Thursday, March 13, 2014

A Painting Tells a Story, But Which One?

This article first appeared at The Christian Manifesto.

In 1864, the French painter Edouard Manet finished “The Dead Christ with Angels,” which he then sent to that year’s Salon for exhibition. It is a picture of the dead Christ with two angels in the tomb, based (rather loosely) on Mary Magdalene’s sighting of the angels after Jesus’ death. (In the Biblical account, Mary Magdalene only sees the angels, not the body of Christ.)

After it was on its way, the painter realized he had made an error – he painted Christ’s wound from the soldier’s spear on the side of the body, instead of the right. Manet wrote to his friend, the writer Charles Baudelaire, asking advice on what to do. Baudelaire advised him to fix it before the Salon opened, or face ridicule. Manet did not repaint the wound, and he was indeed ridiculed.

It is a moving painting, and oddly more modern-looking than 1864 might suggest. It is one of several religious-themed works that Manet did about that time, and at first glance it seems quite orthodox, aside from the placement of the wound.

But look more closely, and something else becomes apparent. The story of the exchange with Baudelaire notwithstanding, something else is going on this painting, and it suggests a kind of warning for Christians about both “serious” and popular culture.

Look in painting’s the lower right-hand corner, and you will see a snake slithering through rocks. What’s brought to mind is Genesis 3:15, where God tells Adam and Eve about the one to come, who will be bruised on his heel but will bruise the serpent on its head – the passage that is considered the first reference to the promise of the messiah. The snake in Manet’s painting is anything but dead or injured, while Christ is clearly dead (although you can see the halo above his head).

Step back and look at the painting as a whole, and you see the angels attending to the body of the dead Christ and the healthy snake slithering away. The angel on the left does appear sad; the angel attending directly to the dead Christ looks – what? Impassive? They don’t seem ready to announce that He is risen as much as that He’s dead, and they’re there to take him to heaven.

The story can go in one of two directions. Either it is right before Christ is resurrected and the angels’ announcement of that, or it is a new narrative, in which Christ is just another saint, and His soul is being escorted to heaven. The snake’s situation is equally ambiguous – it’s either right before the bruising of its head or there will be no bruising at all, and the serpent is perhaps just a serpent after all.

Manet himself inscribed the painting with the Bible verse reference – John 20:12: Mary is standing outside the tomb and bends over to look inside “and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.” The two angels in the painting are in shades of brown, not white; they are not at the head and the foot but on either side. Whatever one wants to say about the painting, it is not a literal rendering of the verse Manet based it on.

The painting, and the stories it may be telling, serve as a reminder for us about culture. It’s not that we should always, always be literal in how we participate in culture. It is more that we be careful, and not leave what we’re doing so open to two very different (and opposite) interpretations. Manet painted either a religious painting loosely based on scripture, or he painted what looks like an anti-Christian one.

Painting: The Dead Christ with Angels, oil on canvas by Edouard Manet (1864), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

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