Rowena Loverance introduces a new twelve-part series in which she writes about images of Christ
If you live within reach of London, you have less than a month to hotfoot it round to the British Museum, and, in their ‘South Africa: The art of a nation’ exhibition, see one of the most surprising religious images of the late twentieth century.
Christ Playing Football is a monumental woodcarving by Jackson Hlungwani, a Tsonga manual worker turned preacher, visionary and healer, who took up woodcarving in his thirties in response to a direct personal experience of Christ. Suffering from a recurrent ulcer on his leg, he had determined on suicide, but before he could do so, he says Jesus appeared to him and told him that he would be healed and that he must give his life to serving God. Hlungwani spent the next thirty years constructing his New Jerusalem: on a hilltop long held sacred by the Venda, neighbours of the Tsonga, he constructed a rocky pilgrimage route leading up to stone platforms covered with his wooden sculptures, which he called Altar to Christ and Altar to God.
Perhaps the most remarkable part of the story is that Hlungwani’s own wound did not heal, yet offering healing to others remained at the centre of his religious practice. He died in 2010 and his New Jerusalem has been dismantled, but South Africa has embraced his personal synthesis of Tsonga and Christian religious beliefs; his works are on permanent display in museums in Johannesburg.
His Christ Playing Football is not an altogether easy work. Jesus’ body is hunched and he is looking down, concentrating on the ball. To see his face, the viewer has to bend, and then look up. It is easier to look at the ball. Cradled between his feet, it reminded me of the handheld hazelnut in Julian of Norwich’s vision, ‘as round as any ball’, which, as she came to see, has its being because it is kept in the love of God.
Like many Friends, I have been following the two-year programme of reading Quaker faith & practice, enjoying the experience of finding old favourites and being challenged by passages that had spoken to others but which I had overlooked up till now.
Looking at Christ Playing Football, I wondered if there was an artistic equivalent, which some of us who read and write for the Friend might usefully engage in during the next year. I don’t think there are yet enough Quaker artworks to carry us through – for reasons that we’ve discussed before in these pages, the relationship between Quakers and art is still not entirely smooth. But in all those countless works of art about Jesus that have been made in the last millennium and more, are there a few – both familiar and unfamiliar – which we might usefully explore together?
And the reason? Because part of being a Quaker is to be in a relationship with those who founded our Religious Society, with George Fox and Margaret Fell, James Nayler and William Penn, and what inspired them was Jesus Christ. We know what Fox said: ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition’. We know what Nayler said: ‘…which Christ I witness, suffering in me now’.
But what can we say? Maybe art can help us…
All images in the series will be made available in colour on the Friend website: www.thefriend.org
The first article in the series is: ‘Christ in the House of Martha and Mary’
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