There’s something of a miracle at the National Gallery, London, and I don’t mean the Artemisia Gentileschi show; it’s an exhibition on Sin, in about a dozen paintings and a statue. And not just Lust, which is what most people think of as sin, to the extent that they think of it at all; instead it expresses the Christian idea of the Fall and the Redemption in pictures. Naturally, when you see a contemporary treatment of Sin you expect the whole idea to be subverted; this doesn’t.
As the introduction observes, “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.
It starts with Andy Warhol’s reproduction in black and white of a flyer he was given on the street in New York, saying Repent and Sin No More! Which you would assume to be mocking or ironical if this were a contemporary artist like Gilbert and George, except that Andy Warhol was a practising Catholic. So, it’s not mocking, not really.
Then we get Tracey Emin’s statement in neon: “It was just a kiss”, which you can take whatever way you like. Except here it’s juxtaposed with Bronzino’s enigmatic 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, slightly poisonous 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”.
Righy next to it is a 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.
As the panel observes, In Christianity, Adam and Eve’s wrongdoing is believed to affect all who come after them. This concept is known as original sin. Gossaert inscribed his picture with God’s address to the snake, punishing it for tempting Adam and Eve to bring sin into the world. The infant Christ stands on his mother’s lap below the inscription, his arms outstretched, foreshadowing his crucifixion. Christians believe that Christ died on the cross to redeem the sins of the world, restoring the relationship between God and humanity”.
And what of the consequences? The deadly sins, of course, and here 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; meanwhile, a prostitute gets her client drunk.
Then there’s an episode from Hogarth’s Marriage a la Mode showing the morning after the night before.
Man is now very much fallen; so we come to Redemption in Diego Velasquez’ Immaculate Conception, preparatory to the Incarnation.
But we also have Holman Hunt’s curious depiction of the Scapegoat, onto which the sins of the people were loaded on the Day of Atonement and set free into the desert; this animal looks crushed.
As for the forgiveness of sin, which follows in the Christian scheme of things, there are two spectacular 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 next is the poignant monochromatic depiction of the woman taken in adultery by Pieter Breugel the Elder; Christ kneels in front of the spectators to inscribe in the sand, in Dutch, let him who is without sin…
Finally we reach 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.
This, then, is a little exhibition which tells 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, for instance, you could assume that everyone would know about the scapegoat; now you have to explain it”. And that’s what this exhibition does. It explains the Christian concept of sin and salvation to an audience that may never have heard it before. Good for the National Gallery.
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