C4 doc reveals Crucifixion artwork by anatomist Gunther von Hagens
Tx: Channel 4, Easter Sunday, April 8th
For centuries, artists of all kinds - from Michelangelo to Martin Scorsese, Salvador Dali to Damien Hirst and Andrew Lloyd Webber to Monty Python - have attempted to convey the meaning of the Crucifixion through their work. For many it has been a deeply personal expression of belief.
Now anatomist Dr Gunther von Hagens, who made his name showing the world the wonders of the human body through his Body Worlds exhibitions, has decided to create a Crucifix.
The new piece, which he's been planning for over six years, is being revealed in a Channel 4 documentary next month. Crucifixion, which is due to be broadcast on Easter Sunday (April 8th), features interviews with leading art historians and theologians, amongst others, and examines the enduring iconic image of the Crucifix: Christ on the cross.
The documentary follows von Hagens, who last year revealed that he is suffering from Parkinson's disease, as he undertakes an intensely personal journey to create his crucifix.
"What's important to me is that I want to move people's minds and souls," says von Hagens in the documentary. "It's a life's work and I'm at a time in my life when I feel called to see this through. The clock is ticking."
Though famous for using donated human bodies in his ‘plastinated' works, the new piece was made by injecting liquid plastic into bones and blood vessels, from a number of donors' bodies, which then hardens to create perfect casts. The resulting figure, which does not contain any human tissue, was then mounted on a wooden cross cut from a tree felled near von Hagens's family home in Germany.
The documentary's director, Srik Narayanan, feels that the crucifix has a fascinating story to tell: "The crucifix is the most recognised symbol in the world. It's an icon - effectively Christianity's logo - which has been reproduced for nearly two thousand years," he says.
"Reputations have been built and destroyed as artists have tried to reinvent the crucifix for their own age. It is something that many of the greatest artists have felt compelled to create and, time and again, you see it take them over. It's often a work that they are drawn to either to prove themselves or late in life as they come to terms with their own mortality - it's the last work that many artists undertake.
"Gunther von Hagens brings his own unique skills and knowledge of anatomy to bear on the work and he is in a long tradition of artists focusing on the very visceral nature of crucifixion. The documentary shows that this has become an intensely personal project for von Hagens, particularly as he has come to terms with Parkinson's."
The documentary traces the representation and interpretation of the crucifix from illustrations on fourth century tombs, through centuries of church-sanctioned depictions to contemporary portrayals.
The programme reveals how von Hagens is far from the first artist to risk controversy in portraying the Crucifixion. Michelangelo, considered one of the greatest artists of all time, was condemned for making a sculpted crucifix that was not only naked - although this is supported by scripture - but was also considered to be more concerned with beauty than devotion.
On the other hand, paintings by Matthias Grünewald and Francis Bacon, amongst many others, unflinchingly portray the extremity of Christ's suffering on the cross.
The artist responsible for one of the most controversial artworks ever created is interviewed in the programme. For Piss Christ, Andres Serrano photographed a crucifix suspended in his own urine. As a result he received death threats and people still attempt to destroy prints of his work in galleries around the world.
Other artists moved to create their own very different depictions of the Crucifixion include Diego Velazquez, Francisco Goya, Salvador Dali, Graham Sutherland, Stanley Spencer and Damien Hirst.
The Crucifixion has inspired music as wide ranging as Bach's St Matthew Passion, Andrew Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell and Madonna's controversial Rome performance of Live To Tell from a glittering cross in 2006.
In cinema the Crucifixion has been portrayed by directors as diverse as Cecil B. DeMille (The King of Kings), Martin Scorsese (The Last Temptation of Christ), Mel Gibson (The Passion of the Christ) and Monty Python (Life of Brian) - several of which led to angry protests.
For University of Oxford art historian Professor Martin Kemp, who features in the documentary, recreating the crucifix is a test of any artist who dares to take it on.
"It's a momentous thing to do, very difficult in a way because you're portraying the supreme sacrifice and the supreme manifestation of God on Earth," says Kemp. "And I think we shouldn't underrate the extent to which an artist is moved and to some extent terrified by this job."
In the documentary Canon George Pattison, Professor of Theology at the University of Oxford, points out that the crucifix portrays a horrific act that was carried out on hundreds of thousands of people.
"What we're actually looking at when we see a crucifix is an image of someone being tortured to death," he says. "If that was a filmed image of that really happening in real time, it probably wouldn't get to be shown on the news because it would be so shocking and horrendous."
But, for Christians, the crucifix gains its lasting religious and symbolic power because the suffering recorded was followed, according to the Gospels, by Christ's resurrection.
"He came, he preached, he lived as he did. He was brutally put to death. That's not a recipe for a successful life. No one wants to be like that," says Cannon George Pattison. "And yet somehow all these people started joining the movement. And even if you don't believe in God and leave all that kind of stuff out of it, this was a quite extraordinary historic moment that someone who was the victim became in a sense the hero."
Interviewees featured in the documentary include: Rev. Prof. Richard Viladesau, theologian and art historian at Fordham University New York, author of two books on the art of the crucifix; Prof. Martin Kemp, Emeritus Professor of History of Art at the University of Oxford, author of From Christ to Coke - How Image Becomes Icon; Canon Prof. George Pattison, Professor of Divinity at the University of Oxford; and Bishop John Arnold, Catholic Auxiliary Bishop of Westminster.
Crucifixion is due to be shown on Channel 4 on Easter Sunday, April 8th. Written and directed by Srik Narayanan, produced by Liz Collier and Lucinda Duxbury and executive produced by Nick Curwin and Magnus Temple it is made by The Garden Productions.
More details about the programme can be found at http://www.channel4.com/crucifixion