Baptism bother

Jonathan Jones has got a bit hot under the collar over a quote from Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, who said Piero della Francesca’s The Baptism of Christ should be moved from the National Gallery to a Catholic church. The cardinal’s argument was that the painting was not art, but a work of piety.

Jones feels this is “ignorant and insensitive under its veneer of anthropological subtlety”. I’m inclined to think he’s taking the comment the wrong way. As he points out himself, the cardinal may be being provocative. But he’s as likely to be simply stating that he would rather the work be viewed in its original context, or as close as possible, seeing as the painting was taken from a church in Italy. His language is careful: “I would like to see”, not “I want to see”.

Although it’s an interesting work, I’m not as carried away with it as Jones, who said

the spirituality of this pale, mirror-like vision of Christ’s statuesque figure, with the strange gathering priests, the witnessing angels, the white town in the distance, is so intense that it doesn’t need to be in a church to exert religious authority.

In criticising the cardinal, Jones runs the risk of overriding one of art’s great strengths: that it can mean different things to different people.

Murphy-O’Connor may be following in a tradition of religious artistic appreciation. For example, the lavish illuminated pages of manuscripts such as The Book of Kells and the Book of Durrow are not designed simply to look good, but as forms of visual exegesis. They have many layers of interpretation: a lay person can appreciate them for their aesthetic values, while a cleric, who would have had much closer contact with such manuscripts, would be encourage to meditate on God and the message of whatever Biblical book was being illuminated. This is particularly the case with this, the beginning of Christ’s genealogy in the Gospel of Matthew. The carpet page becomes a meditation on the name, Jesus Christ.

What do you think? Is Jones right, the cardinal right, or neither?

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