A Psychological Deconstruction Of Theology Of Crucifixion

Christian town of Maloula in the mountains 20 miles north-west of Damascus… is the only place where Western Aramaic, the language of Jesus, is still spoken… Maloula used to be one of the safer places in Syria for Christians… But today many already fled. Their priests and bishops have been kidnapped and murdered by the rebels (Jihadi groups).
Patrick Cockburn, “War Comes to Syria’s Quiet Christian Hinterland”, Monday, Sept. 09, 2013

Roberto Matta , “Crucifixion ('Up, Down, Left, Right From the Heart')”, 1971
Roberto Matta , “Crucifixion (‘Up, Down, Left, Right From the Heart’)”, 1971

Roberto Matta’s “Up, Down, Left, Right from the Heart” is among rare representations of Crucifixion in painting that is not ideologically religious – that is a propagandist effort to disseminate “good” (emotionally sentimental accent serving to an unconscious purpose of recruiting loyal believers and constructing a field of common identity). Matta’s is a serious work addressing the topic not only with spiritual respect but impartially, without piousness but with grace. The painting examines positions towards Christ among, first of all, those who believe that his life has a super-human value. Besides the guard (in the helmet of Roman soldier) involved in torturing Christ who is in his last throbbing, Matta represents seven figures around the Cross – two compositionally belonging to a group including Roman soldier, three at the foot of the Cross, and two located to the right side of the painting.

Among figures of people who worship Christ, six seem to be women and one man (a creature holding up a wineglass-like challis for collecting Christ’s blood believed to providing magic power to the one who possesses it). The three women at the foot of the Cross are those who are usually represented as the women personally connected with Christ (Saint Mary, Magdalena and Marta). The mother is not really embracing Christ’s legs, she, as if, tries to keep his body protected. Magdalena embraces Christ’s foot. And Marta in paroxysm of helpless grief embraces the base of the Cross.

Besides the exceptionally expressive power of Matta’s “graphic pantomime/ballet” of these three women suffering with such intensity that their bodies, as if, transform into the very convulsions of emotional pain, Matta-the thinker’s unique achievement in this painting is four other figures of grieving people present at Crucifixion, two on each side of the Cross. These four figures carry the exceptional weight of his interpretation of human psychology pulsating around the cosmic disaster of Crucifixion.

The two women in the “compositional company” of the Roman soldier are the unconditional believers in Christ’s godliness. One, to the left, close to the margin of the painting, even imitates the Cross, makes it, as if, hers. She feels that she is being crucified together with her God and she yearns for this crucifixion of herself. But the woman to the right of her, the one closest to the Christ’s body, keeps her hands in a convulsive gesture of praying. These two gestures are, probably, meant by Matta as the first, intuitive, approximate creation/realization of the gestures of future Christian believers – crossing themselves and keeping their hands in a praying position. But why has Matta positioned these two pious women loyal to the idea of Christ’s godliness, in proximity (as if belonging to the same group) to the Roman soldier, one of Christ’s crucifiers? What can be the similarity between this soldier and believers in Christ’s greatness? Aren’t they belonging to the opposite camps? It is Matta’s incredible theological courage to suggest, here, that these seemingly opposing camps are in reality allies in accepting Christ’s murder as inevitable, as socio-political (Roman soldier following orders) or as historical necessity (passionate creators of the cult of Christ as God-son, that will provide them with power to feel themselves ahead of humankind and lead the unenlightened ones – those who didn’t recognize Christ as God, to the glory of the universal truth of Christianity). Matta considers those who are the enemies and who are the followers of Christ as belonging to the same category of people who accept his murder as a precondition of, in Roman soldier case, liberation of the world from this “mad heretic”, and in Christ’s followers case – of the creation of a new cult/later a religion where believers will feel themselves as a spiritual leaders of humanity.

Even more amazing is Matta’s representation of the two other believers on another side of the canvass. The person with a wine glass and a wineskin (that looks like an opened giant mouth) for the collecting Christ’s blood, is a man with several greedy arms. He believes that through possessing blood of Christ he will get His vitality and immortality. The woman close to the right margin of the painting is stretching her arm and hand up towards Christ’s nailed left hand. The reason why she is doing this is revealed by the fact that the nail with which Christ’s palm was nailed to the Cross is represented by Matta in the shape of a (bloodless) heart. My God, this woman wants to get the nail with which Christ’s hand/arm was nailed, as a precious souvenir! What a terror! And here, we are struck with a tormenting, impossible thought that the Roman soldier, for a modest monetary reward is “collaborating” with believers in Christ immortality and eternal glory, and that he is not torturing Christ with his spear but killing him (despite his instructions) to shorten His agony and provide his blood and souvenirs of his death to the Christ’s worshippers. Probably, to make this point more understandable for the viewers Matta paints a necklace on the woman’s bosom. Isn’t collecting talismans of Christ’s murder even more terrifying than Christ’s murder?

Matta’s surrealistically frank depiction of the figures of Christ’s followers is overwhelming and it’s equal only to his courage in making his view on Crucifixion available to the public in spite of danger of being “crucified” by the fanatics of the not-intelligent (non-reflective) belief in Christ. And Matta, it seems, insists that non-enlightened, barbaric belief is as dangerous for human spirituality as fanatic and blind refutation of Christianity by “competing” religions.

So, in this painting we have the Roman soldier personifying the enemies of Christ, four believers in Christ who simplemindedly use his murder to promote their sincere religious cause because they want the unconditional triumph of Christ over life as it is, and the three women who were personally connected with Christ and didn’t care too much about his super-human origins. Only these three women, according to the painting, are people whose suffering about Christ’s murder is real (not necessary more sincere than suffering of the ideological followers, but more real) because it is human, just human, fully, highly and incredibly human. It was a grief as raw as human flesh, pure as the human soul not “sublimated” into theological abstraction (psychologically based on unconscious identification not with Christ but with his immortal glory).

By calling his painting not a Crucifixion but “L’alto, il basso, la sinistra, la destra del cuore” (“Up, Down, Left, Right From the Heart”) Matta not only transforms what always has belonged to the area of organized religion, into the realm of psychology of religious belief, he also transforms that which was considered a matter of sublimated feelings into anthropological research – into the analysis of human behavior inside religious dedications.

Matta, it seems, suggests that including the metaphysical criteria in earthly matters is a function of “bad faith” covering up the unconscious interests and motivations of those who, as blindly sincerely as it can be, are using a tortured and murdered human being, the son of a man and son of god, for their unconscious purpose of becoming aggrandized by association with godly substance to feel themselves above another people and invulnerable to what they believe is human immanent criminality.

The vertical composition of the painting suggests that the Cross was, as if, built in heaven by earthly, soily creatures, and dirty spottiness of these crucifiers of heaven creates the impression of a kind of invasion of the heaven by a barbaric tribe, by their emotional possessiveness and megalomaniacal yearning for an idol. Their dirtiness spots the blue skies and the flesh of the punished innocents. And the more spiritually pretentious and arrogant these people are the more righteousness they have, and the more harm they inflict on life.

Those defiled by animalistic fears and need for power and defiling the universe creatures are carriers of metaphoric dirt and they are especially dangerous when they occupy the heaven which is Matta’s metaphor for their need to cover up their smallness and dirtiness by the license to carry high a metaphysical banner/icon.