Joost Joustra, Sin: the Art of Transgression (London: National Gallery Company, Distributed by Yale University Press, 2020). 96 pages; 80 illustrations, 235 x 160 mm portrait. ISBN: 9781857096651. £12.95.
“Many of the themes found in these pages”, Joustra writes, are “gather[ed] […] in a single object” (p. 38): the Table of Seven Deadly Sins attributed to Hieronymous Bosch or his workshop (1505–1510, Museo del Prado, Madrid). Although there is little explicit discussion of apocalyptic and millenarian tropes in this book, the Table encapsulates how the themes of this exhibition book will be of interest to CenSAMM readers.
This book is not a traditional exhibition catalogue: it draws on a considerably wider range of works than the 14 artworks on display. At 96 pages and generously illustrated with 80 images, it can be read in an afternoon, but should viewed more slowly. (Unfortunately, I cannot comment on the production quality as this review is prepared from a pdf kindly provided by the National Gallery.)
The Table is one of the many works that appears in the book and not the exhibition, and as the quotation above suggests, it earns its place in these pages. The panel painting is known as the Table of Seven Deadly Sins because it is thought to have originally been a table top. The sins of anger, pride, lust, sloth, gluttony, greed and envy are depicted in segments of a circle surrounding a central roundel with an image of Christ as the Man of Sorrows. In the four corners of the panel there are smaller circles with images of the Last Things: Death, the Last Judgement, Hell and Heavenly Glory.
Above and below the main roundel are scrolls with inscriptions that reinforce the causal connection between sin and the sinner’s end:
Gens absq [ue] [con] silio e [st] et sine prudentia // deutro [m] and 32 [um] // utina [m] sapere [n] t [et] i [n] telligere [n] t ac novissi [m] ap [ro] videre [n] t
For they are a nation void of counsel, neither is there any understanding in them. they were wise, that they understood this, that they would consider their latter end.
Absconda [m] facie [m] mea [m] ab eis: et [con] siderabo novissi [m] a eo [rum]
I will hide my face from them, I will see what their end shall be.
(Translations of inscriptions from: Table of the Seven Deadly Sins [object description], Museo del Prado website.)
The message is reinforced in the inscription below Christ in the central circle: Cave cave d [omin] us videt: Beware, beware, the Lord is watching. The message to the viewer seems clear: sin now and fear the consequences when you meet your end. The gruesome tortures inflicted on the inhabitants of Hell in the bottom left circle may well have put diners off over-indulgent eating and other excesses depicted in the panel.
But as the book emphasises, sin is part of the human condition (p. 9), and its ubiquity can be observed in the “remarkably mundane” (p. 38) scenes of the seven sins in the Table. And, as Joustra zestfully puts it, “[l]uckily for humankind this is only part of the story” (p. 56).
The rest of the story is seen in the centre and right of the panel: Christ emerging from the tomb as the Man of Sorrows is the redeemer (centre), who brings the dead from their graves at the Last Judgement (top right) and welcomes the saved who have atoned for their sins into heavenly glory (bottom right) (cf. pp. 56–57).
Repentance as a way to salvation is discussed in a variety of works in a section of the book entitled “Painting and repenting” (pp. 70–84), although the works included are in a range of media. The dichotomies of sin and repentance, and salvation and damnation are most starkly represented in Andy Warhol’s Repent, and Sin No More (1985–86, Ed Freedman, Los Angeles, CA, USA), and Heaven and Hell are Just One Breath Away! (1985–86, private collection). While only the former appears in the exhibition, the two make sense as a pair; as Joustra puts it:
Repent, and Sin No More! presents a clear message that we should all adhere to, and emphasises a choice. Heaven and Hell are Just One Breath Away! signals the possible ramifications of this choice. (p. 71)
Joustra likens the Warhol designs to pamphlets (pp. 70–71), a quality which may put CenSAMM readers in mind of apocalyptic tracts from across the centuries.
Slightly later in the section “Painting and repenting”, and included in the exhibition itself, is a painting from the Gallery’s own collection that represents the exception to the rule that humankind is burdened by sin, and a subject that will be of interest to CenSAMM readers. The exception is the sinless Virgin Mary in the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, who appears in Joustra’s narrative in Diego Velázquez’s Immaculate Conception (1618–19, National Gallery, London). Velázquez follows the tradition of associating the Immaculate Mary with the Woman Clothed with the Sun (Revelation 12:1). Thus, she is depicted standing on the moon, with a sunburst and a crown of twelve stars around her head.
A companion painting Saint John the Evangelist on the Island of Patmos depicts John’s vision of the woman (1618–19, National Gallery, London) and appears in the book but not the exhibition.
As the apocalyptic themes of these works is not Joustra’s focus, CenSAMM readers can reflect for themselves on the relationship between sin (or its absence) in this pair of paintings, and indeed, in the works throughout the book and exhibition.
Originally planned to be on view 15 April–5 July 2020, the exhibition for which this book was produced was delayed by the first lockdown, interrupted by the second, and closed since 16 December when London entered Tier 3. It appears that there are no plans to extend its new run 7 October 2020–3 January 2021.
The irony of an exhibition about transgression being prohibited from opening (then twice, but now three times) was highlighted in the title of a recent meeting of the Sacred Traditions and the Arts Seminar: “Let any one of you who is without Sin…An Interdisciplinary Appraisal of a Prohibited Exhibition.”
My own plans to visit the exhibition for this review were delayed by the November lockdown, then prevented by living in a Tier 3 area in the short time that it reopened. With the exhibition having been closed for half of its run, and travel being restricted for many (whether owing to Tiers or to personal circumstances), the book may be the only way that many can encounter Joustra’s curated look at sin.
As many of the works discussed are in the National Galleries permanent collection, the book can continue to be a visitor’s guide to sin in the Gallery’s paintings when they return to their usual homes in various rooms throughout the Gallery. And CenSAMM readers can take to the Gallery floor to continue to their own interpretations of the relationship between sin and end times in these works.
Sin: The Art of Transgression, by Joost Joustra, is published by and copyright of National Gallery Company Limited 2020.
The exhibition is currently closed (18 Dec 2021). Please check the National Gallery's website for updates. The book is available from the Gallery's online shop and major booksellers.
Naomi Billingsley is an independent researcher based in south east England. She is the author of The Visionary Art of William Blake: Christianity, Romanticism and the Pictorial Imagination (I.B. Tauris, 2018), and a variety of academic and popular publications on Christianity and art.
Joost Joustra and Ben Quash, “Let any one of you who is without Sin…An Interdisciplinary Appraisal of a Prohibited Exhibition Sacred Traditions and the Arts Seminar”, 1 December 2020 (online).
https://www.kcl.ac.uk/events/sacred-traditions-and-the-arts-seminar Accessed 06/12/2020
https://courtauld.ac.uk/event/let-any-one-of-you-who-is-without-sin Accessed 06/12/2020.