General Articles | So Much Irony In This Passion:[FINAL Edition]

Copyright The Washington Post Company Feb 29, 2004

If Protestant Americans, diverse as they are, can be said to share a symbol, it has to be the clean-cut cross of Jesus they so liberally display. Hallmark puts it on cards, churches set it atop spires, celebrities hang it in their bling-bling. It's out there in our image-world, standing crisp and white. Like other symbols, it is a weapon, and it has a history.

There are mysteries in its meanings, but not in its look. Its look is obvious: The whiteness stands for purity; the brightness for the Light. And that exact rectilinearity, 90 degrees, right on, points toward God, because it's perfect. This cross is not the crucifix of the Roman Catholic church. No Jesus hangs on it. He's already resurrected. No nail holes, no adze-marks, no gall-and- vinegar stains soil this immaculate abstraction. It's no more of flesh than a diagram in a book of geometry. It's been cleansed. It's been washed of blood.

What hasn't been washed of blood, what bathes in it, is "The Passion of the Christ," which may be the bloodiest movie ever. Blood gets so much screen time in Mel Gibson's film -- for its oozings and its spurtings and its smearing of the wall -- that it becomes the picture's star. "The Passion" is a torture flick, intentionally Baroque. Its look comes less from Scripture than it does from Counter-Reformation painting.

These two visions have competed through the centuries. The Protestant Reformation stripped the cross clean. Counter- Reformation art answered by pulling out all the visual stops to defend the Catholic Church while confounding the Protestants' aesthetics. The paintings Gibson imitates shared a propagandistic purpose. They were weapons in the wars between Protestants and Catholics that swept through Northern Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. And these weren't merely culture wars. They were sword- and-cannon battles in which countless people died.

And yet American evangelicals and fundamentalists -- the Reformation's children -- are flocking to see "The Passion of the Christ." The Rev. Billy Graham has called Gibson's film "a lifetime of sermons in one movie," though the difference, a big one, is that sermons come in words while movies do their work through the viewer's eye. Protestants around the country are buying blocks of tickets. Out in Santa Rosa, Calif., a pastor named Andy Vom Steeg has sent out 10,000 postcards asking people in the region to see the Gibson movie and discuss it at his church.

All of which seems a little curious, and not just art- historically. There's been an aesthetic flip: Hard-core, clean- cross Protestants would once have been appalled, en masse, by the Counter-Reformation style and its message. Now many lap it up.

Gibson's action may be set in 1st-century Jerusalem, but his style comes from 17th-century Rome.

Special-effect skies, gleams from brass and leather, swirling darks and lights, heart-rending emoting -- Rome's militantly Catholic painters, and their peers in Spain and Flanders, went straight for the gut, and did so through the viewer's responding eye. Gibson does the same. His Mary and Magdalene, shown in tear- streaked close-ups gazing dolorously upward, look just like Guido Reni's. And when Gibson calls his film "a moving Caravaggio" it is because its swirlings, its gritty realism, its dark palette, and its scenes side-lit by torches come straight from Caravaggio's paintings. In the 1950s, Hollywood's Jesuses sported spotless white cashmere robes and shampooed hair, but Caravaggio dressed his figures in rags of sober hue. So does Gibson. Gibson needs these references because his movie is so gory. There is only so much you can do to hurt human flesh, but when the film has done enough, it does a whole lot more. The artiness is there to soften our disgust. Over his movie's bloodiness Gibson has poured the sort of golden glow that rises through the yellowed varnish of Old Master paintings. And beneath his gore he shows us the many ripe conventions of Counter-Reformation art.

Martin Luther's Reformation was a theological rebellion. At its core was a refusal. No longer would the rebels accept the pope in Rome, or the hierarchy he led, or the Latin of the Mass and of the Vulgate Bible, which most of them could neither read nor understand. If they themselves could read the Bible (which Luther soon began to translate into German), they could find their way to God with the aid of faith alone. They didn't need the pope, they didn't need his saints, they didn't need his priests, and -- as some began insisting -- they didn't need his art.

The more the reformers valorized the Word, the more they turned away from images. The most extreme among them -- the "image- breakers," the iconclasts -- saw it as their duty to smash the sensual power -- the scary, popish power -- they sensed in Catholic art.

For the Pilgrims of East Anglia, the Huguenots of France, and the Calvinists of the Netherlands, Counter-Reformation art smacked of popishness, idolatry, unrestrained excess. They knew what the Counter-Reformation was counter to -- it was counter to them. Its art, they understood, was devised to dent their scruples and to undo their aesthetic. They did not take it lying down.

On Aug. 10, 1566, at Steenvoorde in Flanders, a Calvinist preacher named Sebastian Matte told his listeners to go and smash the art in Catholic churches. Ten days afterward, the cathedral at Antwerp was methodically trashed (though later, under Catholic rule, Rubens was commissioned to re-do its splendor). Such spasms of enthusiastic image-breaking erupted in the British Isles for most of the next century. "Lord, what work was here!" lamented the Bishop of Norwich in 1647. "What clattering of glasses! What beating down of walls!"

Think of all art destroyed, the statues with their heads knocked off, the broken stained-glass windows. Think of all the churches, especially in the Netherlands, with their murals whitewashed out.

Hatred was involved, of course, in destructions such as these. Class issues, and politics, and imperial disputes were also much in play, but so, too, was a scruple as old as monotheism -- a fear of basely materializing the ungraspable Divine.

Most of the Protestant image-breakers, busily whitewashing and smashing, were confident that they had Scripture on their side. In Exodus 20, after all, God is pretty specific: "Thou shall not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth." And Jesus was cited, too: "Blessed are they," he tells us in John 20:29, "that have not seen and yet havebelieved."

If American Protestantism can be said to have a visual style, this preference for the cleansed, the stripped-down, the ascetic, must be one of its chief strands. That plainness is still seen in the clean, white clapboard churches scattered through New England, in the Quaker meeting houses of Pennsylvania, all the way to the Crystal Cathedral in Orange County, Calif. No Catholic paintings taint these sanctuaries. Billy Sunday's revival tent wasn't hung with gilded frames. The Little Brown Church in the Vale, famous through song, is a structure without paintings. In Protestant America they've been absent from the start.

"Everything was stripped bare," Harriet Beecher Stowe recounted of the Pilgrims, "all poetic forms, all the draperies and accessories of religious ritual had been rigidly and unsparingly retrenched."

Here caveats are called for. Protestants are a various lot. Many Lutherans are highly tolerant of pictures, as are Episcopalians. There is lots of art in churches -- but, in general, the spare white space that's filled with music, light and language, but not with fleshy pictures, still declares itself as Protestant all across the land.

That reticence is a presence throughout American painting. Those 19th-century artists who wished to show themselves as Christian, but not as Roman Catholic, sought out God in nature -- and painted all those seaside scenes, and soaring mountain landscapes, and flowers on the table, with which our walls are filled.

And now along comes Gibson, returning to center stage the vivid Catholic imagery -- sensual, argumentative, Marian and Latinate -- of Counter-Reformation art.

He is, no doubt, sincere. But then the Aztec priests who ripped out human hearts were pretty sincere, too. So are the flagellants who still bloody themselves for God in so many Shiite and Spanish- speaking countries. The act of seeking the divine through blood and gruesome suffering didn't start with Gibson. It must be immensely old.

Protestants have long been quick to take up new technologies -- Gutenberg's printing press, the radio, the TV. Christian iconoclasm nowadays isn't what it was. Not long after the Second Great Awakening of the early 19th century, the printed Bible tracts that so many preachers handed out began to come with printed pictures. And by the end of World War II -- when Bob Jones Jr. of Bob Jones University began to build his big collection of vividly realistic Counter-Reformation paintings -- that old distrust of Catholic paintings had pretty well faded, though in some circles it lingered on a while.

Andrew Mellon, for instance, the founder of the National Gallery and a Protestant son of Ulster, would not countenance the presence of Roman Catholic martyrdoms in his personal collection, and his museum did not start seeking them in quantity until long after he had died. This is one reason that the Rev. Jones, that farsighted collector of Baroque pictures, could buy so many so cheaply.

Among the rich Americans who built most of our museums (though there were, of course, exceptions, such as the Ringlings, or Walter Chrysler), a general disgust with Baroque devotional painting used to be widespread. "This dislike," wrote scholar Edgar Peters Bowron in a Bob Jones University catalogue 20 years ago, "is a matter of general spiritual attitude rather than of mere artistic tastes." He's right, of course. After seeing Gibson's movie I understood completely Mellon's sort of shuddering, nose-holding dismay.

But many contemporary Protestants will approve of Gibson's movie, and I bet they won't be thinking of 17th-century Italian art, or popish propaganda, Calvinist image-breaking, or anything like that. That reviled mainstream Hollywood is taking Scripture seriously will fill their hearts with hope. That Gibson is a Roman Catholic, and a pre-Vatican II traditionalist, will not be held against him. He's a conservative and a star.

As late as the 1960s, students at Wheaton College, a Christian school in Illinois, weren't even allowed to go to the movies. But that's long over, too. Also much diminished, at least in post- Vatican II America, is the Catholic-Protestant dispute. Now it is between those who worship Jesus, and those who don't, that the battle lines are likely to be drawn.

Osama bin Laden is still an iconoclast, an image-smasher, on theological principle, but in Protestant America there aren't many left. How could there be? In 2004, with the Internet and cable and PowerPoint presentations, it is just about impossible to go about one's business without permitting pictures, pictures of all sorts, moving ones and still ones, deep into one's life.

But pictures bring the past with them. And so do visual styles. There is a lot of "anti" in Gibson's film, and not only anti- Semitism. The film is anti the secular, and anti the sqeamish. And the many clean-cross Protestants who see it ought to be reminded that the style of its images once was aimed at Christians pretty much like them.

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Paul Richard has written about art for The Post since 1967.

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