One of the tragic consequences of the Reformation in the 16th century was the wholesale destruction of religious art. Statues of saints were toppled or defaced, paintings were vandalised or burnt, and stained glass windows were smashed. Throughout Europe there was a wanton and systematic desecration of those aids to devotion which had inspired so many of the faithful over the centuries. In large churches and medieval cathedrals, walls that were covered in religious paintings were whitewashed to remove any evidence of the art of the religious painter.
For what purpose? It was to remove any trace of “idolatrous” imagery, and to stamp out the practice of seeking the prayers of saints in time of need. Instead, believers were directed to focus on the written word of the Bible, which became the sole authority in matters spiritual. Which may be fine if you prefer plain, undecorated churches without candles or without any visual stimulus to faith, but I can’t help but think that something important was lost in all of this destruction and reductionism. Thankfully, the Church was later to change its mind, at least in part. We can worship with all our senses, including the visual one, and our worship is all the richer for it.
A striking example of what once was lost but has now been recovered is visible on the walls of the Krämarekapellet in Malmö, Sweden. The “Tradesmen’s Chapel”, originally built around the middle of the fifteenth century when the city was part of Denmark, sits to the side of Sankt Petri kyrka – St Peter’s church – near the center of the city.
That the paintings have survived is down to a stroke of unusual good fortune. Once the whole of St Peter’s Church would have been adorned with wall paintings, however in the mid nineteenth century, before the paintings were discovered beneath the whitewash, most of the walls were knocked down as part of renovation work. The “Tradesman’s Chapel” survived however, because the city fire department needed somewhere to store its equipment, and used the chapel. The paintings were rediscovered during a 1904 -1906 restoration.
I took this picture of the crucifixion by holding my iPhone against the wall and zooming in to the image twenty feet above. It is a very different representation of crucifixion to the one we usually see. Two angels unfurl what appears to be a large sheet or tapestry. On it, instead of a body on the cross, we get only the hands and feet, with the nails through them. We can identity a crown of thorns and in the center the heart of Jesus – a real heart, with a clearly identifiable aorta. Then, as now, the heart is the center of emotional life; it is the core of the person and their center of being. In the gospel of John we read how “One of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out.” (19:34). The artist shows this spear penetrating Jesus’ heart. The sense is clear – this is the work of man, to kill the Son of God – to break his heart, both literally and figuratively.
But the painting reveals this to be the plan of God, because it is unrolled by the angels for our benefit. The pain and suffering of God – of Jesus on the Cross – is part of the saving plan of God for the world.
Even today, this idea is astounding – surely no rational human being could have devised such a plan to demonstrate so starkly the profoundness of God’s love for us. I wondered if the medieval Christians felt the same mixture of guilt and exaltation gazing at the image as I did. I felt guilt for the evil that condemned and executed an innocent man, and exaltation that even then God did not leave us in our sins, but saved us from ourselves through the sacrifice of his only Son.
This may be an ancient story but it is still the same one which speaks to our human condition. Seeing the wall painting reminded me that in the crucifixion God showed us his love in all of its pain and profundity. While our sins continues to pierce Jesus’ heart, we are being saved continuously through his abundant, forgiving and healing love.
With joy and praise