Religious Icons Once Again Exhibited

Nov 16, 2002 03:00 AM EST

ARIS — The Seventh Ecumenical Council of the Roman Catholic Church encouraged artists to propagate sacred images in faith during its meeting in Nicaea (what is now Turkey) in A.D. 787. These images were seen as a practical way of distinguishing Christianity from Judaism and Islam, and of carrying the Gospel to the unreached.

Over the centuries, scenes from the New Testament, such as the nativity, Last Supper, the Calvary and the Ascension became familiar to Christians through the sculptures and paintings of artists. As iconolatry grew, these images assumed sanctity, as though they had their own lives. However, when these same scenes were expressed in the photographic art form in the mid 19th century, they lost much of their mystery and power, as though human-reenacted episodes from the Bible were less spiritual than their sculpted and painted representations. By the 20th century, photographers had concluded that traditional Christian symbols could remain relevant only if they were themselves transformed.

"Corpus Christi: Photographic Representations of Christ 1855-2002," an exhibition at the Hôtel de Sully in Paris through Jan. 5, offers a fascinating overview of how photographers have addressed Jesus' place in Western civilization. The Israel Museum in Jerusalem, which conceived the exhibition and is to present it next year, says the show is the first of its kind. Later it may also travel to the United States.

The show¡¯s coordinator and curator of the Museum, Mr. Perez, asserted that the Israel Museum put together the show because Jerusalem was the Holy City of Christianity and Judaism, therefore, it would be easier for a non-Christian to pick works for their artistic quality rather than for their religious content.

Since the subject remains delicate, Mr. Perez emphasized avoiding any "gratuitously shocking or blasphemous" images to Christians. One such example, a sexual interpretation of the Last Supper, was excluded from the show, though it was included in the catalogue. A small notice at the entrance to the exhibition warns that some of the 150 photographs may be offensive.

Many of the earliest works on display resemble tableaux vivants of Renaissance masterpieces, with actors dressed in the flowing robes of Jesus' disciples or in the dress of Roman soldiers as they re-enact, for instance, the Stations of the Cross. Fred Holland Day, a devout American, photographed himself as Jesus in agony for his series "The Seven Last Words of Jesus." In the 1850's, Eugène Durieu photographed a bearded man on a cross as a model for a fresco by Delacroix, while Julia Margaret Cameron recreated a manger scene with a sleeping baby on the straw, watched over by a Madonna-like figure.

A break with traditional art came around the turn of the 20th century, when some photographers began using Christian symbols as metaphors, most dramatically through images of a naked woman on a cross. Though these could be viewed as feminist statements, it was also a time when many photographers were making profits from selling erotic or pornographic pictures, and these photographs thus became respectable ways of portraying women in bondage, just as Guglielmo Marconi's "Marie Madeleine" was an excuse to display a sensual-looking nude.

By then, European painters and sculptors had largely abandoned religious art. And when they again returned to the subject with the Dada and Surrealist movements of the 1920's and 30's, it was invariably as satire.

By Pauline J.