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Rendering the Invisible Visible: 

Dr. Justin Shaun Coyle, Associate Professor of Theology, Church History, and Philosophy at Mount Angel Seminary, Oregon, has written this reflection on our Lenten Art show now on display in the arches of the mall, Man of Sorrows, by artist Sean Marnul.

The passion is notoriously difficult to depict. On the one hand, the passion is an inexorably visible event. That Christ suffers before the public gaze is fundamental to Christian faith. Nail and crown, blood and hyssop, peal of lightning and pall of shadow –Golgotha is sensory or it is nothing at all. On the other hand, the passion must be irreducibly invisible. And it must [sc. be invisible] because just as fundamental to the faith is the belief that the man on the cross is God himself. In fact, it is only because of the passion’s invisibility that we regard its visibility. Unique to Golgotha was not a man crucified. Rome crucified many, after all. No: unique was that man crucified – the one who was also and equally God. What appears on the cross, then, derives its meaning principally from what cannot appear – that is, the suffering of God himself. So the difficulty: How to render the invisible visible?

With “Man of Sorrows” Sean Marnul assays another approach. That approach begins by challenging an assumed distinction between content and form. Representational art forms recognize a distinction between what is depicted and how it is depicted. What I paint is a bowl of fruit resting on a table, for instance. And how I depict it is with colored paints forming shapes on canvas stretched over wood. I show that I know the difference between them by not biting into the canvas. For Marnul, however, the passion requires revisiting this assumption – and not just because Marnul did not himself witness Golgotha. Even if he had, a repre-sentationalist form of depicting its visible aspects would prove inade-quate to its content. With Kandinksy, Marnul’s work demands that “the choice of form is not free, but is dependent upon the object.” A rupture in content, then, requires a rupture of form. Or an undepictable event demands an undepictable form. What Marnul depicts is Christ, true—but crucially a Christ “disfigured beyond the sons of men” (Is. 52:15). How he depicts Christ must reflect that disfigurement. Key to the series is Marnul’s “Man of Sorrows 2.” It boasts none of the conventions we expect of Great and Holy Friday. We look in vain for the crown of thorns and the good thief and Pilate’s trilingual tag. In their place are austere black lines – now thick, now thin –violently transgressing one another’s vectors. What here appears?

The answer to this question reveals why Marnul’s work is so striking. What appears is precisely the suffering of God, but exactly as invisible. Black lines of various densities that cross into one another’s paths are not in any obvious objective sense intrinsically violent or chaotic or distressing. They are so only when they awaken the feeling of violence or chaos or distress within an observing subject. But that the subject’s feelings are not in any straightforward sense visible does not mean that they do not thereby appear. Paradoxically, then, Marnul’s chaotic black lines allow the suffering of God to appear invisibly.

“Man of Sorrows” not only succeeds in depicting the passion. It allows the passion to transfigure depiction itself. Those without eyes to see what cannot appear this Lent would do well to allow Marnul’s vision to correct our own.

This essay was reprinted in St. John’s Parish Paper on March 19, 2023.  Image: A Man of Sorrows, commissioned artwork by artist Sean Marnul