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The television version of Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall is the latest account to challenge St Thomas More’s reputation as a courageous defender of the rights of conscience. Was he, in truth, a liberal icon, a religious fanatic or something in between?
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Artists, said Pope Paul VI, are masters of “rendering accessible and comprehensible to the minds and hearts of our people the things of the spirit, the invisible, the ineffable, the things of God himself.”
So I doubt he would be impressed with a decision by Transport for London to decline eight Stations of the Cross images that had been destined to adorn the walls of Tube stations in the run-up to Easter. Five were rejected outright, and in the case of the other three images, alternatives were requested, though the spokeswoman could not say whether any been submitted.
Saturday’s Guardian reported that TfL had rejected Antony Micallef's Kill Your Idol, three works showing Jesus, stripped and wearing the crown of thorns, standing before not Pontius Pilate but a panel from the television talent show X Factor. Micallef wanted to highlight the notion of public humiliation and judgement and show how this was a form of entertainment back then and continues to be today.
A TfL spokewoman said: “The adverts were rejected as they did not comply with our advertising policy.” She pointed me to these lines in their policy document: “The advertisement does not comply with the law or incites someone to break the law … The advertisement is likely to cause widespread or serious offence to members of the public on account of the nature of the product or service being advertised the wording or design of the advertisement or by way of inference.”
Another banned image, by Sebastian Horsley, is a montage of photos showing the artist, wearing only a loin-cloth, being nailed to a cross and explores the artist’s own sense of being punished by God.
Curiously, Zavier Ellis’ The Covenant was refused because its central panel includes a small amount of graffiti-style lettering, which falls foul of a policy about suggesting the use of graffiti.
Another you won't see in a Tube station is Paul Fryer’s Black Pieta, which depicts Jesus in an electric chair.
Alternative, edgy, unsettling – just as good art, and good religious art, should be. The artists are a mix of believers and non-believers. “I identified that they had something to say about the life of Jesus Christ,” Ben Moore, director of Art Below, who selected the images and submitted them to TfL, tells me. “There’s a big trend to be anti religion and quite dark; I’ve been congratulated for not being negative.” The congregation at St Mary’s, Marylebone, where the images are displayed, have no problems with them.
And there’s the irony – that Jesus’ agony isn’t simply negative and dark, because we know it was a prelude to the most hope-establishing event in history. And why would Christians be offended by portraying Jesus’ humiliating trial in contemporary language such as a talent show panel? Surely Christians are more offended, well, startled, by having the gore removed from the Passion. Such a censoring now doesn’t soften what happened.
It does suggest that TfL misunderstands what offends Christians – St Paul says that the message of the Cross is offensive, and we grow up meditating on gory images and statues depicting Jesus’ suffering. Note to TfL – this doesn’t lead us to incite Christians to break the law, but usually makes us want to repent of all sorts of sins. So rather than dance about on the side of political correctness, please ask some real Christians.
Abigail Frymann is The Tablet's Online Editor
View the Gallery of images, including those that have been rejected, here.