In my Christian liberal arts college’s required art history course, we studied, among many other artists, Francisco Goya. Somewhat unusual for his time in his bold brush strokes and direct treatments of unpleasantness, Goya painted unflattering portraits of the Spanish royal family, bloody and unheroic scenes of war, and dark images out of nightmares.
Among those nightmarish images is Goya’s painting of “Saturn Devouring His Son.” That particular painting shows a horrible, huge, monster-like man (or man-like monster?) starting out of a black canvas and staring with wild eyes as it holds a naked human body in its two hands. The body lacks its head, and the monster seems to be devouring an arm. Blood flows.
When I think of that painting, I picture it as it was on the page of our text-book, glaring out from the text all around it. And I picture it with a long, slim, black hand spread over it, so that I cannot see the painting at all, only the hand.
After completing the required curricula in arts and culture and Christian worldviews, I became a student tutor for the program. Many of the tutorees turned up for tutoring without having read any assigned readings, or taken any notes in class, or remembered anything from class, and without bothering to bring either textbook or syllabus. But some came after much work at trying to understand on their own.
One such who came bearing his book, had come, before, from Sudan — a Lost Boy who had lost his father and brothers in the violence there. It seemed silly, somehow, that we should sit there pouring over paintings and artistic trends from the Romantic Period, but that was my job and his homework, so we did. And in the course of that, I told him how I disliked looking at the painting of Saturn devouring his son. So there was that long black hand laid on the textbook page to shield my eyes from the painted ugliness of a myth.
I think of that pretty often. Of how he had seen and lived through atrocities, but he was tender toward my squeamish eyes, didn’t want to inflict ugliness on me. Of how, safe in our first-world countries, we grow cavalier, sometimes, about ugly things, think we must gaze at them to understand them properly and live fully, think we must depict them in order to make something “real.” Of how we may be wrong.
Not that depicting ugly things is wrong — sometimes it is necessary. But thinking that ugly things are the only real things: that is wrong.
The cup ordained for us was a hideous cup, a bitter cup. Christ drained it, leaving it dry. When we look at Him, it is not to see the hideousness of the wounds, but the glory of the wounded One, who overcame even that death for us. He spreads His wounded hand over the page which makes us tremble, the page depicting His Father, our God, the consuming fire, and when He takes His hand away, the consuming fire has been satisfied, we need not fear that we will be devoured.
We enter, with Him, into glory, joint-heirs with Christ, wearing the righteousness of Him who drank our condemnation. This also is real. But it is not ugly.
©2012 by Stacy Nott