Swimming in Sin - whynow

Swimming in Sin


The majority of ‘sins’ – in life if not in art – are small and boring. Take Rufus Wainwright’s Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk, which gives this piece its subtitles: an anthem for those reconciling what we should do with what we want to. As we move into an increasingly secular society, those shoulds will be more personally than culturally defined – but even the staunchest atheist is kidding themselves if they claim access to a morality uninflected by religion. 

It was just a kiss, 2010

In the West, religious history is overwhelmingly Christian. As such, kissing someone you shouldn’t, sleeping later than you wanted to, getting angrier than you’d intended, are still things we recognise as less-than-ideal – even if most of us wouldn’t label them ‘lust’, ‘sloth’ or ‘wrath’ per-se. 

Certainly, one could argue that the story of Christianity is the story of sin – from original sin in the garden of Eden, to the Immaculate (sinless) Conception or Jesus dying for our absolution, the church is obsessed with our erroneous impulses. Where do they come from? And what should we do about them? 

From singer-songwriters to cornershop managers, we remain aware of the moral status of our desires and deeds hundreds of years after religion’s Renaissance apex. Call it a belief-hangover; some of the knees-up’s best and brightest are gathered in the National Gallery’s aptly named and newly opened exhibition Sin. 

Jan Brueghel the Elder - The Garden of Eden, 1613

Everything it seems I like’s a little bit sweeter

On my way there, I come across a near-invisible intervention on a Soho doorway. Letter-punched with a label maker onto plastic strips, it reads:

EVERYTHING I LIKE

IS EITHER

ILLEGAL

IMMORAL

OR FATTENING

While that anonymous confession feels distinctly contemporary, Sin begins at the very beginning. The Garden of Eden, by Jan Brueghel the Elder, was painted more than 500 years ago: a tiny work, especially for a canvas tackling nothing less than humanity’s fall from grace. 

In the foreground are lions, leopards, ostriches, a peacock – all must have seemed fantastical to a sixteenth century viewer, who may never have seen any of these animals in real life. The greenery around them is lush, full of life and promise. Far in the distance, you can make out two human figures. One is reaching up into a tree… to pluck a fruit perhaps? Seems a safe bet – you know the story. 

Jan Steen - The Effects of Intemperance, 1663-5 

A little bit fatter, / A little bit harmful for me.

The Garden of Eden is one of just 14 works, stretching from medieval Europe to 2010. One lesson in particular is writ large across more than half of Sin’s canvases – look from Velasquez’s haunting Madonna to Bronzino’s An Allegory with Venus and Cupid, from Cranach’s Adam and Eve to William Hogarth’s satirical Marriage A-La-Mode, and it would seem that sin is found in flesh. 

Childish nudity in the garden of Eden turns to shameful nakedness after Eve takes the fruit. Bronzino’s celestial mother and son are locked in playful passion, finding their foil in Jan Gossaert’s pious Mary-Jesus tableau The Virgin and Child. The first duo are joyfully, scandalously naked. In the second, Gossaert’s Madonna is swathed in yards of fabric – her baby’s bare body speaks to his innocence, while Cupid’s proclaims sensuality. Skin, covered or exposed, tells us a lot about a protagonist’s moral flaws or faultlessness.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder - Christ and the Woman taken in Adultery, 1565

If I should buy jelly beans, / Have to eat them all in just one sitting. 

Sex is in the air for Hogarth as well as Bronzino, and its wages – as they say, don’t they? –  are death. At least, syphilis is on the cards: judging by the lesion on the husband’s neck in Marriage A-La-Mode (and his wife’s sleepy, satisfied smile) they’re both in for a nasty comeuppance. 

On the gallery’s opposite wall, Christ and the Woman taken in Adultery teaches a kinder version of the same lesson: Peter Bruegel the Elder depicts the biblical story of a crowd bringing an adulterous woman to Jesus, demanding that he stone her to death. He replies, as all good Sunday School children will know, ‘let he who is without sin cast the first stone’; Bruegel shows Jesus writing the verse in his native Dutch before the baying crowd. Here as in scripture, the woman escapes unscathed – but not everyone is so lucky. 

Ron Mueck - Youth, 2009

It isn’t very smart / Tends to make one part / So broken hearted

Youth by Ron Muek is one of Sin’s few contemporary works, and it does an exemplary job of bridging the show’s duelling tempos of then-and-now. In the sculpture, a black boy pulls up his white t-shirt to expose a wound in his side. Art history buffs will recognise the trope of Jesus looking mournfully to the spear cut in the same area of his torso, depicted again and again to illustrate the apex of selfless suffering on the cross. Muek’s boy, for his part, doesn’t seem to be in pain; perhaps a little surprised.

Youth asks what we might do with that ‘pain’ – after all, in images of Jesus and other martyrs, we revere it. But when black bodies (on the streets or in custody as the case may be) are subject to such violence, the world is less admiring; more admonishing. Society has a hideous history of reverse engineering suffering to insinuate culpability, at least when it’s convenient. 

Much like Minority Report’s chilling anti-logic, the thinking works backwards from a result to predict a cause: people who have been hurt have been punished, and those who have been punished must be guilty. They must have sinned. If that sounds confusing, I think the face on Muek’s Youth suggests he’d agree. As though violence happens exclusively to those who deserve it – if only, eh?

William Holman Hunt - The Scapegoat, 1854-55

Everything about them is a little bit stranger, / A little bit harder, / A little bit deadly.

Certainly, Christian thinking explicitly associates sin with punishment – isn’t judgment and hell what people are really afraid of when they quip, ‘oh, I mustn’t’? If only there were someone – or something! – who could take the fall for us. Well, The Scapegoat by William Holman hunt offers just such a solution. 

Illustrating the ancient Jewish tradition of sacrificing one goat and sending another into the wilderness for Yom Kippur, this second ‘scape’ animal was believed to be laden with the community’s sins. Understood by some scholars as a precursor to Jesus’ equivalent promise, Holman’s goat is notably psychedelic for something painted in the 1850s. A technicolour rainbow arcs above a luminous sunset. The goat meets the viewer’s eye. 

Its gaze is a little sinister – is the creature resentful? Has it, perhaps, noticed the remains of last year’s goat to its right, come to understand its fate? Or is it just saturated with a whole town’s indiscretion and evil? Just think how many Sabbaths broken, neighbour’s wives longed for, harsh words spoken, would rack up in ancient Israel over a year. And if we’re counting, imagine how many for a place the size of London today. 

Bronzino - An Allegory with Venus and Cupid, 1545 

And then there’s those other things / Which for several reasons we won’t mention. 

Pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth. In the same way that the ten commandments seem like a weird set of priorities – why are we so worried about hankering after your neighbour’s stuff, while neglecting to mention, oh, I don’t know, rape or slavery? – Pope Gregory’s seven deadly sins are specific to time and place. I think we’d come up with another clutch of vices altogether if we put our heads to it today.

Nonetheless, those ancient ideas hold fast – at least, their sentiments do. The moral implications of eating too many Oreos or drinking too many beers have shifted since Gregory’s day (I don’t think the Pope was worrying about your macros or sore head when he put ‘gluttony’ on his list) but the pang of faux pas remains. 

William Hogarth  - Marriage A-la-Mode: 2, The Tête à Tête, about 1743 

I’m just a little bit heiress, a little bit Irish, / A little bit Tower of Pisa / Whenever I see ya / So please be kind if I’m a mess.

 Some things, of course, are more enduringly scandalous than others. Next to Bronzino’s breathtaking Allegory Venus slipping her tongue into her son Cupid’s mouth as he plays with her erect nipple – is an echo across centuries: a Tracy Emin neon, proclaiming ‘It was just a kiss’. That pairing, perhaps most of all, demonstrates the sprawling nature of the show’s conceit. 

I left Sin via the museum’s yawning halls and winding corridors, wondering how the exhibition’s curators decided where to stop. I passed Francesco Hayez’s Susanna at her Bath, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s Oedipus and the Sphinx, Johann Olivier’s Abraham and Isaac – lust, incest, murder. I thought of Hieronymous Bosch hellscapes on the one hand, and Gaugin’s troubling Tahitian girls on the other. Of the countless iterations of Salome beheading John the Baptist or depictions of Sodom and Gomorrah.

If even the Bible has plenty of material left to fill Sin, how to grapple with the world beyond it? Sin, as a category, is limitless – implicating virtue as well as vice, its scope is as varied as human beings themselves. I suppose that’s because we came up with it; nonetheless, Sin itself felt a little confining for such a bewitching and expansive idea. Call it everything, or call it nothing at all.  

All images courtesy © The National Gallery, London

Rampa  They Will Be