Mapplethorpe: Art and Mortality

8 April 2010

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

Robert Mapplethorpe is best known for his nude and erotic artwork. Though he counted his Catholic upbringing as among his influences, his 1975 self-portrait (not-shown) made a garish mockery of the crucifixion, emphasizing the artist’s sexuality.

But it was toward the end of his life, that Mapplethorpe struggled with AIDS, where he turned to the less-intensive medium of photography to express himself. Among the photographs he produced was the one below, simply titled Christ.

Robert Mapplethorpe, “Christ;” 1988, B&W Photograph

Art commentator Isobel Crombie observes that “At a time when Mapplethorpe’s own sense of mortality was ever present, Christ is a moving reminder of the frailty of the body – and the power of the spirit” (quoted from Beyond Belief: Modern Art and the Religious Imagination).

In the photograph Christ, the artist turns from his usual motif of sexuality and eroticism, to the beauty of human vulnerability and mortality. The rugged black asphalt forms the backdrop against which we view Christ’s simple, mortal frame.

In theological terms, we rightly understand that Christ took on a human body so that He might be subject to death on a cross. To the church at Philippi, Paul quotes the lyrics to an early hymn to emphasize this:

[T]hough he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:6-8)

While Jesus would never experience Mapplethorpe’s AIDS, He nonetheless experienced the suffering that accompanies the human conditon, with all its hurts, hungers, thirsts and temptations. But He did no not merely to show the triumph of the human will, but so that He could be the perfect sacrfice that overcomes these things.

No writer expresses this more beautifully than Athanasius, who in the fourth century answered the heresies raised by Arius, saying:

Thus, taking a body like our own, because all our bodies were liable to the corruption of death, He surrendered His body to death instead of all, and offered it to the Father. This He did out of sheer love for us, so that in His death all might die, and the law of death thereby be abolished because, having fulfilled in His body that for which it was appointed, it was thereafter voided of its power for men. This He did that He might turn again to incorruption men who had turned back to corruption, and make them alive through death by the appropriation of His body and by the grace of His resurrection. Thus He would make death to disappear from them as utterly as straw from fire….The Word perceived that corruption could not be got rid of otherwise than through death; yet He Himself, as the Word, being immortal and the Father’s Son, was such as could not die. For this reason, therefore, He assumed a body capable of death, in order that it, through belonging to the Word Who is above all, might become in dying a sufficient exchange for all, and, itself remaining incorruptible through His indwelling, might thereafter put an end to corruption for all others as well, by the grace of the resurrection. It was by surrendering to death the body which He had taken, as an offering and sacrifice free from every stain, that He forthwith abolished death for His human brethren by the offering of the equivalent. For naturally, since the Word of God was above all, when He offered His own temple and bodily instrument as a substitute for the life of all, He fulfilled in death all that was required. Naturally also, through this union of the immortal Son of God with our human nature, all men were clothed with incorruption in the promise of the resurrection ( Athanasius, contra Arianos, III, 33).

Thus in the stillness and contrast of Mapplethorpe’s work, we see a reflection of our own mortality – a mortality that Christ willingly experienced in order that it could be overcome.

8 April 2010

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

Chris is a writer and speaker. He currently serves as teaching pastor at Tri-State Fellowship and as a research writer for Docent Research Group.

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