Room guide: Statues and death

Jake and Dinos Chapman Ubermensch 1995

Jake and Dinos Chapman
Ubermensch 1995

© The Artist
Courtesy Jay Jopling/White Cube, London

The history of Western art is also the history of Christian thought, and this is a history where image making, and especially statue making, is fraught with controversy.

During the Middle Ages it was believed that sculpture was a more recent artistic development than painting, a reversal of the opinion commonly held today. Technical advances in art were equated with an accelerating evil, probably because they were seen as being at a further distance from the simplicity of Eden. All sculpture was dangerous and linked to idolatry; it was seen as a proud attempt to compete with God’s creation of man in His own image.

Nevertheless, coloured sculpture was employed as a way of teaching the book of God to those who could not read. Various pagan beliefs and customs were absorbed and tolerated by the church as a way of attracting pagan converts; the adoration of statues of Christian figures as idols was bound to happen, despite the fervent attempts of Christian iconoclasts to stop it.

Because of their construction in permanent material, statues, as with the readymade, constantly evoke in viewers their own mortality. Indeed, this could be said to be the main point of Christian statuary: to rub people’s noses in their own mortality so that their minds were forever focused on the after-life.

And this is probably why, in the modern era, figurative sculpture is held in such low esteem, for this primitive fear cannot be erased from it. The aura of death surrounds statues. The origin of sculpture is said to be in the grave; the first corpse was the first statue. And early statues were the first objects to which the aura of life clung. Unwilling to accept the notion of himself as a material being with a limited life span, ‘Man’ had to represent himself symbolically as eternal, in materials more permanent than flesh.