Two Representations of Crucifixion – Gauguin’s (Critical of Pop-Perception of Crucifixion), and Epstein’s (Where Tragedy Outweighs Dogma)

“The yellow color links Christ to the landscape… The agricultural cycle is seen as a parallel to the religious cycle of Christian life – birth, life, death, and rebirth in Heaven. It also follows more specifically the Passion Cycle of Christ: fall, when crops are harvested, would be equivalent to the crucifixion; then follows winter, when nothing grows, parallel to Christ’s three days in the tomb; and finally springtime arrives, when everything comes back to life, a celebration like Christ’s resurrection.”

Paul Gauguin, “The Yellow Christ”, 1889

Too many people are quite satisfied with Christ’s sacrifice of his life for the sake of their salvation. They feel that crucifixion of Christ is good for them – it saves them from God’s punishment, and they express sincere gratitude to Christ and to God-father who agreed to sacrifice his Son for the sake of them. They use habitual theological constructions to relieve their anxiety (which sometimes arises from the bottom of their souls) about Christ’s unbearable death – they persuade themselves that for Christ as God-Son his crucifixion is “not a big deal” “because as a God He is immortal anyway”, and that one day he will return to earth. To these comforting beliefs they add unconscious implication that, may be, at least “some of us deserve Christ’s incredible generosity”: the feeling helped by the church suggesting that Christians are closer to the truth in comparison with people of other religious beliefs and deserve a leading role among human beings. At this point they feel that Christ’s crucifixion “worked” not only for them but for God as well, that they, even though are weak, nevertheless, also do something for Christianity by trying to persuade people of other beliefs where the ultimate wisdom and universal salvation lies, and by their readiness, when necessary, to convert the infidels with heroism of the crusades: not only with preaching words but with the punishing sword.

For too many people, this “deal” of Christ’s crucifixion in exchange for a crusading kind of loyalty to the Christian dogma seems reasonable – it is very pleasant to feel that you are better than others, that your god is genuine while the others’ are not and that you are part of a group of the chosen. This childishly narcissistic position in relation to Christ’s crucifixion, this innocent cruelty to Christ’s humanity, this amazing indifference to the fact that Christ’s equally human and godly body was monstrously violated (tortured and murdered on the Cross by human criminality), we will try to understand through analyzing the four works of art – Gauguin’s painting “The Yellow Christ” and Jacob Epstein’s sculptures: “Bronze Figure of Madonna and Child” (1927), “Madonna and Child” (1927) and “Virgin and child”, 1953.

Looking at Gauguin’s “The Yellow Christ” we see how “naturally” some people see Christ’s agonizing ordeals before and during his crucifixion by unconsciously perceiving them in the spirit of the country life worldview based on observation of the cycles of nature’s “dying” and “resurrecting” according to the circulation of seasons. Gauguin, trying to understand how the peasants perceive the exceptional phenomenon of Christ, represents him as the object of their perception – as a kind of a “yellow plant” or even fruit of life ready to be harvested like everything around him. In country life sacrifice is not anomaly – “We plant, we cultivate, we harvest, we work hard to survive, and what we grow helps us survive. What Christ did for us is something similar although his self-sacrifice is incomparable because of the value of what is sacrificed. But gods sometimes do this for helpless creatures, like us. Nature with its incredible fertility is also a kind of goddess sacrificing herself for the sake of us. We harvest Christ’s self-sacrifice as we harvest nature’s fertility and generosity. What nature does for our body, Christ does for our soul, and for the sake of the continuation of our life as specie.”

Of course, the three women under the cross are sad but rather, purely ritualistically. And pay attention to Christ’s face – how quiet and pacified it is. Has Christ already died? May be, it’s not important if he is dead or alive? Why is there no trace of agony? The face is not just imperturbable, not just tranquil. And not only resigned. The expression is all too easy, not on the level of the importance of what has just taken place. Something toys-like in how Christ is depicted here, something that contradicts the cosmic significance of the Christian drama and Christ’s tragedy. Is Gauguin here emphasizing the “primitive”, “rustic” character of the very belief in Christ among the peasants of a small village at Pont-Aven in Brittany, in 1886, where he painted this work? Didn’t Gauguin notice here something real about the naively “consumerist” position of many believers towards the tragedy of torture and murder of Christ?

Jacob Epstein, Bronze Figure of the Madonna and Child, 1927

What was so “natural” and so peaceful in “The Yellow Christ” becomes horrifyingly problematic in Epstein’s sculptures of Madonna and Child. We encounter the monstrosity of Christ’s crucifixion, which is a crime beyond all proportions. Here we see that both, mother and child are conscious about the inevitability of the future sacrifice (and this very awareness is only additional torment). This sacrifice is perceived as so impossibly painful to contemplate, as it can never be felt in the universe Gauguin depicted almost ironically, in spite of all his compassion for peasants who habitually “sacrifice” flora and fauna for their survival.

Jacob Epstein, “Madonna and Child”, 1927

The eyes of the child-Christ are that of a victim who understands that he will be murdered. His destiny is reflected on the face of the Madonna – her soul of a mother cannot accept it. She feels that she doesn’t have a right to accept it, not for the sake of those who need an innocent victim in order to continue to live and to sin. We read on the Madonna’s face the mute accusation of people who are ready to buy their existence at the price of murdering this godly child, and even her helpless disapproval of complicity between humans and god that makes sacrifices of innocent children acceptable, then and now.

Jacob Epstein, “Virgin and Child”, 1953

Epstein interprets crucifixion and levitation of Christ as a cosmic tragedy, not as a salvation in glory, as unnatural impossibility for the son of god to live in wisdom, peace and happiness because of the shameful conditions of life on earth making people corrupt, stupid and crazy with greed, immorality and cruelty. To make his point about the devilish nature of sacrificing Christ Epstein blends three different semantic motifs – sacrifice of the adult Christ (accepted by Christ himself), sacrifice of Christ as a child (making Him doomed from the beginning), and using ascension not as a symbol of salvation but as a sign of the impossibility to live on the Earth. In this sense ascension to the Heavens becomes a sign of deadly conditions of life on Earth, the point that in its importance outweighs and overshadows the dazzling power of the supernatural events. In other words, Epstein de-theologizes and existentializes the Christ paradigm in his spiritual comment about the cruelty of earthly life and moral underdevelopment of human beings who prefer to be involved in trying to prove whose god is mightier, better and wiser instead of learning how to live with one another democratically – in equality and justice. In Epstein’s interpretation of crucifixion and ascension, Christ is depicted as a child and as such is much more like other children than he as an adult is to other adults. The numerous photos of Jewish children in Nazi concentration camps or Palestinian children after Israel’s bombings confirm this fact. Today, in 21st century, Epstein’s Child-Christ becomes, as if, a spokesperson, spokes-god for children of all nationalities who feel that they don’t want to leave life, leave Earth, but are forced to.