Gethsemane as Hiroshima (Second Part)
Reynaldo Santos Reyes- Arroyo
Is it possible for a piece of Modern art, like La Resurrezione, to portray theological themes, given the contextual secularization of society?

See also: First Part.

Redemptive Suffering in La Resurrezione

First, it will be important to establish whether art can convey theological themes and how art is able to accomplish this.  Further, is it possible for a piece of Modern art to portray theological themes, given the contextual secularization of society?  

One should think it is possible for various reasons, like the fact that religious and secular themes are borne of like social conditioning.  There is compelling research suggesting that, contrary to the prior belief of western Europe as having been largely religious and naïve before the modern period, many people held some skeptical views; further, theism and secular atheism interacted with and drew from each other often in a spectrum of socially conditioned beliefs.[1]  This common background of social conditioning was evident in art of the Modern period.  For example, the Passion remained a popular fixture of the Modern period; while this was due to cultural and historical significance, theology is strongly informed by both.[2]  Upon reflection, it is evident that art can generally speak to theological themes.

With the knowledge that art can speak to theological themes, “La Resurrezione” is able to convey theological themes because of the liturgical role it plays in commemorating the horrendous suffering of Christ and victims of nuclear explosions.  In a description of liturgy, Nicholas Wolterstorff suggests that, in enacting one, participants are engaging in an act of ritual where they “orient themselves toward God.”[3]  An example of such a liturgical act is prayer.  The Pope regularly stations himself for a public audience with “La Resurrezione,” forcing the audience to engage with the sculpture and, given the context, envision it as a representation of God.[4]  Wolterstorff differentiates between indirect and direct engagement, stating that while engagement with fellow human beings is indirect engagement with God, as they bear God’s image, liturgy requires explicit engagement.[5]  One may understand “La Resurrezione” as simultaneously commemorating Christ’s Passion and the victims of nuclear destruction, considering that its imagery evokes memories of both.  Wolterstorff notes that “memorials are essentially a way of honoring,” but it is more likely that the sculpture serves as a theological means of enhancing the memory of horrendous evils.[6]  However, one may wonder if “direct engagement” with God is enough to practice theology.

One may object that “La Resurrezione” is unable to meaningfully portray or make theological statements because of the more general objection that one may not be able to make theological claims at all.  This is a general metaphysical criticism influenced by the turn from theoretical to practical reason.  In the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant presents such a criticism.  Referring to theological concepts such as the soul, a science of the world, and a transcendental doctrine of Gd, he states, “an object deduction… is impossible as regards these transcendental ideas.  For they have… no relation to any object…”[7]  To be sure, Kant’s critique has been hugely influential on theology.  If Kant’s conclusion is true, then theology is little more than special ways of considering ordinary reality.[8]  One might respond to this objection as not holding strong implications for theology today, as recent work suggests that Kant’s thought may occupy “an intellectual horizon set apart from our own” that has largely been drained of force after the contributions of philosophers like Barth, La Montagne, and Wittgenstein.[9]  These contributions grant the ability to move past whether theology says anything and to practice it.

“La Resurrezione” portrays the horrendous evil of the nuclear strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki through its employment of horrifying imagery surrounding the figure of Christ.  As Jesus arises during his resurrection from the nuclear destruction portrayed in “La Resurrezione,” he is surrounded by terrifying, Hellish imagery.  

Were it not for its title, “La Resurrezione,” and Jesus’s presence at the focal point of the sculpture, one may have assumed that the sculpture was attempting to make reference to the Fall or any biblical event strongly linked to evil.  Christ is surrounded by olive groves on all sides that one might have interpreted as flames (fig. 1).  Additionally, one can note the uncanniness of the sculpture.  In the late 20th century, Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori advanced the hypothesis of the “uncanny valley,” which “posits a nonlinear relation between human replicas’ human likeness and the emotional responses they elicit.”[10]  While the given context assures the observer that “La Resurrezione” is supposed to be a depiction of Christ, his features are twisted and do not resemble humanity.  Such horrifying imagery echoes Tsuboi’s descriptions and communicates the horrendousness of nuclear destruction and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.[11]  However, others draw different conclusions.

The imagery surrounding Christ’s figure in “La Resurrezione” has naturally evoked responses from general audiences that range from awe to accusations of “demonic imagery,” both of which suggest that the sculpture successfully portrayed the atrocity of the subject material. Of particular interest to the research conducted thus far is the latter accusation, which is held by proponents of alternative orthodoxies.  A proponent of such a perspective from the group Novus Ordo describes the sculpture as containing “eerie, shrieking skull-like faces” that “seem to peer out menacingly from the base” of the sculpture.”[12]  This description of the statue opens an article discussing horrific elements of the Paul VI Audience Hall.  The article also suggests that Christ’s image takes on various demonic aspects in “La Resurrezione,” that his head is reminiscent of a serpent when viewed from the right angle, and that when one mirrors the left side of the statue, Jesus takes on the appearance of the Satanic Baphomet.[13]  It is doubtful that Fazzini intended these incidences, but their interpretation as such remains theologically significant. The horror of the sculpture conveys the theologically significant message of Christ’s solidarity with victims of nuclear destruction.  This solidarity is conveyed through various means.

McCord Adams’s proposed model of redemption through identification with Christ is evident in “La Resurrezione’s” portrayal of Christ taking a pose similar to that of the crucifixion.  One may note while observing “La Resurrezione” that Christ’s arms are outstretched, his legs dangle below him and appear to be held together, and his head lulls, as if he is being held on some unseen cross (fig. 1).  In the sculpture, this appears to hold similar significance to stigmatist art, or art portraying the wounds of Christ on the cross, of the late Modern period.  Such art was naturally inspired by stigmatists who, in bearing “the wounds of the passion,” might be like Christ and serve as a “victim for many a sinner.”[14]  Artists of the period were not always so grim.  In an oil painting by Orozco, Jesus bears the stigmata and the crown of thorns but destroys the cross, as an act of historical solidarity with the oppressed.[15]  Many theologians understand the crucifixion as a horrendous evil, so “La Resurrezione’s” depiction of a crucified Christ communicates their spiritual solidarity with the victims of the horrendous evil of nuclear destruction.[16]  Christ’s suffering is not the only theologically significant feature of “La Resurrezione.”

McCord Adams suggests that redemption from horrendous suffering is possible through an expression of divine gratitude by God, which may be implicitly portrayed by “La Resurrezione’s” depiction of Gd’s victorious resurrection from nuclear destruction.  This may be possible through its physical presence or through what it evidently commemorates.  One can orient their attention towards Christ in “La Resurrezione” and its physical presence in the act of prayer or contemplation.  During liturgy, one orients themselves towards Gd in an act of direct and explicit engagement.[17]  One might reason that, with correct intention, such direct engagement with Gd can open one to experiencing Gd.  William Alston suggests that religious reports are generally experiential, direct, and focal.[18]  It is not absurd that direct or explicit engagement with Gd may create the opportunity for such an experience, where Gd may then express gratitude. Alternatively, one may consider what “La Resurrezione” commemorates.  If it is correct that it commemorates Christ and victims of horrendous evils, then one might consider the sculpture itself as a means of expressing divine gratitude to participants in these evils.[19]

McCord Adams’s final redemptive model for the engulfment and defeat of horrendous evils suggests that horrendous suffering provides an insight into God’s personal character, which “La Resurrezione” portrays through its depiction of Christ’s pained expression.  This model suggests that, despite God’s independence, their identification with humanity allows one to grasp their experience of suffering.  Karl Barth suggests that God became human willingly as a means of veering human need as his own; he takes suffering “upon himself” and “cries with man in this need.”[20]  In a roundabout way, the experience of horrendous suffering may give one insight into Gd’s decision to humiliate themselves, become Christ, and suffer with us.  

However, “La Resurrezione’s” pained expression appears to communicate more permanent suffering.  One might then point to Barth’s understanding of God’s divine will.  In referring to this will, Barth notes that the “lamb is slain from the foundation of the world,” and that he risks himself in Christ for the work of salvation; God’s will is that they suffer and surrender their impassibility.[21]  More directly, horrendous suffering provides insight into God’s will for themself and the world.  However, that these positions can be defended does not suggest that they are obviously unproblematic.

One may object that this analysis of “La Resurrezione” overextends the sculpture’s theological significance, as it is not evident that it was inspired by McCord Adams’s proposed models.  While such an objection is obviously true, that Fazzini did not intend to explicitly portray McCord Adams’s models of redemption is not some ruinous objection.  Especially considering that the discussion thus far has centered on features of “La Resurrezione” as being representative of or inspired by themes of redemptive suffering.  It is evident that Fazzini intended to depict a horrendous evil in the sculpture, with Fazzini stating that Christ rises from a crater torn in the ground by a nuclear explosion.[22]  It is fair to suggest that certain models are more cohesive with the evident features of the sculpture than others; for example, one might object that identification with Christ and insight into their personal character are themes that are more explicit in the sculpture than divine gratitude.  After all, it is likely that many who interact with the sculpture do not experience some statement of divine gratitude, and some may experience hostility.[23]  Still, the sculpture’s theological themes are evident.  

[1] Charles Taylor. A Secular Age, (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2007).; Susan Reynolds, "Social Mentalities and the Case of Medieval Skepticism," Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 1, (December 1991): 35.

[2] Richard Viladesau, The Wisdom and Power of the Cross: The Passion of Christ in Theology and the Arts - Late Modernity and Post-Modernity, (Oxford Scholarship Online, 2020), 185-186.; Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation, Translated by Sister Caridad Indra and John Eaglson (New York: Orbis Books, 1973).

[3] Nicholas Wolterstorff, Acting Liturgically: Philosophical Reflections on Religious Practice, (Oxford Scholarship Online, 2018), 26.

[4] Pope Francis, "General Audience."

[5] Wolterstorff, Acting Liturgically, 26-27.

[6] Wolterstorff, Acting Liturgically, 181.

[7] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, Translated by J. M. D. Meiklejohn (New York: Prometheus Books, 1990), 210-211.  

[8] Nicholas Wolterstorff, "Is it Possible and Desirable for Theologians to Recover from Kant," Modern Theology 14, no. 1 (1998): 13.

[9] Martin Westerholm, "Kant's Critique and Contemporary Theological Inquiry," Modern Theology 31, no. 3 (2015): 424-427.

[10] Shensheng Wang and Philippe Rochat, "Human Perception of Animacy in Light of the Uncanny Valley Phenomenon," Perception (London) 46, no. 12 (2017): 1386.; Mori, Masahiro. “The Uncanny Valley.” IEEE. June 12, 2012. https://spectrum.ieee.org/the-uncanny-valley.

[11] Langer, "Hiroshima Victim... Sunao Tsuboi."

[12] Francis Del Sarto, "The Vatican’s Hell Hall: The Weird Mysteries of the Paul VI Audience Hall," Novus Ordo Watch, July 3, 2020, https://novusordowatch.org/2020/07/vatican-hell-hall-weird-mysteries-paul6-auditorium/.

[13] Del Sarto, "The Vatican’s Hell Hall."

[14] Viladesau, "Wisdom and Power of the Cross," 133.

[15] Viladesau, "Wisdom and Power of the Cross," 241.

[16] McCord Adams, "Horrendous Evils," 300.

[17] Wolterstorff, Acting Liturgically, 26-27.

[18] William P. Alston, “Does Religious Experience Justify Religious Belief,” In Contemporary Debates in Philosophy of Religion, 2 ed. (New Jersey: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), 85.

[19] Wolterstorff, Acting Liturgically, 180-181.; McCord Adams, "Horrendous Evils," 308.

[20] Karl Barth, The Doctrine of Reconciliation, In Church Dogmatics, 4 vol. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1974), 214-216.

[21] Barth, The Doctrine of Gd, In Church Dogmatics, 2 vol. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1974), 123-163.; McCord Adams, “Horrendous Evils,” 308.

[22] "Pericle Fazzini," New York Times.

[23] Del Sarto, "The Vatican’s Hell Hall."