Saturday, July 5, 2008

The Establishment Christ

Above is the statue of Christ that the great NeoClassical Sculptor Berthel Thorvaldsen carved for the Church of Our Lady (now the Lutheran Cathedral) in his native Copenhagen.  After having been destroyed by British shelling in 1807, the church was rebuilt in the NeoClassical style.  Thorvaldsen was commissioned to make a series of marble sculptures for the church of which this was the centerpiece.  He began work on the sculptures in his workshop in Rome in 1820, and installed them himself in 1838 as part of his triumphant return to Copenhagen (though not well known in the English speaking world, Thorvaldsen remains famous on the European continent).

Thorvaldsen was famous for bringing something of the austerity of newly discovered early Greek sculpture to his figures (he "restored" the sculptures from the Temple of Aphaia at Aegina when they were acquired by the King of Bavaria).  And it's that Greek austerity that's responsible for both the success and the ambiguity of what is probably the finest example of the new type of Establishment Christ emerging out of the NeoClassical movement.  The larger than life figure looms over the interior of the church.  It is grand and mysterious, with an almost theatrical sense of presence.
It is also an ambiguous figure.  The inscription below says in Danish "Come to Me" and the gesture is indeed welcoming.  But that welcome is checked by the beautifully carved, and cooly distant face.  It is a grand figure distilling the original sources of the traditional image of Christ that appears fully formed about the 6th century out of classical images of Apollo and Jupiter.
Thorvaldsen himself was aware of the ambiguity of this image.

I know that when I am dead, they will say that my Christian figures are Greeks -- and rightly, for without the Greek school it is impossible to work in a correct and intelligible way.  And my Greek figures will be said to be Christians -- again correctly for I have never been able to allow myself to work with thoughts other than those which constitute my aspirations.  Without these priniciples I would never have been able to create my Apostles and my Christ.

Out of this combination of sincere piety and equally sincere classicism emerges the Establishment Christ image.  We are not quite to the popular modern conventional "Jesus Meek and Mild," but we are on our way.  This is a supreme example of that grand, mysterious, and remote figure favored by the emerging state churches of the 19th century (including the Roman Catholic).  Christ the God-man safely mythologized and locked away in marble and bronze, dragooned into the service of the State as the spiritual foundation of the established order.    Though images like this were frequently the creations of sincere piety, it is hard not to recall Napoleon's cynical remark that nothing keeps the poor in line like the threat of eternal damnation.

This statue is very popular with the Mormons for reasons that are not clear to me.  A duplicate of it appears in the Temple visitor's center in Salt Lake City.


Anonymous said...
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June Butler said...

Counterlight, this sculpture puts me off. There's something that seems not quite right about it - not the technique, for it's quite well-executed - but I guess what you say, the coldness, the suggestion of the movement toward the pretty plastic Jesus.

OT, Susan S. would like to read your blog, but she says it's now by invitation only. The link gives her email address.

bls said...

Counterlight, I just wanted to say how much I'm enjoying your art posts - they are terrific!

I loved the Goya series and the one on Marat especially, but all are very interesting and enlightening. All stuff I didn't know, so thanks very much for doing them.

bls said...

(Oh, and the one on the monument to Isaac Newton was fantastic! Again, something I'd never seen or heard of before.)

Counterlight said...


According to my Comments settings, it should be wide open to anyone. I'll contact her.

I agree with you about the statue, impressive but...feh!

Counterlight said...

Thanks for the interest folks. I'm just thinking out loud here. These are issues that have been rolling around in my head for years.

This blog must not be that obscure. I had my first spam comment; something about winning lottery numbers.

Davis said...

It's the same impulse to "heroicize" as in David's Oath of the Horatii and the Napoleonic school as well. It just sits comfortably in its epoch, but is so far removed from our day.

Like so many others of its type it has a beauty, a very cold beauty.

Don't we want Jesus to be warm and fuzzy today?

June Butler said...

Counterlight, nevermind my comment about Susan S. She was talking about someone else. Sorry about the misunderstanding.

it's margaret said...

Maybe the Mormons have it right --and you won the Lottery because you posted this image of Jesus!

Joking aside --he is absolutely monumental and imperious. I cannot imagine this Jesus eating with sinners and breaking the Law.

Anonymous said...

Not to mention the millions of little copies scattered in humble homes around Northern Europe.

To me actually, the original in Thorvalden's Museum (just by the Palace) was a revelation, simply because of the bad copies ;=)

Anonymous said...

The problem Susan S has experienced is about Father Jake's place. It requres Blogspot passwords - and mine is destroyed somehow in 2006... by Google/Blogspot themselves. I can't even assess my own spot ;=)

Anonymous said...

The sculpture does nothing for me. Yes, I have seen this in a Mormon Temple (before consecration) - whoooeee - there was a festival of Bad Art indeed. Some bad religious art I like - the ubiquitous plaster statues placed in Catholic hospitals. - but for non-art reasons.