My dissertation has tangled me in all kinds of circuits and knots when it comes to the subject of Religion and its relation to or with Art. David Jones and Eric Gill; Artists, inscriptors, writers, both claim Catholicism as an important part of their background or what Gill would call his 'autopsychography'. I don't have an issue with religious art or religion informing or inspiring art, but I am unsure of how the topic of religion can be negotiated when it comes to these figures. My first problem comes from Gill's fruity (which amounts to a whole crop of fallen apples) sex life, as illuminated by Fiona Macarthy in her biography. It isn't simply that Gill's attitude towards sex is morally dubious (partner-swapping, incest and voyeurism are all included in his list of pleasures) but also that this sensuality infects and informs, what we appears to be, his religious work. 'We are all fucked by Christ' claims Gill, and this unexpectedly crude phrasing halts me in my tracks and begins to corrode my sense of Gill's genius.
Last weekend, at the Fitzwilliam museum in Cambridge, I stumbled upon a sculpture of Saint Sebastian by Gill. Its sensuousness lulled me back in to new contradictions. Before me was pure piety of form, the simplest of curvatures describing a Saint. Suddenly it seemed that Gill was merely the advocate of, what we all recognise deep down inside, the inherent sensuality of religion. For me the revelation of Saint Sebastian was that sex is an intrinsic part of religious iconography. The smoky incense which snakes in to the cold air of the cathedral, the echo of hymns in the vaults and caverns of the church, the ultimate consolation of Christ; all this is evoked in Gill's sculpture, not invoked. We aren't 'fucked by Christ' but perhaps within us all there is a hysterical Margery Kempe, asking to be, Bride of Christ.
In a recent episode of True Blood the blonde-girl-next-door-cum-leader of a fanatical Christian group, recalls the story of the Mary Magdalene washing the feet of Christ and then drying them with her long hair. 'Isn't that lovely?' she asks Jason in an attempt to justify her seduction whilst arousing him. It is more than lovely, it is an act which is both tender and sensual but at the same time human, instinctively natural. If we want a justification for our sexuality that is cohesive with our religion, the story of the Mary Magdalene seems the most potent. If we want to have intimacy with Christ, it is here in the Bible that it seems finally to be humanly possible. I'm not suggesting that the story of the Mary Magdalene can be used to explain away sexual indiscretion, but I'm pointing out that it is a story which is imbued with the kind of sensuality and sexuality which people often claim religion is against.
At 16 my Aunt took me to the palace of El Escorial just outside of Madrid and I remember being perplexed by her excitement and interest in a sculpture of Christ it housed, the only Christ with a penis. The Museum had attached a handy loin cloth to cover Christ's dignity, fabric which seemed utterly incongruous and facile when juxtaposed with the unblemished white of the stone. I remember my embarrassment as my Aunt desperately leant over in the hopes of getting a glimpse at that rare thing, Christ's phallus. But why? Why should it be embarrassing? If our prelapsarian state is one of unawareness, unconsciousness, then why shouldn't Christ wear his genitalia and still be allowed that same innocence? The problem is that Christ automatically becomes sexualised; he is feminised and given an androgynous status for the exact purpose of allowing us to write our own sexuality upon him.
As I had to reiterate to my curious Chinese students, sex is a natural thing, there is no need to mystify it with the status of religious revelation. Sensuality in religious art should be embraced as one of our natural ways of understanding Christ and God, it is an attempt to approach the kind of intimacy which God offers us in his human terms.