Earlier this year I was pleased to have the opportunity to visit the ‘Beyond Caravaggio’ exhibition which was put on at the National Gallery. One happy result of accompanying many years of Bennett trips to Rome has been the opportunity to see the many Caravaggio originals that hang in that city’s churches. Like many, I’ve developed an enthusiasm for his powerful use of light to draw the viewer into the scene of the painting, emotionally involving you in that moment. It was not, however, a work by Caravaggio which most absorbed me as I visited the exhibition, but rather to my surprise a work by a much lesser known artist nicknamed ‘Lo Spadarino’. The picture that captured my attention was an image of the resurrected Christ displaying his wounds in a shockingly graphic way. It is not an image for the fainthearted, as Christ holds open the lips of the wound that the soldier made in his side, we see the reality of torn flesh contrasting with the vulnerability of pale skin. Unlike Caravaggio’s more celebrated image of Saint Thomas, putting his fingers into an equally grisly wound, Lo Spadarino’s Christ is inviting you the viewer to touch the dreadful gash. Confronted with the lifesize original, I really did feel a powerful compulsion to approach and touch the image which has such a powerful palpable presence. Here really is the risen Christ come among us.
At the heart of any contemplation of the Resurrection must be the reality of Christ’s return from death. Throughout the gospels there are critical indicators that this was not some spirit or ghost, but a real human being, with physical substance, eating at Emmaus or being touched by Thomas. It is this of course that Lo Spadarino’s painting makes us confront. There is a real challenge here, which should not be underestimated. We are being invited to consider whether we believe or not. Young people, like adults, are not credulous sponges, so the questions and challenges of faith and belief are live ones in a Christian school.
It is in this context then, that we were reminded by our visiting speaker Richard Thomas, vicar of St Philip’s, of the fascinating story of Blondin. Charles Blondin was a French tightrope walker and acrobat who in the late 1850s began a series of spectacles where he crossed the Niagara gorge, sometimes blindfolded, on stilts and even with a wheelbarrow. He would sometimes invite the crowd to volunteer to be carried across and on one particular occasion, when visited by Edward Prince of Wales, he even invited the Prince to consider it. Like so many others the Prince did not have the conviction to cross, but Blondin’s assistant Romain Mouton did. The Prince, we are told urged Blondin never to repeat such a dangerous stunt. The story is a neat illustration of how challenging belief and faith can be.
However as we celebrated Easter this year we were given compelling examples from Egypt of just how powerful belief in Christ’s Resurrection promise can be. Coptic Christians in Tanta and Alexandria returned to worship in churches that were bombed just a week before on Palm Sunday. Archbishop Justin Welby summed up the significance clearly for us, reminding us of our calling to be witnesses to the Resurrection: “But, the words Jesus says on that first Easter day he says to you and me now; ‘Do not be afraid’. These things overshadow our lives because we fear they may have the last word. These things lie, they deceive, they pretend to have power that they do not have, when they say they are final. There is only one finality: Jesus the crucified one is alive.”