A Covid Christology: Art, Atonement and the Forming of the Social Body in a Time of Pandemic
With a government ban on public gatherings and non-essential travel, churches scrambled to rethink Easter. Much energy went into new ways of being church in worship. Many churches sought to use digital technologies to live stream their worship. Other online resources appeared, including contemplative and creative prayer activities. Some churches went local, designing neighbourhood “stay in your bubble” prayer walks, in which local streets, neighbours, and familiar letterboxes became invitations to pray.
Christians gather at Easter because of the death and resurrection of Christ. Alongside the ecclesiology of how churches might celebrate Easter during lockdown comes theology; in particular, how the nature of God is revealed in the cross and resurrection. Did COVID-19 generate any rethinking of theology? Can reflection on the person, nature, and role of Christ inform how we respond to the pandemic?
During Easter 2020, an art image appeared on social media. Variously titled, with no claim to authorship, it depicts a moment of death. Central is the almost naked body of Jesus, his arm hanging limply. He has a ventilator attached to his face. On the far left of the picture is an oxygen bottle, while medical sensors are attached to his torso. Five health professionals cradle Jesus, all clothed in Personal protective equipment (PPE). At the rear, one holds his hands to his head, a gesture of despair. This gesture suggests the art image captures a moment of death.
The image gained significant internet attention. On the Facebook post of Lucia Coco, it gained 461 likes and 4000 shares, in the six days between 10 and 16 April. On the twitter feed of Father James Martin, editor at large of America Magazine, it gained 584 retweets and 2,000 likes in the five days between 11 and 16 April. On the Facebook post of Jesuit Vyacheslav Okun, it gained 1,400 shares in the same five days. While the artist remains unknown, perhaps intentionally, the level of engagement on social media suggests the image (which I will call the COVID-19 art piece) had a deep resonance. What might this mean for theology in general, and Christology in particular?
Art has always played a vital, albeit controversial, role in Christianity. Exodus 20:4–5 prohibits the making of images. Indeed, a feature of the Protestant Reformation, was the smashing of stained-glass windows and stripping of churches. But does a prohibition of images of God extend to art? If Christ in the Incarnation was the image of the Invisible (Col 1:15), then an image of Christ invites worship of “the Creator of matter who became matter.” For Reformed theologian, Nicholas Wolterstorff, art is a theological calling which offers a social responsibility. A global pandemic asks immediate, particular, and acute social questions. How might art inform a Christian understanding of social responsibility?
The potential of art to generate controversy was certainly evident in the responses to the COVID-19 art piece. Opinion was sharply divided. Some described the image as wrong, disrespectful, heretical, even blasphemous, and others saw it as powerful and stunning. For one person without faith, it clearly had an impact. “I’m not what you’d call a religious man, that being said, this is one of the most moving pieces of art I have seen in a long while.” This suggests an apologetic function, in which the piece of art “moves” the viewer.
To reflect christologically, I will bring the COVID-19 art piece first into conversation with two other art pieces, and secondly, with a theology of Christ in weakness. My argument is that the COVID-19 art piece provides a COVID Christology, a unique and prophetic invitation for the church to understand itself as a social body, called as bearers of a dead Christ, to participate in solidarity with all those who experience the pain of this pandemic. This Christological reorientation has implications for apologetics, discipleship, and mission.
A COVID Christology
What is this anonymous art piece saying about Christology? Upolu Luma Vaai, Pacific Theological College Principal, in a social media article titled “The ‘UNBEARABLE PAUSE,’” connected the COVID-19 art piece with a theology of Easter Saturday. Vaai drew on Indian theologian, S. J. Samartha’s poem “Saturday People” to give prophetic voice to all those who grieve injustice in death. God is named as
available to those Saturday people, experiencing the bitterness of death in their flesh, and hoping for the reality of new creation, also in the flesh, the arena of the drama of salvation.
For Vaai, the church must stand in solidarity.
As we struggle with the COVID-19 unbearable pain, let us remember those whose lives went into an unbearable pause because of corrupt and unjust systems we've created or endorsed.
Vaai offers a christologically orientated mission of justice and solidarity.
Technically, however, the COVID-19 art piece portrays the events of Easter Friday. The scriptural record describes how, on Friday, following death, Joseph took the body of Jesus and placed it in a tomb (Matt 27:57, 59). While the Biblical text is spare in detail, two historical art pieces allow us to think more deeply about the Christology of this COVID-19 art piece.
Caravaggio, The Entombment of Christ (1602–1603)
The COVID-19 piece is strikingly similar to The Entombment of Christ by Caravaggio. Described as “Caravaggio’s most monumental and admired altarpiece,” it was commissioned by Alessandro Vittrice in 1601. One plausible suggestion is that the COVID-19 art piece is a photoshop of The Entombment of Christ. In both art pieces, Christ is front and centre, his body vertical, his arm hanging as if dead. In both, Jesus’ body is held by five people, similarly positioned, clustered to the right of the picture. How might The Entombment of Christ help us clarify the Christology of the COVID-19 art piece?
A feature of the art of Caravaggio was the value of ordinary people. He pulled poor people from the streets of Rome and painted them into the story of Jesus. Hence, ordinary people are “caught in the turning point of history.” It is an extraordinary form of imaginative Incarnation, as viewers become participants painted into the story of Jesus by the skill of Caravaggio.
The COVID-19 art piece undertakes a similar function. Instead of the ordinary people from the streets of Rome, it is health workers clothed in PPE who hold the body of Christ. Doctors and intensive care nurses are “caught in the turning point of history.” So also are the workers making the PPE and the cleaners of each hospital room following every death. The COVID-19 art piece interprets these people as participants with the body of Christ. Indeed, the art piece offers a particular and embodied posture of prayer. It invites anyone to move from viewer to participant, through the act of placing their hands on their head. This becomes an act of participative prayer, a contemporary “My God, My God” as the body count rises across the globe.
Another feature of the art of Caravaggio was his use of light. Drury describes him as a “master of stage lighting and action.” For Caravaggio, light is the natural unifier that holds together the inanimate and the animate. In both artworks, the background is dark. All the light shines on the dead body of Jesus. For Drury, Caravaggio’s use of light in The Entombment of Christ has a theological function: the mystery of Christ’s presence permeates and gathers. Hence we can understand the use of light in the COVID-19 art piece theologically. God as Christ is dead, yet death remains lit by light. The mystery of faith continues to permeate all of life, even in death.
It is tempting for Christians to run to Easter Sunday in search of faith. Applied to this pandemic, our hope is placed in the future, on the other side of a vaccine. The temptation is to have confidence in medicine. The COVID-19 art piece offers another way of experiencing faith. It invites us to bring death into life. Our hands-on head gestures are a participation in the experience of a mystery of faith in which God is present in death and life.
Rubens, The Descent from the Cross (1611)
Much of the art of Easter Friday focuses on the body of Christ alone on the cross. When people are present, they seldom touch Jesus, for they are watching from a distance. There is no human touch to comfort Christ in his last moments. One of the most disturbing dimensions of the COVID-19 pandemic is the isolation policies that separate loved ones at death. Christ who died alone shares these experiences.
Like Caravaggio’s The Entombment of Christ, Rubens, The Descent from the Cross, paints people touching the dead body of Christ. The art piece, currently held at the Courtauld Institute Galleries, London, provides another interpretation of the events of Easter Friday, in particular the four words from Matthew 27:59, “Joseph took the body.” Eight people, three above, one to the side, and four below, are taking Christ down from the cross. The arms of the dead Christ lie outstretched, splayed across a white robe. As the body of Christ is returned to human society, Christology acquires a social dimension. Indeed, both Caravaggio and Rubens paint people touching Jesus. Drury describes how the body of Christ is received “as the most precious of gifts.” This is a profound dignifying of death and of all those who tend the bodies of those who die.
Like Caravaggio’s The Entombment of Christ, Rubens’ The Descent from the Cross, was painted for a particular altar, that of the Guild of St Christopher the Christ-bearer in Antwerp Cathedral. Below the Rubens’ piece, as with the Caravaggio, in the sacrament of Eucharist, contemporary disciples of Christ receive the body of Christ. As they feed, they become “Christ-bearers.” Once again, these artistic portrayals of the death of Christ are turning viewers into participants. It is one thing to carry the weight of those we love. It is another to carry the weight of those who die.
Using this lens provides another way to read the COVID-19 art piece Christologically, as it turns those who carry the weight of the dead into Christ-bearers. In the COVID-19 art piece, two people, in particular, are bearing the weight of the dead Christ. One in white is holding Christ's legs. The other, in blue, has an arm under the body and around a shoulder. An arm around a shoulder is a familiar human gesture of comradeship. This brings to mind the words of Jesus in John 15:14 “You are my friends.” The verses define discipleship as friendship. Friendship with the Divine is located in love. In the verse prior, in John 15:13: “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” In this moment of Jesus laying down his life, those holding Jesus indeed become friends. This affirms every health worker, every human gowned in PPE. In their professionalism and skill, they are participating like those who tended the body of God. This Easter, their vocation allows them to be friends of God.
Christology needs to consider a dead God. We have already noted the temptation to run from “It is finished” to “He is Risen.” In the liturgical history of the church, Easter Sunday celebrations have crept in earlier and earlier. The church struggles to participate in prayer as the body of Christ lies dead, arms hanging lifeless. Yet if we are to be faithful to the fullness of Easter, we need a way to understand the dead body of Christ. What theological resources are available to those who “walk in the valley of the shadow of death,” including our world as it walks in the valley of a COVID-19 pandemic?
A significant resource is offered by the twentieth-century Catholic theologian, Herbert McCabe, who locates his atonement theology in weakness. For McCabe, Jesus died to fulfil his mission of being human. This helps us sit with the Christology offered by the COVID-19 art piece. What can be a more authentic demonstration of human existence than death? Yet in this death is revealed the Trinitarian life of divine love and the meaning of being human. What could be weaker than a dead body, unable to be kept alive by medical staff and modern ventilators, destroyed by a virus too small to see? We are confronted by weakness and in doing so, find “the best picture of the power of God.”
Alan Lewis was a twentieth-century Protestant theologian who believed that the dead body of Christ was central to Christian theology. For Lewis,
what is there left to do but to pray if the story of God’s death and burial be true? ... Prayer is astonishment translated into adoration – the risk of letting go of caution, inhibition, doubt.
For Lewis, this was no armchair theology. His book, written in the shadows of a cancer ward, was completed by his family after his early death.
Hence, art by Caravaggio and Rubens opens up significant Christological themes. The result is a Christology of weakness in which even in death, the light of salvation continues to permeate. All those who hold their heads in grief at the deaths caused by COVID-19 find themselves participants in a Christ-bearing friendship.
Forming a social body
A mystery of Easter is the return of the dead body of God to human hands. At Easter, God is re-orientating a social body. This is seen artistically in these three art pieces. Hence a COVID Christology, as it socially re-orientates the church in solidarity with all who grieve, has implications for apologetics, discipleship, and mission. This becomes clear as we bring McCabe’s theology of weakness into conversation with the scholarship of Rev Dr David Brown, once Professor of Theology, Aesthetics, and Culture, at St Andrews University.
Brown explores art, particularly art in which Jesus is “ugly and wasted.” Despite controversy, a unique feature of the Christian tradition is the reflection on the human body in pain. Art—for example Grunewald’s The Isenheim Altarpiece or the Armi Christi which portrays all the instruments used to torture Jesus—is a difficult dimension of Christianity. It might explain those on social media who found the COVID-19 piece disrespectful and sacrilegious.
Brown argues that this art performs a specific function, one that has implications for discipleship and apologetics: “The fundamental purpose of such innovations was to draw reader and viewer alike more closely into the significance of the drama that occurred for their salvation.” What is happening is “a closer identification of ourselves with Christ as the one who can make possible a more intimate relation with God.” This occurs not intellectually but experientially. It is a purpose no different from the aims of the Gospel writers, of turning viewers into participants.
For mission, this is a form of apologetics, not factual but experiential. This is the gift of the COVID-19 piece. Hence for Charlie F, while not religious, “this is one of the most moving pieces of art I have seen in a long while.” The COVID-19 pandemic confronts us with human weakness. We are invited to participate by holding our hands to our heads, remaining attentive to our human weakness, and identifying with Christ as friendship of God.
Amid the pain and pandemic of COVID-19, an anonymous art piece went viral. When brought into conversation with two historical art pieces and a theology of weakness, it provides a COVID Christology, a unique and prophetic invitation for the church to understand itself as a social body, called as bearers of a dead Christ to participate in solidarity with all those who experience the pain of this pandemic. This is a Christological reorientation that has implications for apologetics, discipleship, and mission. Another Easter might invite another dimension of Christology. In the particularity of this pandemic, here is a significant Christological resource. We are invited to remain with the dead, to keep placing our hands on our heads in despair. In doing so, we experience a re-orientation. We are the Easter people, formed through attending to bodies broken.
Rev Dr Steve Taylor is Principal, Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership, New Zealand. He gained his PhD from the University of Otago in 2004 in missional ecclesiology. He is the author of First Expressions (2019), Built for Change (2016) and The Out of Bounds Church (2005). In 2015 he was awarded the Flinders University Vice Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching and is a regular columnist for Touchstone and Zadok magazines. He has published more than 40 peer-reviewed academic pieces and more than 200 other articles and poems on various aspects of Christian faith and culture.
 Titled “Deposition from the Cross. Good Friday in a time of virus” by Father James Martin. https://twitter.com/JamesMartinSJ/status/1248771985045360645. Titled “Strasna Friday 2020” by Vyacheslav Okun SJ. https://tinyurl.com/y8s2ku5w. Strasna is Bosnian for Passionate.
 Father James Martin initially attributed it to Vyacheslav Okun, but later wrote that he did not know the artist. I made multiple enquiries regarding authorship and have received no reply.
 See John of Damascus, in Ellen Cherry, Inquiring After God: Classic and Contemporary Readings (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 2000), 286.
 Nicholas Wolterstorff, Art in Action: Toward a Christian Aesthetic (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1980), 79.
 Analysis of replies on https://twitter.com/JamesMartinSJ/status/1248771985045360645.
 Ibid., Charlie F (@CharlieFrid).
 The poem appears in Stanley J. Samartha, The Pilgrim Christ: Sermons, Poems and Bible Studies (Bangalore: Asian Trading Corporation, 1994).
 J. Jayakiran Sebastian, “The Guide Who Stands Aside: Confessing Christ in India Today,” Asian and Oceanic Christianities in Conversation: Exploring Theological Identities at Home and in Diaspora. Studies in World Christianity and Interreligious Relations 47 (2011): 145. https://doi.org/10.1163/9789042032996_010; 145.
 For a direct comparison see https://twitter.com/AreaHjt/status/1249241084204658689. The Carravagio is available at http://www.museivaticani.va/content/museivaticani/en/collezioni/musei/la-pinacoteca/sala-xii---secolo-xvii/caravaggio--deposizione-dalla-croce.html.
 “The Entombment of Christ (1601–3),” in Encyclopedia of Art Education http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/famous-paintings/entombment-of-christ.htm.
 John Drury, Painting the Word. Christian Pictures and the Meaning (New Haven: Yale UP, reprint 2015), 125.
 Ibid., 125.
 Ibid., 124.
 Ibid., 124.
 For example, the Gero Cross, Cologne Cathedral and The Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grunewald. Richard Harries, The Passion in Art (England: Ashgate, 2004).
 For example, Christ on the Cross by Georges Roualt and Crucifixion by Helen Meyer. Ibid.
 Drury, 107.
 Drury, 108.
 Alan Lewis, Between Cross and Resurrection. A Theology of Holy Saturday (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), 2. Fn.1.
 Herbert McCabe, God Matters (London: Bloomsbury, 2002), 108.
 Lewis, 465. Italics in original.
 The hands-on head gesture could be the beginning of lament. Lament is a central genre in the Old Testament, including the Psalms. For more, see Walter Brueggemann, The Psalmist’s Cry: Scripts for Embracing Lament (Kansas City, MS: The House Studio, 2010).
 David Brown, God and Grace of Body. Sacrament in Ordinary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 185–216.
 Ibid., 187.
 Ibid., 185.