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A Failure of the Imagination

Ercole de' Roberti - The Dead Christ
Ercole de’ Roberti – The Dead Christ

I have been drawn to this painting by Ercole de Roberti in The National Gallery, for many years, but Chloe Reddaway in an excellent short series of videos [‘The Audacity of Christian Art’ available on You-tube, just search for her name] has helped me to see why. My friend James & I were talking about it recently, and our conversation further clarified it for me.

It shows, in the foreground, Jerome, a 5th-century hermit saint, in the desert in front of the cave where he lived, with the lion that was his friend. He is kneeling before an ornate tomb, that looks very out of place in this desert landscape, in which two angels are supporting the dead body of Christ: this is a vision that he sees while kneeling and beating himself with the rock that he holds in his right hand.

Above the tomb there is a second scene, in which Francis, a 13th-century saint, is kneeling in prayer, his faithful friend Brother Leo sat behind him. Francis is gazing up into the sky where he has a vision of the body of Christ, and he then receives the stigmata, the same wounds that Christ suffered on the cross, in his body.

On a rocky hill above Jerome’s cave, we have a third scene in which is depicted the deposition of Christ’s wounded body as it is taken down from the cross outside 1st century Jerusalem.

The three scenes are clearly related: Christ’s dead body is taken down from the cross; two angels show it to Jerome in a vision; and it is shown to Francis as he receives the stigmata. The painting is a small devotional image probably used by someone in the late 15th century as a focus for prayer & reflection on Christ’s death. It is one half of a diptych and is about the size of a paperback book. What fascinates me is that one very small painting contains three scenes from different places and times, yet by including them all in one painting we are encouraged to see them as being connected.

In addition to the three earthly scenes, the painting includes the heavenly places in which Jerome’s and Francis’ visions originate. We might also include the place and the time in which the one who is viewing the painting, stands. As the painting was completed 500 years ago that must over the centuries mean a great many people in different places. So the painting depicts a point of interconnection between various earthly places & times, & eternity, and one that is expanding all the time. All this in one small image, whose intention is presumably to take the viewer into & thus experience this point of inter-connection. It’s extraordinary.

It comes from a culture that accepted such an interconnected way of understanding the world. It may seem strange to us, but it clearly wasn’t to them. We humans are meaning-seeking creatures, but we are not supplied with a meaning at our birth, rather we are required to find one for ourselves, and there is no obvious reason for opting for the one our culture accepts rather than the one that Ercole de Roberti’s culture espoused. Indeed we might usefully ask ourselves what would life feel like seen through the world view of the painting, rather than our own? If it leads to life being richer, deeper, more satisfying and fulfilling, then maybe we should consider exploring it.

Such a world view sees us as intimately connected to other human beings, past & present, who engaged in the tasks that we now engage in, such that we, in our time, can draw on their accumulated wisdom. Maybe they seek to share it with us if we will but be open to the possibility, maybe we do already draw on it, but without awareness? Maybe we in turn will want to engage thus with future generations.  Maybe the eternal dimension from which we came at our birth & to which we return at our deaths, breaks into our temporal world to support & guide us, through, amongst other means, visions & revelations? This is a very different way of understanding our world.

So, when I gaze on this painting, I am invited to reflect on Christ’s death, and to do so by imagining myself at the foot of the cross when His body was taken down, in the knowledge that others, much greater & wiser than I, have done so before, and have done so with the benefit of divine support through visions. I can open myself to be guided by them in my own reflections, perhaps by imagining them sitting alongside me, & engaging in conversation with them. And I can be open to the possibility that insights may come to me, as they did to them. Gazing at this painting becomes not a solitary matter but very much a corporate one which is going on all the time, and into which we may choose to enter. In doing so we enter an eternal world, we enter heaven. This little painting expresses this more powerfully than words ever could.

If there is truth in all this then it’s not limited to overtly spiritual matters. For example, maybe Bach composing a piece of music, back in the 18th century, is in a real sense intimately connected to those who over the centuries have either played or listened to it, ever since. Maybe the violinist who plays the music is linked somehow with those violinists who’ve also played ‘their’ instrument? And much the same may be true for any creative activity, cooking, cleaning, gardening, whatever.

The reality we inhabit is richer and more diverse than we can begin to imagine, we barely dip our toe in it, our minds are closed to much of its richness. I am reminded of some words of Zoë Heller: “Increasingly, I regard my atheism as a regrettable limitation. It seems to me that my lack of faith is not, as I once thought, a triumph of the rational mind, but rather, a failure of the imagination – an inability to tolerate mystery: a species in fact of neurosis.” Amen


  1. Mike Catling

    This is in no way meant as a criticism of what you have written Henry, but simply a reflection on the fact that a picture with no words gives birth to so many. This style of religious art does not ‘do it’ for me because it suggests that saints are perfect beings living lives out of the ordinary whilst the rest of us struggle on. In Psalm 18 we read, ‘My God, my rock in whom I put my trust.’ In the painting Jerome apparently beats himself with a rock! How many people throughout the generations have used ‘God’ to beat themselves and others up?
    In her wonderful book ‘Kitchen Table Wisdom’ Rachel Naomi Remen writes, ‘Reclaiming ourselves usually means coming to recognise and accept that we have in us both sides of everything [a primary criteria for sainthood in my humble opinion]. We are capable of fear and courage, generosity and selfishness, vulnerability and strength. These things do not cancel each other out but offer us a full range of power and response to life . . . sometimes our vulnerability is our strength, our fear develops our courage, and our woundedness is the road to integrity.’
    See how easy it is to wrap oneself up in words rather than merely sit in the silence of unknowning and simply let this painting, or any painting, do the ‘talking’? We who speak and write so easily fall into the word ‘trap’ and, as Paul said, ‘I am chief among them!’

  2. Alice Nunn

    Thankyou for this Henry….most interesting, and especially Zoe Heller’s comment with which you finish. I found there is much to be gained from a consideration of the artist’s juxtapositioning of 3 events, taking place at different times & in different places.
    Mind you Jerome’s lion looks a bit of a pussycat!!
    Shall investigate Chloe Reddaway forthwith.

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