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Greenlit: Crucifixion, Channel 4

Crucifixion (1 x 60′) – For centuries, artists of all kinds – from Michelangelo to Martin Scorsese, Salvador Dali to Damien Hirst and Andrew Lloyd Webber to Monty Python – have attempted to convey the meaning of the Crucifixion through their work. For many it has been a deeply personal expression of belief. Now anatomist Dr Gunther von Hagens, who made his name showing the world the wonders of the human body through his Body Worlds exhibitions, has decided to create a Crucifix.

The documentary follows von Hagens, who last year revealed that he is suffering from Parkinson’s disease, as he undertakes an intensely personal journey to create his crucifix. It features interviews with leading art historians and theologians, amongst others, and examines the enduring iconic image of the Crucifix: Christ on the cross and traces the representation and interpretation of the crucifix from illustrations on fourth century tombs, through centuries of church-sanctioned depictions to contemporary portrayals.

Though famous for using donated human bodies in his ‘plastinated’ works, the new piece was made by injecting liquid plastic into bones and blood vessels, from a number of donors’ bodies, which then hardens to create perfect casts. The resulting figure, which does not contain any human tissue, was then mounted on a wooden cross cut from a tree felled near von Hagens’s family home in Germany.

The programme reveals how von Hagens is far from the first artist to risk controversy in portraying the Crucifixion. Michelangelo, considered one of the greatest artists of all time, was condemned for making a sculpted crucifix that was not only naked – although this is supported by scripture – but was also considered to be more concerned with beauty than devotion.

On the other hand, paintings by Matthias Grünewald and Francis Bacon, amongst many others, unflinchingly portray the extremity of Christ’s suffering on the cross.

The artist responsible for one of the most controversial artworks ever created is interviewed in the programme. For Piss Christ, Andres Serrano photographed a crucifix suspended in his own urine. As a result he received death threats and people still attempt to destroy prints of his work in galleries around the world.

Other artists moved to create their own very different depictions of the Crucifixion include Diego Velazquez, Francisco Goya, Salvador Dali, Graham Sutherland, Stanley Spencer and Damien Hirst.

The Crucifixion has inspired music as wide ranging as Bach’s St Matthew Passion, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell and Madonna’s controversial Rome performance of Live To Tell from a glittering cross in 2006.

In cinema the Crucifixion has been portrayed by directors as diverse as Cecil B. DeMille (The King of Kings), Martin Scorsese (The Last Temptation of Christ), Mel Gibson (The Passion of the Christ) and Monty Python (Life of Brian) – several of which led to angry protests.

For University of Oxford art historian Professor Martin Kemp, who features in the documentary, recreating the crucifix is a test of any artist who dares to take it on. Canon George Pattison, Professor of Theology at the University of Oxford, points out that the crucifix portrays a horrific act that was carried out on hundreds of thousands of people. But, for Christians, the crucifix gains its lasting religious and symbolic power because the suffering recorded was followed, according to the Gospels, by Christ’s resurrection.

Interviewees featured in the documentary include: Rev. Prof. Richard Viladesau, theologian and art historian at Fordham University New York, author of two books on the art of the crucifix; Prof. Martin Kemp, Emeritus Professor of History of Art at the University of Oxford, author of From Christ to Coke – How Image Becomes Icon; Canon Prof. George Pattison, Professor of Divinity at the University of Oxford; and Bishop John Arnold, Catholic Auxiliary Bishop of Westminster.

Channel: Channel 4

Producer: The Garden

TX: 8th April 2012

Source: Channel 4 press release

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