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Artists should be the guardians of beauty, not purveyors of the voyeuristic

Hamilton’s depiction of the Annunciation at the National Gallery tampers with traditional Christian iconography.

By on Monday, 29 October 2012

The National Gallery where the picture is currently being exhibited

The National Gallery where the picture is currently being exhibited

There is a very good article in the Herald this week by the composer James MacMillan. With the headline, “I am so proud that the Church loves artists”, it is a recognition that the Church, i.e. the Mystical Body of Christ, will always befriend artists who try to reflect the beauty of God in their own creative lives. MacMillan quotes the words of Pope Paul VI to artists: “If you are friends of genuine art, you are our friends….You have built and adorned [the Church’s] temples, celebrated her dogmas, enriched her liturgy. The Church needs you and turns to you. Do not allow an alliance as fruitful as this to be broken. Do not close your mind to the Holy Spirit. The world in which we live needs beauty in order not to sink into despair. Remember that you are guardians of beauty in the world.”

They are portentous words, addressed, as MacMillan notes, to all artists, not just Catholic ones. He adds his own reflection: “Art can be a window on to the mind of God. Through this window we can encounter beauty and divine truth. Artists can be peculiarly susceptible to the breath of the Holy Spirit which can then inspire their work…”

I have been thinking of this article in the light of a current exhibition of paintings at the National Gallery by the late Richard Hamilton, which have been brought to my attention by a friend. One of the paintings exhibited is called “The Passage of the Angel to the Virgin”, clearly based on the well-known painting of the Annunciation by Fra Angelico. When I say “based”, I mean that viewers will recognise the familiar features of the scene – an angel and a young woman contained within a portico – before they register shock: that the angel Gabriel is shown as a naked young woman and the Virgin Mary, sitting on a chair rather than kneeling in an attitude of prayerful humility, is another naked young woman.

The painting is shocking: to Catholics, who have a particular reverence for the Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church; to other Christians, who recognise her unique role as the mother of their Saviour; and also to Muslims, who have great respect for her as Meriam, the mother of the prophet, Jesus. It is simply offensive to portray the Mother of God who, for Fra Angelico and countless other artists and icon painters as well as believers throughout the ages, is the epitome of modesty and virginal chastity, in a state of total undress. (Portraying the Angel Gabriel as a young woman also skews the traditional Christian understanding of angels as sexless spiritual beings, but this seems more a tiresome feminist slant than something scandalous, unlike the figure of the Virgin.)

According to the dictionary a “scandal” is something that occasions a general feeling of outrage or indignation. Well, I felt a sense of outrage and indignation when I checked out this painting on-line. I emailed the National Gallery to explain why it is so offensive to those of one, if not two, of the world’s great faiths. I explained that Christians do not have a puritanical view of the human body; Christian artists throughout the last 500 years have depicted the nude in great works of art – but that when the subject matter concerns persons with a sacred aura and dignity it is not possible for artists to play around with their own imaginative interpretation as they would with secular or mythological subjects, without causing justified offence. I also (as one does these days) pointed out that they would not have allowed the late Richard Hamilton to treat the subject of Muhammad in a similarly disrespectful way – for obvious reasons.

I duly received an email reply from someone called Chris Morton, the Information Manager at the National Gallery. He was sorry that I had been upset but the Gallery was not going to “censor the works included in this exhibition.” Hamilton’s was a “contemporary response to traditional Christian iconography”; the paintings in the National Gallery “depict universal themes including love, sex, violence, beauty, religion, life and death” and there “is no intention to offend the viewer.”

This simply isn’t good enough. Of course the curators of exhibitions exercise censorship. They would never dare to have an exhibition of e.g. certain photographs of Lewis Carroll showing young girls in a state of undress. And although Hamilton might not have intended to offend the viewer, perhaps being abysmally ignorant of the faith that inspired a Fra Angelico, the curators, even in this post-Christian age, should have had some awareness that traditional Christian iconography ought not to be up for grabs by any edgy, contemporary, experimental, iconoclastic depiction that happens to strike a modern artist.

There are many modern depictions of the Nativity on Christmas cards: Our Lady shown as an outcast, a refugee, a gypsy, an African, a Mexican, a Japanese woman and so on; different settings, different cultures, different garb. But none are disrespectful to her person; none show a complete disregard for her intrinsic feminine modesty. I urge readers to contact Mr Morton with their concerns at what Hamilton has painted at You can also see the painting in question on their website.

Yesterday morning at Mass we sang that lovely Marian hymn, “O Mother blest whom God bestows/on sinners and on just…” As I sang the chorus – “Thou are clement, thou art chaste/Mary thou are fair/of all mothers sweetest, blest/none with thee compare” – I thought how the image of this most chaste of all women has been debased by an ignorant and vulgar depiction. A further thought: Christians believe that the Annunciation was the moment that the Virgin Mary consented to become the Virgin Mother of God; the moment of the Incarnation. So it is doubly sacred – and thus doubly desecrated.

Artists, as Paul VI reminded them, and as James MacMillan reminds us all, are meant to be the “guardians of beauty in the world”; not purveyors of the voyeuristic and profane.

  • Cecilia

    Thank you for this, Francis. I had a look at the website and in summary:

    1. The works are not very good, are they?

    2. The work of the late Mr Hamilton seems as if it takes the point of view of your typical dirty old man – exploiting the female body in the name of, ahem, ‘art’.  

    3. As for your views on the Annunciation piece, I quite agree – it is an insult. And more insulting that it is not very good art, even for its era and genre. But these are the times in which we live.

  • nytor

    “and also to Muslims, who have great respect for her as Meriam, the mother of the prophet, Jesus”

    Was it necessary to reference this heathen distortion of the faith in a Catholic newspaper?

  • Ghengis

    If a large number of people call it ugly, as it is ugly, then we can start breaking the PC stranglehold on our linguistic discourse where nothing is good or bad but only subjective. Lack of harmony and distortion is objectively ugly.

  • Cecilia

    There is a very good essay about the Fra Angelico Annunications here: - it explains extremely well the theology of the Annunciation and how the elements of the theology are captured in the paintings. Which makes the parody even more galling. It is well worth a read.

  • paulpriest

    It’s nowhere near as offensive as Hamilton’s ‘The Citizen’ where he has Bobby Sands as a Christ figure with swirls of excrement in the background…

    Hamilton’s famous for one piece of iconic pop art which has been used  ad nauseam to reflect the modern era…everything else was guff…and its only strengths were in its ability to insult….

    Let the dead bury the dead.
    We have the Fra Angelico.

  • Romulus

    Gimmicky, derivative, and (in view of the recurring theme of gratuitous nudity), obsessive.

  • Just_a_simpleton

    Would they depict our earthly queen – or even the Duchess of Cambridge – in such a tawdry manner, and claim it was justified as art?

  • theroadmaster

    It is typical of the modern iconoclast to use the freedom of expression motivation to cover his/her tracks in relation to their obscene depictions of much revered holy figures in Christianity and other religions.  One has only to recall the infamous cases where Our Lady of Guadalupe was presented in a floral bikini last year, or the controversial painting of Mary, covered in elephant dung by a Nigerian artist, which caused a public furore when it was put on display in New York in 1999. It has become par for the course for the modern artist, who wants to court notoriety on his/her way to much sought after publicity and a bulging bank balance.  They know that Catholics and other Christians will vehemently protest their deeply-felt anger without resorting to violent retribution which would never be mandated by Our Lord.  Thus these so called artists are choosing easy targets, which they know will pose no threat to them in terms of life or limb.  But Catholics and their fellow Christians must oppose such  offensive liberties taken with the sanctified persons of Our Lady or Our Lord, and publicly resist in peaceful protest such manifestations of the abuse of artistic freedoms.

  • Timt-robertson

    Our Lord revealed to Sr Lucia of Fatima  that the fifth offense, in Our Lady’s request for the Five First Saturdays communion of reparation to her Immaculate Heart, referred to those who outrage Our Lady in her sacred images. In this Year of Faith, let us show our commitment to upholding the truth of the faith by practising the Five First Saturdays devotion, in reparation for this gratuitous outrage against the immaculate Mother of our Saviour. Moreover, Our Lady promises to assist at the hour of death, with all the graces necessary for salvation, all those who do practice this simple and beautiful devotion.

    If only this devotion and the daily recitation of the Rosary, as requested by Our Lady at Fatima, were widely  practised in the Church, social evils would decline and the Church would recover spiritual health and strength.

  • Rizzo The Bear

    Oh, dear!

    A rubbish ‘artist’ decides to get some publicity by so-called ‘pushing the boundaries of taste’ by outraging Our Holy Mother.

    What a sad, sad world we live in.

    To offend Our Lord Jesus Christ is very, very wicked but to insult his Most Holy Mother is, to put it mildly, asking for trouble. A whole lot of trouble!As the replica of Our Lady of Czestochowa is heading to my parish shortly as part of the ‘From Ocean To Ocean’ pilgrimage for life, I am reminded of the story of why Our Blessed Lady has visible scars on her cheek in that most beautiful, holy icon.Many centuries ago, the enemy thought it was OK to swipe his sword across her cheek where – to his astonishment – it bled and the enemy responsible was struck down in torment and agony worse than hell.Another story I read was when Cromwellians did their heinous deeds in Ireland. One of the roundheads knocked the head off a statue of Our Blessed Lady and kicked it like a football. The next thing that happened was, shortly afterwards, he was crushed to death by a falling rock.’When wicked men blaspheme thee, I’ll love and bless thy name.’We must all bear in mind that Satan HATES Our Lady, which is why the Holy Rosary is a very powerful prayer against evil. As we are nagged constantly about our 5 a day fruit and veg intake, why not have our 5 a day of important prayers, including the Holy Rosary? Your dietitian/doctor will tut-tut at you for not eating what should be good for your health, but Our Lord and His Blessed Mother’s diet for a healthy soul is more important!PS: No doubt, if an image of the Islamic Prophet was on show in an insulting manner, we can expect that the said art gallery would be razed to the ground and the artist would be lynched.

  • Zimbalist

    The best revenge that will be had against this, and all other tasteless rubbish purporting to be art, is that it will in the (hopefully, more enlightened) future be regarded as rubbish.  If something that is meant to be beautiful (the true function of art) is not in fact beautiful, then it is doomed in an historical sense because it is based on a fraud (i.e. it is not that which it claims to be).

  • Iréne

    Too many artists today are definitely not interested in beauty; YES,ther is TRUE BEATY, but rather is desperately seeking to scandalize and ridicule what is truly beautiful and innocent. They seem to hate beauty. Did they suffer from inferiority complex in their childhood and adolescence? Do they feel unloved or unattractive, or both? Attacking the Virgin in this condescending manner – could it have another expananation? Human beings are usually not that complicated, not that sophisticated, as they seem to imagine, in their pride.
    But don´t just blame the “arist” ( ha!! what kind of an artist is this one, compared to the glorious master Fra Angelico?!!), but the visitors, who gladly pay the fee to  watch all kinds of perversions at our museums! I am talking of all those “intellectuals” , who often are far from being truly intellectuals, who just blindly follow the mainstream “intellectual” culture (sub culture, rather, in many cases) out of sheer cowardice and comfort.


  • NewMeena

    I think the major problem for most of the usual luminaries who post on this site, is the fact that this artist was neither “a rubbish artist” nor “a dirty old man” nor a purveyor of voyeurism  etc…  -  nor indeed properly described by any one of the other ignorant insults that have been written here about him.

    Among many other distinctions he was made a member of the Order of the Companions of Honour (CH).
    This is an award and reward for outstanding achievements in the arts, literature, music, science, politics, industry, or religion. 

    It is a very major award, and It is sometimes regarded as the junior order to the Order of Merit (no less).
    There is always a limited membership of the latter, and elevation to that level is often delayed by longevity – beyond even that of Richard Hamilton CH.

  • maxmarley

    Meena I am so pleased you are impressed with this man and his efforts.
    ‘When people accept futility and the absurd as normal, the culture is decadent.” Jacques Barzun. 

  • Kevin

    Yes, it is an unfortunate distraction. I doubt that the Mother of God would appreciate what is said about her son in the Koran. Not after what He went through to establish the truth in the first place.

  • Kevin

    Well that proves it then. Like a Nobel Peace Prize for Barack Obama and the EU. Or a knighthood for Jimmy Savile?

  • Kevin

    Thanks for this article. This is an important piece of news and a disappointment from the National Gallery. I am sure Chris Morton is decent enough that, were his own loved one to be depicted in such a manner, he would not be placated by such an excuse.

  • Alan

    Not necessary, but relevant.  The author is simply making the point that not just Christians honour Mary.  What’s wrong with that?

  • NewMeena

    I read Barzun’s obituary in Saturday’s Telegraph too. (What he thought of that newspaper I do not know!)

    But your insinuation that Barzun would have found Richard Hamilton’a art either futile or absurd is insolent.

  • NewMeena

    It is nothing “like”, as your juvenile language puts it, the Nobel Peace Prizes or the knighthoodS (please don’t forget the Papal one) to which you refer.

    Nothing here is intended to “prove” anything, but merely to demonstrate that those who have (by definition) the knowledge and intelligence to evaluate the worth of examples of visual art are not comprised within the group of CH posters on this article.  

  • maxmarley

    Even by our current propensity for the coarse and decadent, this sad effort by Hamilton is at best mere kitsch. But the zeitgeist will applaud him for it.

  • NewMeena

    There is nothing sad, coarse or decadent about the human body, about nudity, or about the use of nudity in art.

  • Kevin

    It is exactly like awarding a knighthood to Fred Goodwin or a Turner Prize to goodness knows whom. It is called the fallacy of the appeal to prestige.

    By the way, thanks for the emphasis on the Papal knighthood. It lets us know where you are coming from.

  • Kevin

    While you are looking up the words “like” and “demonstrate” you should also look up “boorish” and “garrulous”, as they apply to your commenting here.

  • NewMeena

    It was not an emphasis. Simply the result of your use of the singular for JS’s knighthoods..

  • Don Camillo

     I do not agree with your interpretation. To me, the nakedness represents the innocence of the Second Eve, unfallen. The virgin is also seated, not kneeling, in the original. The young woman appears contemplative, pondering the message she has received. This is an allegorical picture, not a realistic representation. We have humanity, with nothing of its own and totally open to God (cf. the teaching of Blessed John Paul II), receptive to the initiative that comes from God.

  • NewMeena

    And ya boo to you too.
    Really Kev!

  • Nesbyth

    NO! Just look at the outcry when “Kate” was photographed sunbathing topless!

  • savvy

    There is a difference between art and porn. I would like to see them try this with Muhammad and Aisha.

  • savvy

    I agree.

  • savvy

    Yes, but look at the positive side. The Quran accepts the Immaculate conception, when a lot of Christians do not.

  • Richard

    “Honour Mary” what, by denying her son?

    I tire of this ‘Abrahanic religions’ v secularism mindset.

    After 500 years of Protestantism why should we expect any national institution to honour Our Lady?

    Well, enjoy the better works in NG while you can: after a brief reign of secularism, Islam will rise and not tolerate such things.

  • Richard

    The purpose of the Immaculate Conception was to make the Incarnation possible: what des Islam have to say about that?

  • Fr. Ed Tomlinson

    I am a married Ordinariate priest and my wife happens to be a painting restorer at the National Gallery. With first hand involvement I can assure people that, on the whole, the Gallery is VERY sympathetic to the faith. Exhibitions such as ‘the Sacred made real’ and ‘Images of Christ’ have all demonstrated a sensitivity and understanding of Catholicism and I know that many of the staff are themselves believers. Obviously though there are also the ignorant and the anti – it is a big place.

    Bottom line let us not hammer an institution which is normally a good friend. We need them even if sometimes, like here, the judgement was off.

  • Daud Matthews

    Like most things, there is good and bad. Funny how you only want the good and don’t even want to admit to the existence of the bad. Better not to have pictures and icons if you want to decide how they depict their subject.    

  • M S Sheikh

    Perfect comment.  In fact I had been thinking of posing such a question but was afraid of opposition, intolerance and abuse from the English version of Talibans.

  • PatriciusV

     I am inclined to agree with you. My view of these paintings is that they show Hamilton at his weakest.In my opinion they have nothing to do with the Blessed Virgin  but are derivative imitations of the Belgian Surrealist Paul Delvaux who similarly posed naked women in incongruous, if somewhat idealised, settings. By comparison, Hamilton verges on the kitsch.