This essay was commissioned by Longbarrow Press, and was first published on their blog in Autumn 2015.
I point at sinister and say to Brown
there’s ones like you, stewing in sex…
But Hell’s not prised for Brown’s gathered elect.
And you, old man, do you rise or go down?
from Death and the Gallant by Chris Jones (2013)
What shape does the devil take? What is the colour of evil? How much ‘dark matter’ does it take to weigh us down? In the ‘Doom’ painting (a name often given to depictions of the last judgement), dated to 1380 and filling the entire Chancel Arch in St Andrew’s church in Pickworth, a ‘swim of souls’ (Jones, ibid.) ascending into heaven are counterbalanced by a suffocating net of the damned, hauled hopeless into the gaping maw of Hell. The landscape of heaven sitting to the right hand of Christ is a noncommittal pastoral. How does one depict that hazy notion of Nirvana? The environs of evil, both figuratively and literally speaking, are on the other hand, even in their abraded, ‘desecrated’ state, vividly drawn with cauldrons, flames and leering demons of unequivocal iconography. Evil is easily described and given shape. We see it clearly, located in our particular visions of ‘the other’, formed in the image of that which is not us.
… Brown works the whitewash,
and just for good measure, cuts Mary’s face.
The word ‘blasphemous’ comes to us from the Greek: blapsis = evil + phēmē = speech. To be blasphemous is to speak (and I include the word of ‘image’ here) evil. Within the institutional structures of faith, the malevolent utterance is defined in relation to that which is sacred; or, more importantly, those linguistic or visual devices adopted to serve such definitions, and in some interpretations, will constitute a sin that is beyond redemption. The new Protestantism of the Reformation had to differentiate itself from that which it now positioned as the other – Catholicism – by adopting the word as its definitive tool. It became the faith of scripture, of language, and thus the Catholic emphasis on the visual, the figurative representation of doctrine through painting and statuary, had to be condemned as idolatrous and blasphemous in the extreme. Particular attention was paid to the head, the face and ultimately the gaze. The common iconoclastic belief was that evil could enter in through the eyes, by implication suggesting that evil was therefore emitted from the eyes of the idol, evoking primitive anxieties regarding the sorcerous, hypnotic stare. Statues were not merely smashed, they were beheaded; faces not simply painted over – first, their eyes were gouged out. The paradox is that whilst the paintings and statues were condemned as superstitious, superstitious actions were required to properly destroy them.
Snow falls on fire. Saved and damned lie buried
under snow. Christ and his colours
Some of the ideas regarding the nature of blasphemy were first explored in my essay Somebody’s Heaven, Somebody’s Hell, written to accompany my exhibition Nightwood, and presented at East Street Arts’ ‘Thought For Food’ meal sharing and seminar series. The essay grew out of an ‘in conversation event’ with the writer David Peace, where Peace and I discussed the mythologies of violent and sexual crime in relation to our respective practices.
Death and the Gallant appears in the Longbarrow Press anthology The Footing. This is the second blog post focusing on the pre-Reformation wall art of Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire churches (originally posted on the Longbarrow Blog in October 2014). The first post, by Brian Lewis, appears here. The third and final blog post and podcast, documenting the visit to Corby Glen, appears here. Listen to Chris Jones and Emma Bolland discuss ‘The Last Judgement’ and the poems in ‘Death and the Gallant’ (recorded at St Andrew’s, Pickworth, Lincs, 19 Sept 2014):