Last year, the National Gallery in London mounted an exhibition of works by Michelangelo (1475 – 1564) and Sebastiano del Piombo (1485 – 1547). The exhibition explored the artistic and personal relationship between these two great Renaissance masters. When I visited the exhibition, I was particularly taken by a chalk drawing, The Flagellation of Christ (1516). It was exhibited next to a recreation of the Borgherini Chapel (1516 – 1524) in which Sebastiano executed a mural painting in oil on the chapel’s wall based on Michelangelo’s drawing.
The decoration of the Borgherini Chapel in San Pietro in Montorio, Rome, was intended to be a partnership between Michelangelo and Sebastiano, although the former left the latter to execute the project alone after preparing only a couple of drawings. On the main wall, Sebastiano painted a Flagellation of Christ. In the apse half-dome, he painted a Transfiguration, with Saints Peter and Francis on either side of the entrance, and Isaiah and Ezekiel above the entrance archway.
This is believed to be the first time that an altar decoration has been dedicated to the flagellation. The composition, with the depiction of the transfiguration directly above the flagellation, had a deep symbolic significance in the sixteenth century. The church at the time was riven by simony, corruption and schism, and the flagellation symbolised both the suffering that these scourges caused, and the call to follow Christ in his suffering as the way of purification. The transfiguration was a symbol of the regeneration promised in the resurrection of Christ and of his second coming, and hence for the renewal of the church. So, the juxtaposition of the flagellation and the transfiguration in this chapel conveyed to the faithful a vision of hope, although their church had endured corruption and was in need of purification, as symbolised by the flagellation (which is also known as the scourging). However, it would be transformed through the renewal made possible by Christ’s triumph over evil and death, as symbolised by the transfiguration.
If religious art could offer such hope to the faithful in Renaissance Italy, can it offer anything similar to the faithful in contemporary Australia? I first turned my mind to this question when I wrote a biography of Roddy Meagher QC. As a student at St John’s College at the University of Sydney, he published an essay in the college’s yearbook in 1955. In the essay, he considered whether the Blake Prize for religious art, which was established in 1949, could stimulate the creation of great religious art in Australia.
Meagher identified three reasons that this might not be possible. First, Australian religious art would not be possible if there is a divergence between the artists and the churches over what constitutes religion. Secondly, it might fail if the artists indulge in ‘stylistic exercises’, in which they treat religious themes in a modern manner that fails to deal with the deepest spiritual problems. In this case, they might be first-rate religious decorators, rather than genuine religious artists. Thirdly, his most pressing concern was that artists might not find an audience in Australia that was responsive, enthusiastic, and eager to engage with modern religious art.
As Meagher wrote in his undergraduate essay, “Why the Byzantine mosaics, for example, are truly great is that they, besides being aesthetically attractive, fulfil the needs of a people who are clamouring for and absorbed in religious problems. Is this requisite social condition an essential of great religious art? And, if so, does it exist now in Australia?”
The first Blake Prize was won by Justin O’Brien (1917 – 1996). Meagher praised the winning painting for “combining ideas from the Italian primitives with a personal sense of colour and an individual symbolism.” Meagher was a collector of O’Brien’s work, and lent several pieces to the Art Gallery of New South Wales for its 2011 exhibition, Justin O’Brien: The Sacred Music of Colour.
The 2011 exhibition was the first retrospective of O’Brien’s work since his death. He had enjoyed considerable recognition during his lifetime, and his painting, The Raising of Lazarus, was acquired by the Vatican. Barry Pearce, the head curator of Australian art at the art gallery, wrote “O’Brien loved people, loved drawing and painting portraits and ensembles of figures and telling stories through time-honoured themes. He illuminated through a deep biblical knowledge basic questions of the human condition played out like a sort of timeless medieval procession.”
Roddy Meagher was very frail when the exhibition was being planned. The curator at the art gallery told me, however, that he agreed to let her visit his home to inspect his collection. She found him bedridden and speaking with tremendous effort from behind an oxygen mask. Yet he could tell her what O’Brien had said to him decades earlier about the picture she chose to hang in the exhibition. Roddy paid one last visit to the art gallery to see the exhibition. He was in a wheelchair pushed by his nurse, Alan, and only had vision in one eye. He knew all too well how wretched his bodily condition was, and yet he was uplifted by the sacred music of colour that was Justin O’Brien’s paintings. The exhibition seemed to be proof of the renaissance of natural modern religious art in Australia that Meagher had hoped to see when he wrote as an undergraduate half a century earlier.
Giving expression to the religious perception of the age is the highest achievement of any art, according to the novelist Leo Tolstoy in his theoretical investigation, What is Art? This is an approach that is refined further by the poet T. S. Eliot, in an essay entitled Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca.
Eliot explains that the poet’s task is not to engage in “any real thinking”, but rather to use the thought that is current in the poet’s time as a vehicle to give expression to the poet’s feeling of what it is like to live in that age. The poet specialises in expressing “precise emotion”, which Eliot thinks is no easier than expressing “precise thought”. As Eliot writes:
In truth neither Shakespeare nor Dante did any real thinking – that was not their job; and the relative value of the thought current at their time, the material enforced upon each to use as the vehicle of his feeling, is of no importance. It does not make Dante a greater poet, or mean that we can learn more from Dante than from Shakespeare. We can certainly learn more from Aquinas than from Seneca, but that is quite a different matter. When Dante says
La sua voluntade e nostra pace [In His will is our peace]
it is great poetry, and there is a great philosophy behind it. When Shakespeare says
As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods;
They kill us for their sport.
it is equally great poetry, though the philosophy behind it is not great. But the essential is that each expresses, in perfect language, some permanent human impulse. Emotionally, the latter is just as strong, just as true, and just as informative – just as useful and beneficial in the sense which poetry is useful and beneficial, as the former.”
Eliot no doubt had himself in mind when he wrote, “A poet may be wholly isolated in his generation, he may believe in nothing that his age maintains, he may support everything that it denies; but he needs, whether to support or to deny, some intellectual currents about him.” Eliot’s artist is not offering a running commentary on the political and moral fabric of the society in which he finds himself. Rather, he seeks to give expression to the precise emotion of what it is like to live in such a moral and political climate.
This provides one way of conceiving of the challenge for the modern religious artist in Australia. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has revealed a church as challenged by evil as anything witnessed by the church in Michelangelo and Sebastiano’s day. If Eliot is correct, the artist’s role is not to pass moral judgment on the church in its current travails, but to give expression to what it feels like to live in the church in this moment.
Are Australian artists up to this challenge? First, they would need to share the church’s conception of religion. Secondly, they would need to have the capacity to deal with the deepest spiritual problems that the church currently faces. Finally, they would need an audience that is eager to engage with art that gives expression to how it feels to engage with the church’s deepest spiritual problems.
Justin O’Brien seems to prove that authentic religious art could still be created in 20th century Australia. It remains to be seen whether such art will be created in this century. What is required is a Borgherini Chapel for our day. This would give expression to how it feels for the church to undergo such modern scourging as the confrontation with its own failures of responsibility and care, and above all with the experience of the suffering of children that has so painfully been brought to light recently. It would also give expression to the feeling of hope that the church has for renewal, as symbolised by the transfiguration.
Perhaps an Australian Sebastiano will emerge to fulfil the needs of a people who are clamouring for art that gives expression to the experience of corruption and hope of renewal that is contemporary religious experience.