As most theologians point out, once we lose belief in God, it’s a short leap to the belief that there is no moral absolute, no Absolute Good. After all, Absolute Good is the very nature of God.
From here, it’s logical to conclude there must be no Absolute Bad either, since the Bad is just the opposite of the Good. Evil is no longer something we all agree to or concur about; it becomes a moral relative, in the eye of the beholder.
Given our natural instincts, it’s not very long before, without God, we begin the descent down the slippery slope captured so dramatically by Rembrandt in the painting we began this adventure with, The Toilet of Bathsheba. As we gradually numb our consciences, one small sin at a time, the next-worst thing becomes tolerable. An accidental glance begets lust; lust begets adultery; adultery begets an illegitimate child; the cover-up begets lies; lies beget murder. All become tolerable. Anything goes.
Paul Cadmus perhaps sensed this in his own life and work, known for its celebration of male eroticism and the gay lifestyle. In 1949, he painted seven panels as part of a single composition called The Seven Deadly Sins. The modern galleries are often uncrowded relative to the some of their busier sixteenth- and seventeenth- century cousins, but here we find a crowd of onlookers huddled around this seven-panel series as we approach it.
In his “magic realism” style, Cadmus has portrayed all seven of the classic sins that lead to spiritual death. The images are almost too horrible to look at it, but look at them we must—starting at the left:
- Lust, depicted in the form of a naked woman who boldly displays her enlarged genitals to the viewer and sits trapped ·within a suffocating plastic tent of her own making Pride, shown through an androgynous figure who is so puffed up from toe to head that it seems about to explode ·in its own narcissism
- Envy, seen as a grotesquely malformed being so trapped in its jealousy of others that it has grown roots and webs melding it to the floor, even as its bulging eyes still stare ·outward, seeking others’ joy
- Anger, a boiling red devil of a being, arrows and blood spewing out of its body as it destroys itself while trying ·to do the same to those around it
- Avarice, an emaciated wraith that appears starved by its own ·greed, which can never be satisfied by the things of this world Sloth, unable to connect with anyone or anything because its sheer unwillingness to act, for good or bad, has left it forever alone in some dark, dank place of its own design
- Gluttony, still pushing more foods of the world down its cavernous mouth, even as its bloated body is spilling the food just inhaled out through the hole in its stomach, which can’t be satisfied
These are horrible images, to be sure. That’s what makes them the seven deadly sins! Cadmus did not have much to say about this, but the Met’s catalogue quotes him writing, “I don’t appear [here] as myself, but I am all of the Deadly Sins in a way, as you all are, too.”
There is a deep truth, to be sure, in this statement. Though none of us wants to admit it, we’ve all been tempted to commit or have committed one or more of these sins in our lives. As Rembrandt reminded us, even King David fell prey to them.
Or in the words from Virgil’s Aeneid, “Easy is the descent into hell.”
What is sad, though, is that Cadmus — like many out there in the secular culture today — seemed to believe there was no way back.
After all, David and Rembrandt both had the promise of Psalm 51, the mercy of God that could forgive them, restore them, and help them get back on track. Even at the very bottom of the slippery slope, they never lost faith, never gave up. They came back. They had their Penitent Magdalen moment. They returned home.
Or more correctly put, Jesus brought them home.
I’m quite certain He tried to bring Cadmus home too. He certainly must have knocked on his door. He was probably knocking as the artist painted these horrible images of the sin within himself.
We just don’t know if Cadmus opened the door, if he had his prodigal son moment. That’s between him and his Maker.
More relevant is this question: Will I open the door? Will I let God love me?
Man’s Search for God Through Art and Time
This article is an excerpt from the Pilgrimage to the Museum: Man’s Search for God Through Art and Time.
In Pilgrimage to the Museum, author-curator Stephen Auth takes you on a provocative and colorful journey through the history of Western art, interpreted through a lens of profound Christian faith — appropriately so since, in Auth’s view, much of Western art expresses humanity’s search for God, the Divine Artist-Creator.
In this beautifully illustrated voyage, drawn largely from works on display at New York’s popular Metropolitan Museum of Art, you will experience the ups and downs of humanity’s determined quest. Leaving all the art-history jargon at the front door, Auth will transport you in his spiritual time machine from Egypt’s Old Kingdom, through Greece and Rome, to medieval Europe; from the age of the Renaissance, through the Ages of Exploration and Enlightenment; and from the rise of atheism in the late 1800s to the seeds of a spiritual rebirth in the modern era. Along the way, you will experience anew the masterpieces of many artists, from Polykleitos to Raphael, Duccio to Rembrandt, Monet to Picasso.
Through the works of these great artists, you will encounter the profound truths that lead many to God and cause many others to wonder. You will discover how various themes and motifs of man’s struggle to find God occur, morph, fade, and then reoccur centuries later. As you laugh, cry, and pray your way through this illuminating voyage, you will emerge refreshed and renewed in your own journey to God— and you will never look at a work of art the same way again.
Purchase your own copy of Pilgrimage to the Museum HERE.