Advent offering 2 December: Paloma Faith, Caravaggio, and A Perfect Contradiction

Continuing with the ‘redhead’ tradition of yesterday’s advent image, today’s offering is replete with flaming locks. For a bit of a change, I’ve chosen a contemporary image from a genre of visual culture we may not usually associate with religion or the Bible: the album cover. But, if we look closely at the cover of Paloma Faith’s 2014 album, A Perfect Contradiction, we can see that she presents us with a retelling of the gospel traditions of Jesus’ entombment (Mark 15:42-47; John 19.38-42). According to this text, Joseph of Aramathea took Jesus’ body from the cross once he was dead, wrapped him in a linen cloth and laid him in a tomb hewn from the rock. In the gospel of Mark, Joseph is accompanied by Mary Magdalene and Mary, mother of Joses, whereas in John, Nicodemus is present, bringing spices and oils with which to embalm Jesus’ body.

paloma-faith-a-perfect-contradiction-2014-1200x1200
Paloma Faith, A Perfect Contradiction (2014)

Faith’s album cover is actually a re-enactment of a much earlier artwork, Caravaggio’s The Entombment of Christ. In this painting, Nicodemus (right) and John the Evangelist (left) lift Jesus’ lifeless body down into the tomb that has been prepared for him. In the background (from left to right), the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, and Mary of Clopas stand, each woman reacting emotionally to their loss in quite different ways. As the Magdalene weeps quietly, Mary of Clopas raises her arms in a heavenward appeal, while Jesus’ mother stands, her face etched with grief, and her right hand raised as though to give her son a final blessing as she guides him to his earthly grave.

Caravaggio, Entombment of Christ (1603-1604)
Caravaggio, Entombment of Christ (1603-1604)

On the cover of A Perfect Contradiction, Faith represents each figure in the original painting, her various costumes and postures defining her different roles. And, while there is no perfect match between the two images, like Caravaggio, she allows each of these figures to portray an emotion, or grieving response, to the tragedy of the limp body that is being so carefully and lovingly guided to its resting place. In her many ‘faces’, we see tenderness, acute sadness, curiosity and anxiety – all testament to the care and compassion we feel for those whom we love and lose. Ironically, it is the goddess-like figure in the background (the Queen of Heaven?) who raises her hands heavenward in a gesture of distress and supplication. And, as in Caravaggio’s painting, the arm of Faith’s female Christ droops down, pointing to the ground where she is to be lain in death. This visual image does indeed  capture a ‘perfect contradiction’ – between life and death, heaven and earth, light and darkness.

Of course, there is one further contradiction we can see between these two related images. Faith presents a female Christ, her limp body barely covered in a white cloth. Unlike Caravaggio’s Christ (and other artistic images of a near naked Christ in death), the nude female body carries very different cultural connotations linked to sexuality, gender, and desire.  Faith’s Christ-body bears the constant potential to be a sexualized body, even in death. And yet, perhaps her album cover reminds us that,  in the midst of death and mourning, the female body needs to be a focal point, not for some objectified desire or for the pleasure of the spectator’s gaze, but rather for care,  love, remembrance, and of course, grief. A perfect contradiction.

Back tomorrow for another Advent offering – see you then!

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