Some years ago there was a criticsally successful exhibition in the depths of the National Gallery entitled The Sacred Made Real, which examined Spanish religious art, and the realtionship between painting and polychromatic sculpture. One of the most arresting exhibits was a statue of the dead Christ, lying on a catafalque spotlit from the ceiling, giving one exactly the feeling of being in a morgue. The statue, painted wood, had real hair and wounds that looked all too realistic.
I am now in the country where this type of art is most at home – not Spain, but Mexico. These sort of dressed statues are very common in churches and I have come across several Christs in agony, with their long hair and their haunting glass eyes. But always, for me at least, most distrubing, are the glass coffins containing the Dead Christ. I have seen several dead bodies in my time, but none speak as much as the image of this dead body, all suffering now past, at peace, but a peace gained at so high a price.
This sort of religious statuary often arouses negative emotions in English breasts, I think partly because we do not want to be reminded of just how much the Christ suffered. His sufferings can be denied, his betrayal explained away as some terrible musunderstanding, nobody’s fault, or so we like to think – but someone was to balme, and he did suffer, horribly. When faced with that glass coffin, you cannot really subscribe to the idea of human progress or natural human goodess, much as you would like to.
Mexico is a land of dramatic beauty and terrible sufffering. I am told that some 50,000 people have been killed or have disappeared in the current war on drugs, a war that has no end in sight and which has been singularly unsuccessful. And yet, the country will survive this, just as it has survived other disturbances. Incidentally, this unfortunate history is not visible in any of the places I have visited. One feels no danger on the streets, which, as evening falls, come alive with people. I was last here seven years ago. I wonder why I have stayed away so long.