Bagong Kussudiardja was an Indonesian artist, dancer and & cultural activist. He studied dance in New York, and founded an Indonesian institute of fine art. Working mainly with batik, his images are full of the fluidity he expressed in his dancing, with many pieces taking dance itself as the focus. Usually his figures are dressed in the bright cloths of traditional Indonesian dance. In contrast this painting uses more sober, stark colour – a deep brown figure against a pale background, in which a white bird shadows the uplifted movement of the figure in the foreground.
The title of the piece is ‘The Ascension’, which identifies the figure as Jesus and recalls the moment when he was taken back into the heavenly realms. However, his dress – a simple loincloth – calls to mind the moment of resurrection. The white bird behind him stretches out its wings and tail, as if it is taking the form of the grave clothes that Jesus is shedding. His ankles are crossed, as if still tethered to the cross; but his arms are flung wide, embracing the heavens.
As the figure lifts his arms his body is thrown off-balance, as if in movement: he seems to dance, or even swim, towards the heavens. This is in contrast with the more staid and regal bearing of Christ in many Western depictions of the resurrection, such as that of Piero della Francesca. Kussudiardja’s Jesus is more joyful, leaping from the earth and praising his Father in heaven. Yet this is not a solo performance; the presence of the bird demonstrates the opportunity for any who would join the dance. We are invited in, and feel that at any moment he may reach down and clasp our hand to swoop us up into ecstatic motion. The resurrection is both inclusive and ongoing.
Another image of dance that has spoken to me over the years is far more familiar: it is ‘Danse I’, by Matisse. In the fluidity of the figures and in the open circle I find a picture of the church: a people rejoicing in the freedom of Christ, both echoing his resurrection and looking forward to the day of their own. The circle is not closed; a print of this picture used to hang on our wall and I felt that at any moment I, inhibited and undemonstrative as I am, might join the dance. Each figure dances freely, individually, without concern for form or structure; yet the whole is coherent. This ‘church’ does not busy itself in striving towards conformity, but celebrates the diversity of the people of God. Even the gender of the dancers seems confused at times – even more so in Matisse’s second version of this subject – and I am reminded of the Biblical assertion that in him there is no male or female…all are one in Christ Jesus.
Behind the figure in Kussudiardja’s painting is a bird, a creature that inhabits both earth and heavens. Its wings and tail are spread open as it takes flight, reminding us of the verse in Malachi (4:2) – ‘the Sun of Righteousness will rise with healing in his wings’. Specific birds are used symbolically in many cultures. It is not clear which bird this represents. Is it a swan? In Indonesia, swans symbolize the discrimination between good and evil. Or (more likely) is it a white peacock? The peacock is well recognized in Asian art, and Christian symbolism links peacocks to immortality and the incorruptibility of the soul. The white feathers of the bird also bring to mind that of a dove. To Jewish thinking the dove was the bird of hope, the one that found evidence that the flood of Noah was subsiding – and so that God’s wrath was ending. Within Christian thought the dove is a symbol of the Holy Spirit, as seen at the baptism of Christ. This painting marks a moment of rebirth, as Jesus leaves behind the limitations of human flesh and rises to the life eternal that he has promised to share with us, through the work of the Spirit. The bird acts as a midwife to this rebirth, as she will do also for us when we leave behind our own flesh and rise to eternal life.
It is interesting to consider how different artists have depicted the resurrection, over the years. Too many for my taste are in soft focus, perhaps even with Jesus developing a propensity to float several inches above the grass. In many paintings Christ is inscrutable, aloof perhaps. The scars of crucifixion are clearly there, reminding us of recent agony and death; yet the face is not entirely of this world. Many images have Christ alone, or surrounded by those who sleep; the resurrection has come stealthily and secretly, and has yet to be discovered. In some the harrowing of hell is depicted – the doctrine that Jesus descended to the place of the dead. Many update the events, or change the location to surroundings familiar at least to the original audience. How would we want to imagine the scene? Or how else could the energy and wonder of the resurrection be represented?
In a number of films of the life of Christ the film-maker stops short after the resurrection, or merely hints at it. Directors are squeamish about re-introducing the figure of Christ, after so bullishly murdering him in the previous scenes. For me the best modern film that portrays resurrection does so without any mention of Christ. Instead, an entirely innocent man is incarcerated in a hellish jail for almost 20 years. During this time he suffers all manner of degrading and agonizing torture, both physical and mental; and yet he retains his integrity and dignity throughout. He shows courage, wisdom and tenacity, and achieves moments of joy and a sense of freedom for the other prisoners and therefore also himself. At last he is pushed too far, and his long plan is revealed; during the time of his imprisonment he has been digging a tunnel out, slowly and painstakingly. He drags his body through the narrow tunnel, then crawls through half a mile of sewerage pipe to freedom.
Whilst Andy escapes he does not leave the others without hope. He ensures the downfall of the corrupt and vicious prison warden, and so ushers in more humane era for the prison. His best friend, meanwhile, is released soon afterwards, having served his time for a real murder and become a changed man over the years of imprisonment, many lived alongside Andy. Without the routine of prison life, he is lost; but is found in the revelation of the plan Andy has for his life. It is fascinating to me that the author of the book that inspired this film should have called it ‘The Shawshank Redemption’. In it the characters find redemption, both in terms of paying their debts to society and those they have specifically harmed; but also in terms of their very natures being ‘saved’ by the experience of knowing Andy. What was for Andy an escape from hell became a rescue mission for them all.