Artists should be the guardians of beauty, not purveyors of the voyeuristic

The National Gallery where the picture is currently being exhibited

There is a very good article in the Herald this week by the composer James MacMillan. With the headline, “I am so proud that the Church loves artists”, it is a recognition that the Church, i.e. the Mystical Body of Christ, will always befriend artists who try to reflect the beauty of God in their own creative lives. MacMillan quotes the words of Pope Paul VI to artists: “If you are friends of genuine art, you are our friends….You have built and adorned [the Church’s] temples, celebrated her dogmas, enriched her liturgy. The Church needs you and turns to you. Do not allow an alliance as fruitful as this to be broken. Do not close your mind to the Holy Spirit. The world in which we live needs beauty in order not to sink into despair. Remember that you are guardians of beauty in the world.”

They are portentous words, addressed, as MacMillan notes, to all artists, not just Catholic ones. He adds his own reflection: “Art can be a window on to the mind of God. Through this window we can encounter beauty and divine truth. Artists can be peculiarly susceptible to the breath of the Holy Spirit which can then inspire their work…”

I have been thinking of this article in the light of a current exhibition of paintings at the National Gallery by the late Richard Hamilton, which have been brought to my attention by a friend. One of the paintings exhibited is called “The Passage of the Angel to the Virgin”, clearly based on the well-known painting of the Annunciation by Fra Angelico. When I say “based”, I mean that viewers will recognise the familiar features of the scene – an angel and a young woman contained within a portico – before they register shock: that the angel Gabriel is shown as a naked young woman and the Virgin Mary, sitting on a chair rather than kneeling in an attitude of prayerful humility, is another naked young woman.

The painting is shocking: to Catholics, who have a particular reverence for the Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church; to other Christians, who recognise her unique role as the mother of their Saviour; and also to Muslims, who have great respect for her as Meriam, the mother of the prophet, Jesus. It is simply offensive to portray the Mother of God who, for Fra Angelico and countless other artists and icon painters as well as believers throughout the ages, is the epitome of modesty and virginal chastity, in a state of total undress. (Portraying the Angel Gabriel as a young woman also skews the traditional Christian understanding of angels as sexless spiritual beings, but this seems more a tiresome feminist slant than something scandalous, unlike the figure of the Virgin.)

According to the dictionary a “scandal” is something that occasions a general feeling of outrage or indignation. Well, I felt a sense of outrage and indignation when I checked out this painting on-line. I emailed the National Gallery to explain why it is so offensive to those of one, if not two, of the world’s great faiths. I explained that Christians do not have a puritanical view of the human body; Christian artists throughout the last 500 years have depicted the nude in great works of art – but that when the subject matter concerns persons with a sacred aura and dignity it is not possible for artists to play around with their own imaginative interpretation as they would with secular or mythological subjects, without causing justified offence. I also (as one does these days) pointed out that they would not have allowed the late Richard Hamilton to treat the subject of Muhammad in a similarly disrespectful way – for obvious reasons.

I duly received an email reply from someone called Chris Morton, the Information Manager at the National Gallery. He was sorry that I had been upset but the Gallery was not going to “censor the works included in this exhibition.” Hamilton’s was a “contemporary response to traditional Christian iconography”; the paintings in the National Gallery “depict universal themes including love, sex, violence, beauty, religion, life and death” and there “is no intention to offend the viewer.”

This simply isn’t good enough. Of course the curators of exhibitions exercise censorship. They would never dare to have an exhibition of e.g. certain photographs of Lewis Carroll showing young girls in a state of undress. And although Hamilton might not have intended to offend the viewer, perhaps being abysmally ignorant of the faith that inspired a Fra Angelico, the curators, even in this post-Christian age, should have had some awareness that traditional Christian iconography ought not to be up for grabs by any edgy, contemporary, experimental, iconoclastic depiction that happens to strike a modern artist.

There are many modern depictions of the Nativity on Christmas cards: Our Lady shown as an outcast, a refugee, a gypsy, an African, a Mexican, a Japanese woman and so on; different settings, different cultures, different garb. But none are disrespectful to her person; none show a complete disregard for her intrinsic feminine modesty. I urge readers to contact Mr Morton with their concerns at what Hamilton has painted at You can also see the painting in question on their website.

Yesterday morning at Mass we sang that lovely Marian hymn, “O Mother blest whom God bestows/on sinners and on just…” As I sang the chorus – “Thou are clement, thou art chaste/Mary thou are fair/of all mothers sweetest, blest/none with thee compare” – I thought how the image of this most chaste of all women has been debased by an ignorant and vulgar depiction. A further thought: Christians believe that the Annunciation was the moment that the Virgin Mary consented to become the Virgin Mother of God; the moment of the Incarnation. So it is doubly sacred – and thus doubly desecrated.

Artists, as Paul VI reminded them, and as James MacMillan reminds us all, are meant to be the “guardians of beauty in the world”; not purveyors of the voyeuristic and profane.