You must see the Edward Burne-Jones exhibition at Tate Britain in London, especially if you love myths and legends, heroes and monsters. Jones was a 19th-century, Protestant, Pre-Raphaelite artist with a background in theology: not quite “one of us” but with a foot in a medieval past that gave his painting a Catholic sensibility, much the same way that the upbringing of one-or-two modern artists occasionally betrays itself, like a regional accent.
Damien Hirst, for instance, is not a believing Catholic but was raised one, and has credited the Church as an inspiration for his images of pain, death and life. He recently unveiled 14 whopping great bronze structures outside a hospital in Qatar that depict the development of a baby from conception to birth, called The Miraculous Journey. It’s a potential terror target – nude imagery of any sort doesn’t go down well in Muslim countries – and catalyst to debate about representations of pregnancy in art.
Writing in The Guardian, Hannah Clugston welcomed the sculptures as an antidote to unrealistic images of childbearing, much of which, she implies, are a legacy of Catholic theology: “It doesn’t help that the most iconic pregnant woman is the Virgin Mary, and we very rarely get a glimpse of her with a rounded belly.” Cut to Jacques Daret’s Nativity scene, with a serene Madonna looking at a happy baby lying, incongruously, on the floor – all calm, too clean and not even a hint of an epidural. No wonder that generations of young girls thought they arrived by stork.
Clugston is unfair to medieval Catholic art. First, its contemporary audience would’ve largely understood what pregnancy was all about, perhaps better than us. Children grew up faster and married earlier. And if a peasant went into labour she didn’t go to a hospital; she stayed in the home for all to see, perhaps calling upon St Margaret for assistance (the saint had been swallowed by a dragon and spat out again thanks to the crucifix she was holding, a rich metaphor for delivery from pain). The medieval audience also understood that Mary wasn’t a typical woman, but born without sin and thus free from the usual agonies that accompany pregnancy. Depictions of Mary aren’t meant to be anatomical; they are devotional and aspirational.
Clugston’s article also betrays a common misconception that Christianity is anti-sex or wilfully ignorant about it. Au contraire. When I was a wee boy, in the days before hardcore internet porn, the only two sources for information on sex were the rude words in the Oxford English Dictionary or certain passages of the Bible. The good book had it all: begetting, onanism, whatever-the-hell-happened in Sodom, the Song of Songs, and of course the Gospels’ language of virginity, maidenhead, marriage and adultery; even the circumcision of Christ takes centre stage as the first wound which, like Christ’s wounding upon the Cross, is the physical fulfilment of a religious covenant (the Holy Foreskin became a much-trafficked relic in the medieval ages). It’s the meeting of human and divine that results in the incarnation of Jesus as the son of God.
If modern audiences are insensitive to the implicit sensuality of Catholicism, it’s often because they been desensitised by modern life and are incapable of reading subtlety. If there’s no blood, gore, bottoms or boobs, our senses struggle to react. I was surprised by another Guardian writer’s review of the Burne-Jones exhibition that said his work lacked spatial and emotional depth, that it was a “procession of the living dead”. Some Victorians, by contrast, thought Burne-Jones’s work was overloaded with emotion, even eroticism – hence the contemporary outrage at his painting Phyllis and Demophoön, because it featured full-frontal nudity. Such was the controversy that Burne-Jones retreated from public life for seven years.
Burne-Jones’s gods and heroes were idealistic representations but also realistic in their detail, which, again, seems to me a key element of Jesus – of the manifestation of God on Earth so that, like the doubting Thomas, we can look and see, confirming that God is real, he is among us and, thus, we are loved.
Hirst betrays a Catholic upbringing by treating pregnancy in the same manner. The work is called The Miraculous Journey – not The Biological Process, but a miracle. The point I take from the 14 sculptures is that the better you understand the reality of pregnancy, the closer you see it, the more it actually looks divinely ordained. Just as when one stands on a hill and looks down at the rolling fields and sheep and thinks: “Nothing this beautiful can be random. It must have been painted by God.”
Tim Stanley is a journalist, historian and Catholic Herald contributing editor