Monday, October 01, 2007

Meditating on the Majestas

After a day spent mostly working on administrative aspects of our Spiritual Capital research project, I went up to Llandaff Cathedral in good time to attend the re-dedication service at the end of the diocesan Day of Prayer. I had nearly an hour just to sit quietly, enjoy the arrival of evening, and just look at the building, with its dominant Epstein 'Majestas' statue which has been there at the centre of the building since I was in short trousers.

If I value awe and wonder highly as elements of my spiritual journey, it has to be in some way a result of this immense figure being part of my field of religious imagery since early adolescence. It's as mysterious to me now as it was then. I am drawn to it, and treasure it as part of my faith-experience, and the memories attached to it over half a century. But it doesn't excite sentiments like affection or hatred in me - just wonder.

Who is this man? Such a key question in Gospel narration. Epstein's figure poses this question. It is indeed as majestic a figure as the title 'Majestas' suggests. But what kind of majesty is here portrayed? I still ask myself this, and am still rehearsing answers.

If it's meant to be Christ in majesty - a kind of 20th century pantocrator equivalent - how can anyone be certain of this? The hands and feet are very prominent, very alive, but do not bear the wounds that would identify this as the Crucified One. So it's not meant to be Jesus risen and glorified.

The head is of a man truly awake and alive, looking up and ahead searching in the distance - could you say communing, communing with his creator?

The attitude of the figure's hands is open, but not in welcome, nor raised in priestly prayer. Just sufficiently spread open to suggest acceptance, surrender - 'here I am, I come to do your will'.
It could be the attitude of any man of living faith towards his creator.

Yet, it could still be Jesus, the Christ, in every sense. Regardless of lighting, artificial or natural, there is something numinous about this figure. It could be Jesus at the transfiguration on Mount Thabor, minus Moses and Elijah - well, you're free to imagine them if you like, as did witnesses Peter, James and John.

Or, it could be Jesus at that moment, just before his transfiguration when he asks the disciples: "Whom do men say the Son of the Man is .... and whom do you say?" The answer given by Peter is: "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."

If this conclusion is correct, then the sculptor's purpose was not to proclaim the faith of the church, but to take the beholder back to the mystery of the Gospel. "Whom do men say the Son of the Man is?" Jesus elliptically refers to himself as 'Son of the Man' in the Gospels, a way of saying 'this man', 'me' - ever reluctant to draw attention to himself as a human being, always pointing beyond himself to the divine Father, to the point of being one with the Father, being the image of the Unseen.

But, that's my conclusion. Epstein's Majestas poses the open question to us, 'Who is this man?', and calls us to make our own response. He was a Jewish agnostic, who wrestled with the text and its question in his own way. His conclusion is not part of the record, but this great image of the Gospel question is a lasting contribution to Christian mission.

I appreciated the energy, sincerity and commitment which went into creating the prayer vigil and dedication service, and the fact that over 150 people turned out on a damp evening to take part in it. However, it couldn't move me or inspire me the way it intended to, once I'd spent the best part of an hour pondering as I have many times before my perception of Epstein's masterpiece.

'Who is this man?' How can I identify with him?

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