It’s rare to see an honest discussion of sin on canvas. And not just lust, which is what most people think of as sin, to the extent that they think of it at all. The National Gallery’s exhibition, Sin, now sadly ended, expressed the Christian idea of the Fall and the Redemption using just a dozen pictures and one statue. Naturally, when you see a contemporary treatment of sin you expect the whole idea to be subverted; for once, it didn’t.
As the introduction observed: “In a religious context, sin is an immoral act considered a transgression against divine law. Sin also describes an aspect of the human condition in which we fall short of good moral conduct.” Little word, big idea.
Glaring at me from a neon frame was Tracey Emin’s statement: “It was just a kiss”, which you can take whatever way you like. Except here it’s juxtaposed with Bronzino’s enigmatic “An Allegory with Venus and Cupid”, with Cupid kissing his mother on the lips and fondling her breast. The first thing that strikes you is the white translucent skin, and their expression of pleasure divorced from guilt. The next are the figures of Time holding a menacing arm over the two, and in the background, a screaming figure – Jealousy? Envy? – and a woman’s smiling mask over the body of a reptile. If this is lust, the consequences are discouraging.
On the wall we see the cycle of redemption. First, there’s Jan Brueghel’s exquisite little “Garden of Eden”, where a beautiful white horse takes centre stage, surrounded by pairs of creatures in perfect harmony, including two sweet cats in a tree. Lovely, except in the distance we find the tiny figures of our first parents, up to no good, and about to undo the harmony.
The Fall itself is Cranach’s “Adam and Eve”, where Eve, with the knowing expression of all the artist’s women, hands the apple to a perplexed Adam, scratching his head. It’s twinned with another Cranach, of Venus and Cupid, where Venus too reaches up to a branch in a parallel gesture. As the panel observes: “Portrayed as temptresses leading their male companions to sin, these pictures also demonstrate enduring patriarchal prejudices.”
Right next to it was the “Virgin and Child” by Gossaert, where the inscription round the figures is of the promise by God that the woman will crush the head of the serpent. It’s only a little picture, but pregnant with meaning.
And what of the consequences? The deadly sins, of course, and, moving on, we have Jan Steen’s, “The Consequences of Intemperance” (or gluttony), where a drunk woman falls asleep, leaving the natural order of things to be upended: a girl gives the pet parrot a glass of wine and children feed a pie to a kitten.
As for the forgiveness of sin, which follows in the Christian scheme of things, there were two spectacular and choice examples. One is the vivid painting of the Miracle of St Giles where an angel comes down to the altar where Charlemagne kneels at the consecration with a note to declare that his unspeakable sin has been forgiven.
The poignant monochromatic depiction of the woman taken in adultery by Pieter Bruegel the Elder follows; Christ kneels in front of the spectators to inscribe in the sand, in Dutch, let him who is without sin…
Finally, the figure of the crucified Christ. Except here it is the figure of a black youth by Ron Mueck, who lifts up his t-shirt to look gravely at the wound in his side, pierced by a blade. You could see it as the victim of a knife crime unless you knew about the figure pierced with a Roman spear.
The National Gallery retells a story that everyone once knew and which now hardly anyone does. As Joost Joustra, the curator of the exhibition, observed: “It’s difficult now that so few people know the Bible and the stories. Once you could assume that everyone would know about the scapegoat; now you have to explain it.” And that’s what Sin did. It explained the Christian concept of sin and salvation to an audience that may never have heard it. Good for the National Gallery.