Géricault’s Faces of Death

Today is the anniversary of the death of one of the greatest painters of the Romantic period, Théodore Géricault. Writing about him today turns out to be appropriate because, rather curiously, his work ties in with some of the Pro-Life themes that The Courtier has been examining this week. Géricault died of tuberculosis at the age of 32; his most famous work is the massive “Raft of the Medusa” now in the Louvre, though he painted numerous different types of images. Not unlike the later German Secessionist-Expressionist painter Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler, one of the subjects of yesterday’s post, he spent time studying and painting intense portraits of psychiatric patients. Géricault was also interested – if one may use that term – in capital punishment.

The guillotine was still the mode of execution in his day, and Géricault made a number of disturbing studies of the heads and limbs of people who had been killed. His admittedly sensationalistic work was featured in an exhibition entitled “Crime and Punishment” at the Musee d’Orsay last year. [N.B. Some of the images in the catalogue may be offensive to more sensitive readers.] The show was put together via the impetus of Robert Badinter, a criminal defense attorney and former Minister of Justice who was the leading figure in the movement to abolish the death penalty in France; this finally occurred in 1981, though readers may be surprised to learn that people were executed by guillotine in France as recently as 1977.

Because this blog regularly examines things from a Catholic perspective, let us see what the Church has to say about capital punishment. Paragraph 2267 of the Catechism states, in part (one can read the entire section here):

Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm – without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself – the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically non-existent.”

In other words, the Church believes that execution is a last resort, which should seldom be employed. The way the world is able to manage its criminal population has changed a great deal over the past two thousands years, as Cardinal Dulles explained in an excellent essay on capital punishment originally published in First Things. And there is a feeling of course, among a number of well-meaning people within the Pro-Life movement (including at times, it must be said, this writer) to lean towards complete abolition of the death penalty as somehow being consistent with the development of a Culture of Life.

The type of scenes witnessed and recorded by Géricault are sickening, of course. Moreover from a philosophical perspective the execution of the individual, even if via lethal injection rather than firing squad, hanging, or beheading, does not leave the door open for the possibility of repentance and reform. Complicating the issue for those in America, perhaps, has been an over-use of the death penalty in some states, and our becoming so accustomed to its use that even its uneven application from state to state seems a less effective deterrent than it once was.

It would be easy to dismiss the work of Géricault as being nothing more than purely sensationalistic, shocking art and nothing else: the oeuvre of a sort of academically trained, proto-Damien Hirst. Yet one of the most powerful impacts that art can make is to force us to look at things that are unpleasant, and thereby challenge ourselves. Géricault found the imposition of the death penalty to be appalling, and expressed this personal conviction in his art. When an artist moves beyond mere decoration into an expression of his beliefs, and can do so with technical skill and that indescribable something that comes from having a good eye and a steady hand, then he moves from being merely a dauber of paint into a figure with the power to influence human thought.

If we find Géricault’s images difficult, then what are we to make of the oftentimes equally disturbing death-and-judgment paintings of Luca Signorelli, Matthias Grünewald or Hieronymus Bosch? For theirs are oftentimes not very pretty pictures, either, even if painted from and motivated by Christian perspectives rather than the secular humanism of the Enlightenment. Truth, as it turns out, is not found exclusively in pleasant, easily palatable images of Heaven or the Life of Christ.

We no longer live in an age when beheading is considered a civilized punishment. In this respect, the work of Géricault was ultimately successful in leading to this realization. Yet even as the state continues to exercise its right to execute criminals, the Church reminds us that this ought to be, in this day and age, a rarer and rarer occurrence.

Detail from “Head of a Dead Young Man” by Théodore Géricault (c. 1819)

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