Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Iconography of Sorrow: How Easter Transforms Our Response to Suffering

 

Luke Bretherton ABC Religion and Ethics 31 Mar 2015
It should not be the fickle attention of Western media that determines who appears as the subject of care. Uncoupled from contemplation of Christ crucified, we misperceive what suffering looks like.
It should not be the fickle attention of Western media that determines who appears as the subject of care. Uncoupled from contemplation of Christ crucified, we misperceive what suffering looks like. Credit: vincent desjardins / Wikimedia Commons
Those who live some form of what is often deemed the ideal "Western" lifestyle look down from Olympus with sympathy on the sons and daughters of the soil and their visceral imprisonment to nature and necessity.

"We" who benefit from consumer lifestyles, technological advancement and decent sewers contemplate the photographs of stricken faces and think: "If only they can be more like us."

Images of poverty, war and disaster - what Susan Sontag calls the "iconography of suffering" - provoke a response. What these images invoke is sympathy, indignation and alarm (often accompanied by an unacknowledged yet ever present voyeuristic curiosity about the gruesome, the excruciating and the calamitous). As Sontag notes, the modern representation of the suffering other, whether of the dead soldier or famished child, is of an other who is "regarded only as someone to be seen, not someone (like us) who also sees."

The help these images stimulate is tinged with elegy for the inescapability of these suffering others "naturalness" (read barbarity and savagery). We offer them the gifts of Olympus, but heaven forbid that the chthonoi should invade our heavenly palisades through migration and thereby soil and threaten "our" perfect, cosy life.

The modern iconography of human suffering either invites the onlooker to envisage him or herself as the one who should stop the pain, or shocks them into greater awareness of what is going on. But what is not questioned is the onlooker's way of life or basic priorities. Sight of the poor does not catalyze different ways of living together. These images do not provoke mourning and humility, but activism and altruism.

Yet the modern representation of poverty owes a great deal to earlier representations of Christ's suffering body, and in particular traditions of contemplating the wounds of Christ.


Isenheim Altarpiece, Matthias Grunewald, 1512-1516 (Credit: vincent desjardins / Wikimedia Commons)

We see here a depiction of Christ's wounded and crucified flesh from the Isenheim Altarpiece. Mary, in the garb of a widow, faints in the arms of John the Evangelist, to whose care the Lord has commended her, and in the smaller figure of Mary Magdelene with her vessel of ointments, wringing her hands in sorrow.

Read more at http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2015/03/31/4208044.htm

No comments:

Post a Comment