Simon Jenkins: Mechanical martyrs
Even though I’ve been a Christian for several centuries (well, so it sometimes seems) I must confess I’ve never seen a saint smacking himself on the nose with a crucifix before. It happened to me last week when I went to London’s National Gallery to see a decidedly eccentric art exhibition called “Saints Alive”.
The artist behind the show, Michael Landy, has been very taken by all the pictures of saints in the National Gallery’s vast collection of paintings. Inspired by them, he has made huge statues of his favourite saints which alarmingly clank into life when visitors press the buttons provided.
Each saint is noisily mechanical, powered by a Heath Robinson collection of pram wheels and old motors rescued from skips.
St Francis was my favourite in the show. He looks just like your average Catholic statue, gazing lovingly at a crucifix he holds close to his face. But pop a coin in the slot, and the crucifix abruptly smacks him on the nose. His expression is so pious I couldn’t help laughing.
Just nearby is a torso of St Jerome connected to a muscular arm holding a big stone (pictured). You stomp on the big red button on the floor, and the arm bashes the stone into the chest three times. Crash! Crash! Crash! The cartoon-like violence is taken directly from the life of St Jerome, who found it the most effective way to take his mind off the dancing girls of Rome.
All this might be completely Monty Python, except that Michael Landy seriously admires the saints. Maybe it’s because of his Catholic upbringing, but he’s attracted by the way these unusual characters pursued extremes of self sacrifice to the point of death. He likes the way they went against the culture of their times.
“The saints are all very single-minded individuals,” he says. “That’s what I like about them.”
Celebrating the value of faith by highlighting the comedy of its wilder excesses struck a chord with me. That’s because I’ve been on a similar (but obviously much lowlier) track ever since I invented a magazine called Ship of Fools back in the late 1970s. The Ship went on to become a website and discussion board community at the turn of the millennium, and still sails the high seas of the net.
It’s where Christians can be refreshingly self-critical about their religion, which they love, but also question. And it’s also a place for collecting holy shopping items such as the Talking Tombstone, “What Would Jesus Do” boxer shorts, and fluffy loo covers printed with the words: “Let my people go.”
I hope this new column, “Jumble sales of the apocalypse”, will bring some of the same comedy-critical eye to each month’s Reform. The fact that it’s on the back page of the magazine is a good start. It reminds me of sitting in the back pew eating jelly babies while the sermon rumbled on like a distant earthquake.
The humble jumble sale and the almighty Apocalypse of St John don’t obviously have much in common, except they are both part of the Christian faith. A huge amount of attention has rightly been paid to the Apocalypse and all the big things of Christianity, such as scriptures and creeds, theologies and saints.
But there’s also genuine value in looking at the small and neglected things, including jumble sales, pious loo covers and the everyday realities of the spiritual life. They might be brilliant or embarrassing, classy or kitsch, but they tell us important stories about who we are, how we live as believers now, and whether we make sense to the wider world.
This column will be a bit offbeat, like St Jerome with his rock. As Malcolm Muggeridge once said: “Humour is the disparity between human aspiration and human performance.” That’s why the church is often one of the funniest places on earth, because our aspirations are so high. And it’s what I’m hoping to explore, month by month.
This article was published in the July/August 2013 edition of Reform.
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