“We need to understand where we’ve been, in order to understand where we’re going,” says art historian Dr Jennifer Sliwka towards the end of this film about classical western art that focuses on the Easter story, and it neatly sums up the film’s basic proposition. This parade of masterpieces, from the Italian Quattrocento to German expressionism and beyond, speaks for itself as a colossal achievement of western civilisation that, as critic Rachel Campbell-Johnston points out, is predicated around suffering.
In fact the various renditions of the Jesus passion are spectacular in their variety, seen here as they are back to back, and connected by readings from the New Testament. Giotto’s Entry into Jerusalem, Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece, Bosch’s Christ Mocked (The Crowning with Thorns), Rembrandt’s The Descent from the Cross, Manet’s The Dead Christ with Angels, Caravaggio’s The Supper at Emmaus; this really is the sharp end of European cultural achievement, and one that is worth restating.
This film is part of the long-running Exhibition on Screen series that resolutely brings the art-gallery experience into cinemas (and in a slightly truncated form) on to TV. This is in fact one of the rare occasions that the producers have not based their film around a blockbuster art show, or specific venue; apart from top-and-tail sequences inside an Easter service in St Petersburg’s St Vladimir’s Cathedral (a little poignant, considering the pariah that Russia has made of itself in recent weeks), this sticks to closeup shots of the works in question, sonorous Bible passages in voiceover, and occasional interview inserts. The simplicity of approach showcases the works rather well, even if the commentary is more restrained – and a bit on the defensive side, it has to be said – while the assembly of images that tells the story in chronological order possesses strength and power. Whatever your faith, or if you have none, there’s something of considerable interest here.