Were you, like thousands of others, outraged by Mark Wallinger's vulnerably life-sized Millennium sculpture Ecce Homo
which stood in London's Trafalgar Square because it didn't "look like Jesus"? In fact no one knows what Jesus looked like because there was no portraiture in the Jewish tradition. But images of Jesus in art galleries offer centuries of interpretations. Each artist--from late Roman, to Michelangelo, Murillo, Stanley Spencer and the rest across two millennia of Christian history--meditates in, and mediates for, his own times. "The Word made paint" is how Neil MacGregor, Director of The National Gallery, and Erika Langmuir, Open University Professor of Art History, describe it.
Lavishly illustrated, Seeing Salvation was written in connection with a National Gallery Exhibition of the same name (26 February--7 May 2000), a nationwide lecture programme and four BBC TV programmes, presented by Neil MacGregor during April 2000. Yet it stands on its own and requires no knowledge of any of those.
The book is unpretentious and never patronises. It unravels the Christian background, scripture and belief with unobtrusive elegance as it goes along. You don't have to be a believer to respond either. Rembrandt's exquisite Nunc Dimittis, for example, shows old Simeon lovingly holding the infant Christ. He and the prophetess Anna could be any overjoyed grandparents at the end of their lives. The baby is their promise for the future and the sense is universal.
It's wryly witty too. "The learned ingenious devout Rubens", for example, "made a virtue of necessity" when commissioned to produce an altarpiece for Antwerp Cathedral. The sponsors, The Guild of Arquebusiers, wanted their patron saint, St Christopher, featured--but that smacked too dangerously of legend for the Council of Trent. Result: the magnificent Deposition of Christ in which the body is being tenderly and collaboratively lowered from the cross. "Christopher" means "bearer of Christ". --Susan Elkin