in their archives.”

I read those words with such sadness. I imagined Tissot looking down from heaven with tears in his eyes. The very purpose for which he created them – to be seen and the power of them to bring Jesus alive to them – was no longer happening. Consigned to the archives and very rarely seen is not the end he was looking for. Yes, I appreciate these things need to be protected. Art deteriorates, colours fade, frames buckle and time dismantles treasures if permitted. I think it’s just sad. In today’s world there’s a hypersensitivity to being offended and no doubt some people would be offended and the exhibition taken down. I still think it’s sad – archives and some temperature controlled cupboard somewhere and a powerful tool for bringing some people into contact with Jesus is switched off.

I wonder if Tissot would have been happier knowing his paintings were falling apart through age, but being seen, rather than being protected with no one to look at them.

It makes me think of all those other powerful tools that could bring people into contact with Jesus being hidden in drawers and cupboards. It’s like the man with the one talent burying it.  He thought it was too precious to risk losing but it did no good buried under six inches of soil.

I’d like to think that I was making the best use of my gifts and talents to make Jesus come alive for people. Faith is a risky business. There are things that are supposed to out in the world and seen. I’d like to think I have assigned nothing to the archives.

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