Sacred Noise: Modern art and the death of God

Until 21 July, a dedicated exhibition at Christie’s in London explores themes of religion, faith and divinity in post-war and contemporary art

Themes of religion, faith and divinity have pervaded art throughout the centuries. Sacred Noise, a dedicated exhibition of 30 works at Christie’s in London on show until 21 July, charts the reinterpretation and subversion of these themes in the 20th century. 

Ranging from Francis Bacon’s anguished Popes to Damien Hirst’s 1994 formaldehyde works titled after the disciples, the show explores how the European legacy of religious painting was reborn and redefined in post-war and contemporary art.

Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664), Christ on the Cross, with the Virgin and Saints Mary Magdalene and John the Evangelist. Oil on canvas. 83½ x 64¼ in (212 x 163 cm). Private Collection

Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664), Christ on the Cross, with the Virgin and Saints Mary Magdalene and John the Evangelist. Oil on canvas. 83½ x 64¼ in (212 x 163 cm). Private Collection

Sacred Noise  takes as a starting point the vivid tableaux vivants  of 16th-century Spanish painter Francisco de Zurbarán, who gave the faithful a sense of direct access to the scenes he depicted. Earlier, Luis de Morales’ Ecce Homo  variations showed Christ alone and at close range, blurring the boundaries between the human and the divine. Such careful dramatisation was soon sanctioned by the church for its ability to shock the senses.

Nearly 400 years later, Bacon, too, set out to explore the notion of staged sanctity. Pursued over nearly two decades in more than 50 canvases, his Papal portraits are widely regarded as his finest achievements.

Francis Bacon (1909-1992), Study, 1955. Oil on canvas. 42¾ x 29¾ in (108.6 x 75.6 cm). Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection, Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, University of East Anglia (UEA 30) © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved, DACSArtimage 2018. Photo Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd

Francis Bacon (1909-1992), Study, 1955. Oil on canvas. 42¾ x 29¾ in (108.6 x 75.6 cm). Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection, Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, University of East Anglia (UEA 30) © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved, DACS/Artimage 2018. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd

No post-war artist was more vitriolic in his attacks on the supreme pontiff than Bacon. In addition to depicting ‘Hitler’s Pope’ (as Pius XII is sometimes known) in 1955, his series of screaming or terrified pontiffs are among the most iconic images of existential horror in all of 20th century art. In them the Pope is shown as a victim, confined by the trappings of his elevated earthly status — tormented, forsaken and horrifyingly alone in a godless world.

Mark Rothko (1903-1970), Black and Red on Red, 1962. Oil on paper laid on canvas. 29⅝ x 21⅝ in (75.3 x 54.9 cm). Private Collection © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko ARS, NY and DACS, London

Mark Rothko (1903-1970), Black and Red on Red, 1962. Oil on paper laid on canvas. 29⅝ x 21⅝ in (75.3 x 54.9 cm). Private Collection © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko ARS, NY and DACS, London

In America in the 1950s, Mark Rothko was seeking to create a pure visual language of emotion and feeling. Making colour the sole ‘protagonist’ of his work, Rothko attempted to instill in his audience a near-mystical sense of the infinite. Rothko saw his paintings as humanist responses to the post-apocalyptic, post-Holocaust, post-atomic bomb nature of his times. Although they were not intended to be religious in any way, a strong undercurrent of sacrifice, suffering and even redemption runs through his paintings.

Elsewhere, artists such as Lucio Fontana responded to the exploration of space. As man entered a new engagement with the universe, Fontana reasoned, he would also enter a new dimension of mental space, leaving all Earth-bound concerns behind — including his Earth-centred concept of God.

Lucio Fontana (1899-1968), Concetto spaziale, La fine di Dio, 1963. Oil and glitter on canvas. 70⅛ x 48⅜ in (178 x 123 cm). Private Collection © Lucio FontanaSIAEDACS, London 2018

Lucio Fontana (1899-1968), Concetto spaziale, La fine di Dio, 1963. Oil and glitter on canvas. 70⅛ x 48⅜ in (178 x 123 cm). Private Collection © Lucio Fontana/SIAE/DACS, London 2018

The culmination of these theories was the series of canvases Fontana made between 1963 and 1964, entitled La fine di Dio (The End of God). These egg-shaped works represented the end of man’s old ways of thinking, the end of art and the rejection of a divinity.

Andy Warhol (1928-1987), Last Supper, 1986. Synthetic polymer paint and silkscreen ink on canvas. 40 x 40 in (101.6 x 101.6 cm). Private Collection © 2018 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.Licensed by DACS, London

Andy Warhol (1928-1987), Last Supper, 1986. Synthetic polymer paint and silkscreen ink on canvas. 40 x 40 in (101.6 x 101.6 cm). Private Collection © 2018 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./Licensed by DACS, London

In the early 1980s, religious imagery — including depictions of the Madonna — surfaced in Andy Warhol’s art as he began to confront his mortality. His engagement with Leonardo’s Last Supper  marked the culmination of this process: the ultimate image of communion, forgiveness, sacrifice and harmony.

Later that decade, biblical references would come to punctuate Damien Hirst’s work, too. Hirst took as his central theme the idea that art, science and money had come to supplant religion in the West, becoming the dominant new faiths of our age. Like the faiths of old, his work suggested, it is these that now claim to provide access to the realm of the sacred and the immortal.

Damien Hirst (b. 1965), God, 1989. Glass, faced particleboard, ramin, plastic, aluminium and pharmaceutical packaging. 54 x 40 x 9 in (137.2 x 101.6 x 22.9 cm). Private Collection, Europe © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACSArtimage 2018. Photo Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd

Damien Hirst (b. 1965), God, 1989. Glass, faced particleboard, ramin, plastic, aluminium and pharmaceutical packaging. 54 x 40 x 9 in (137.2 x 101.6 x 22.9 cm). Private Collection, Europe © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS/Artimage 2018. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd

Hirst’s art often openly emulates the visual kitsch of the Roman Catholic art he grew up with: its altarpieces, stained-glass windows and martyrs. His mix of cold scientific classification, pharmaceutical packaging, candy colours and clichéd romanticism is at once a half-sincere parody of his childhood faith and a veiled assault on medicine’s false claims of omnipotence.

The sense that nothing is considered sacred — or scandalous — any more is behind some of Maurizio Cattelan’s most contentious images. Not least, of course, is his infamous La Nona Ora  (pictured top), an installation depicting a life-size replica of Pope John Paul II struck down by a meteorite. A truly iconoclastic image, the piece caused a holy row when it was put on show in the Pope’s homeland of Poland in 2000.

‘What scares me,’ Cattelan has said in reference to La Nona Ora, ‘is the way in which scandals and consensus seem to walk hand in hand these days. You can’t step outside of the system, you can’t be radical: everything is sanctioned, appreciated and digested. We are perennially at ease, numbed. In the end, every man kills the things he loves.’

Bacon, Fontana, Warhol, Hirst and Cattelan are just a very few of the artists who shook the canon through their engagement with religion. As the wide range of work on display in Sacred Noise  makes clear, if divinity was long the anchor of human existence, its artistic unmooring in the 20th century opened up endless new interpretative horizons.


Sacred Noise is at Christie’s in London until 21 July. To view the e-catalogue, click here