It’s hard to believe this painting, or more precisely, fragment of a large altarpiece, is more than 400 years old: It just looks so modern.
El Greco’s The Opening of the Fifth Seal (from Revelation 6) was painted for a church in Toledo, Spain in 1608, and now hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It features St John looking to the heavens, as the martyrs cry “How long oh Lord?” in anticipation of apocalyptic vindication.
The irony, of course, is that there are no heavens in the picture. Apparently there once were, but about five feet of the painting was lost, ripped or cut off, in the 1800s.
But doesn’t that just make this painting all the more modern? Doesn’t St John, longingly standing there reaching upwards towards nothing, the martyrs imploring alongside, mirror the secular longing for something beyond itself, a something that has, in this modern age, somehow been ripped off?
Ripped off. If you could describe the secular malaise it is the desire for transcendence, but the presence of immanence. The experience of wanting something more, but being told that there is nothing more.
Yet the longing remains. We feel ripped off. The modern heart is restless. It desires something more, but is, ironically and stoically, opposed to there being something more outside of itself. Something outside that can break in. We reach up towards something, then catch ourselves. No, this is all there is.
So what does the modern heart, the modern individual, the modern society do, once the ultimate has been removed and all we are left with is our penultimate selves? We make ourselves the ultimate; we make our politics the ultimate; we make our ideologies the ultimate.
And that drive to make the penultimate the ultimate is removing so many of the checks and balances in an increasingly divided and hostile West. If we cannot receive transcendence, we must attempt to create it.
Hence the modern society does not become less religious, but more religious and without the handbrake of acknowledging a capital “C” Creator. We remain religious, but direct it away from transcendence towards immanence. We create saints and sinners, transgressors and holy ones, all within the secular frame.
The best of us are honest about it. Julian Barnes, the atheist novelist said this:
I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.
In other words, I feel ripped off.
Charles Taylor talks of the modern malaise as epitomised in Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” in which the subject of the song, remembering her youthful experiences of transcendence at a circus, wails “Is that all there is?” before succumbing to “booze and having a ball.”
I want to suggest that El Greco’s ripped off painting gives us an “in” when it comes to sharing the gospel with secular moderns.
Because as Taylor says, even unbelief among modern people, is under the cross pressure of the possibility of belief. The glitch in the modern heart is that of Peggy Lee; is that of a St John without a vision of the heavens; is that of deep individualism and autonomy that struggles and fails to create something transcendent with the not-inconsiderable tools at its disposal.
I like to contrast El Greco’s painting with this image from the flawed, but brilliant, The Truman Show:
It’s not even the image I love. It’s the fact that in the movie Truman lets out an audible gasp of wonder when he touches the wall of the movie set in which he has lived all his life. Gasps like he almost dared to believe it wasn’t true, but somehow knew it was so. Gasps like it’s revelation. Gasps like it’s transcendence breaking into immanence. I never fail to be moved by that scene.
It’s proof that Truman’s initial feeling of being just that little bit ripped off; a feeling that grew to a deep conviction, and then an animalistic urge, proved to be right. He was being ripped off! And now, gloriously now, there is an open door in the heavens, just as there was for St John in Revelation 4.
And it’s proof that no matter how well-oiled and well-pampered a modern, secular life can be, the apocalyptic God can break into a person’s life just the same, and set them sailing across whatever storms and furies that would prevent them discovering the transcendent King.
That’s something worth looking towards the heavens for as Easter approaches, either for yourself or for someone else.