Ancient artefacts…

We took a trip to the Burrell Collection the other day.

This is an incredible accumulation of objects- ancient Greek/Roman, impressionist paintings, Sculptures, swords and armour, fragments of 400 year old tapestry and 1000 year old stained glass windows.

It was all gathered together by William Burrell an extremely wealthy Glasgow shipping merchant. He spent his life gathering it all, and then left it to Glasgow council, along with money to build something to house it in, which had to be in a rural setting. It took the council another 40 years to find somewhere- eventually settling on Pollock park. The collection is so big that only a fraction of the artefacts can be displayed at a time.

Which asks rather a lot of questions about the nature and meaning of art and antiquities. What drove this man to accumulate so much stuff? We who visit Pollock Park may well benefit from his obsession, but can this kind of single minded avarice ever be a good thing?

Burrell might well have been a great bloke (we was known also for his philanthropy) but his legacy seems to be to be rather mixed.

He also collected a number of religious objects- the earliest printed Bibles, fragments of reliquaries and carved statues that somehow survived the zeal of the reformation. Fragments that adorned books made in the great monastic houses.

As I stood and looked at these objects I wondered about what they meant to the people who first beheld them. Where they power statements even then, or were they objects of wonder that drew people to look towards the heavens and worship? Perhaps even then they were both.

The one above (a collection of Nuns carved in Germany around 600 years ago) looks like the carver wanted to display the subjects as full of joy and fun. I wonder if people disapproved?

Investment in icons is unlikely ever to be enough- they can become idols in the beautiful blink of an eye…

The face of Jesus…

Today’s offering from my faithful radio travelling companion- radio 4- was a discussion about one of the earliest surviving images of Jesus, which was the subject of a wonderful programme called ‘A history of the world in 100 objects‘.

This image was discovered not in Israel, or in Rome, but rather in the unlikely environs of Hinton St Mary, Dorset, by a local Blacksmith in 1963. It was laid down as part of a mosaic floor around 350 AD to decorate part of a building that some say was dining room, others believe may have been a chapel. It is a crude image, existing alongside pagan images of characters from Roman mythologyBellerophon killing the Chimera. The idea of putting images of Jesus on the floor that we could then walk over was outlawed soon after- but by then the Romans had abandoned their colony in far off Britain and pulled back to warmer climes- which is how it survived.

The image dates from a time around 40 years after Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, and suddenly a faith that had been persecuted and forced underground became the state religion- and so the powerful and affluent began to wear their faith like a badge of success and favour. Western culture (and the church) has been struggling with this unholy allegiance ever since.

The image sets me thinking about how we come to develop an image of the face of Jesus. We have no contemporary descriptions- and the only thing approaching a description in the Bible comes from long before the birth of Jesus in the words to the prophet Isaiah…

He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.

Isaiah 53:2

What we are left with are images (like the one from Hinton St Mary) that arise out of a particular context. The face of Jesus is then employed as a means of somehow making more real our own ideas, hopes  and prejudices about him. They mirror our failing, fumbling theology…

The rich traditions of iconography are deliberate about using such images as part of Spiritual discipline- something that has always been rather alien to my slightly colourless Protestant background.

(The oldest icon of Christ Pantocrator,encaustic on panel, c. 6th century (Saint Catherine’s MonasteryMount Sinai).)

The tradition that I come from does talk a lot about ‘The face of Jesus’ however- often in the context of rather sickly choruses. Here the face of Jesus in conjured up as a kind of shining radiant king looking down in love from on high.

For the rather unimaginative chorus writer- ‘face’ also conveniently rhymes with ‘grace’…

A much better example of this comes from one of my favourite Christian songwriters- Mark Heard, who sadly died in 1992. Here it is-

If I ever get to see Your face
And if You will spare me
I know that my allegiance to the human race
Will not ensnare me

If I ever get to know Your mind
And I survive it
I’m sure that I will leave a way of life behind
I won’t revive it

Lord, You know I need Your love so bad
I hardly even have the strength
To take Your hand

If I ever get to hear Your voice
And I can take it
I’m certain that I will listen
To the better choice
And I will make it

Written by Mark Heard
© 1981 Bug and Bear Music