“It is only in this time that there is a church at all.”
—Giorgio Agamben

One Monday afternoon in May of this year, I walked into the church of the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich. My husband and I like churches. We tend to walk in if we have time and the door is open. Ludwigskirche is a very large church. Built in the first half of the nineteenth century, it is famous for its huge altar fresco by the academician Peter von Cornelius.

Circling around and coming back down the side aisle, I encountered this statue beside me.

Ludwigskirche, Munich. May 15, 2017. Image courtesy of the author.

In contrast to the austere neo-Romanesque formality of the rest of the church, here Jesus seemed to be just hanging out on the corner of the large low platform altar, a casual vase of flowers beside him. I was startled. After a pause, I took a quick photo and moved on. But the figure lingered.

I am not sure I entirely understand why I found this statue and its placement so odd. The figure seemed out of place. Naked, not just in a lack of clothes. Bereft. Missing context. Lonely. Alien in some way. And yet also affecting.

I explore here how this encounter might be understood to reveal something of our present predicament, sensible as I am of the coy, even hackneyed—perhaps offensive—naïveté of this beginning. I think we are confused about where to locate the religious and what to make of it—both personally and professionally.

One can certainly find ready narratives to explain the apparently anomalous appearance of a baroque statue on a modern altar in a nineteenth-century church. One might see a creative effort to spiritually reoccupy a church, a strategy now common to historic church buildings in an increasingly secular age—a way to reach out to spiritually curious but religiously illiterate tourists. In Catholic Munich, one might see more specifically a post-post–Vatican II reclamation of old religious art as a way to compensate for the iconoclasm of the Vatican II reforms—an iconoclasm that had been founded in a kind of intellectual embarrassment about the distracting transactional materialism and kitsch aesthetic of traditional Catholic piety. The post–Vatican II altar set amid the people is typically characterized by a clean modernism. The then new designs were intended to focus attention on the liturgy itself and on congregational participation, returning us to scripture and to the Eucharist. One might then see the material reasserting itself.

But what of the object itself? The statue is obviously old, older than the church, maybe much older. When I got home I wrote to the contact person on the church website, sending a copy of the photograph I had taken and asking about the provenance of the statue. I received a message from one of the priests:

Dear Prof. Sullivan,
The Statue of the Lord in front of the altar is a sculpture from which we know more or less nothing. It was made in the 18. Century perhaps in southern Bavaria. So this statue is older than our church. Most things, which are older than the church came to us from Ingolstadt – there the University was located till the 19. Century. So perhaps, this statue is from Ingolstadt. The other possibility: There are no photos from the time before 1945.

So it is possible, that this statue is from a destroyed church maybe the Karmelitterkirche.
Sorry, that is all what we know about this statue.
Best Greetings from Munich, Yours . . .

So, perhaps it was originally from a baroque church in Ingolstadt. Or maybe it is older—late medieval? Perhaps it was from a Munich church destroyed by changing church priorities or shifting populations . . . or allied bombing? “. . . we know more or less nothing.”

What if I had learned the date of its creation, the name of the artist, the precise location of its original display? What if I had learned something of the theological milieu figured in choices made by its creator? What would I know? Iconographical research tells me that his right hand makes the ancient gesture of Trinitarian benediction while the red banner he holds is the flag of resurrection—of the triumph over death—an object common in Renaissance paintings of Jesus represented emerging from the tomb.

And yet it is not a triumphant image.

In the hilarious and irreverent 2003 French Canadian film, The Barbarian Invasions, set in Montreal, the dying professor’s daughter-in-law, an appraiser for a London art auction house, tours a large warehouse full of discarded church art—large and small sculptures, screens, altars, etc.—with a representative of the church. She walks quickly through the huge collection, asking as she does whether there are any sixteenth-century silver chalices. When the priest says, “No, the Americans have bought them,” she speaks into her cell phone to her boss in London: “Nothing of any value here.”

“We know nothing.” “Nothing of any value.”

I have been trying to understand why I found this statue so arresting—so full of pathos. I think it was partly the unexpected eye-level encounter with a full-sized, three-dimensional figure almost unmediated with ecclesial trappings. There was an effort, perhaps, to re-create the experience of the disciples in encountering Jesus after the crucifixion—on the road, in the upper room. One is supposed to be startled—even a little put off, as they reportedly were. Only we are looking at a very old and somewhat worn sculpture, while they were seeing . . . what? The gospels report different experiences.

Here is another—plucked from the web.

Image Credit: Thomas Roth, May 2017

I am struck that someone else took a photo of the same installation. Perhaps s/he too was taken aback. This one, taken from the front, gives a better view of the face. And the look on the face. Sad? A bit apprehensive? Uncertain of his reception? Or maybe stricken? Harrowed by the depth of our sin? Or just illegible to twenty-first-century American eyes? Fading from view?

It also gives a better view of the body. The gaunt body. The worn paint. The waxy finish. The bloodless wounds. Like a body on a mortuary slab in a crime show. One feels both protective and repelled. The hair? Carefully coiffed or blown by unearthly currents as Charles Dickens describes that of Marley’s ghost in A Christmas Carol?

The density of reference—of tradition—one could build up about this statue—narrative—doctrinal—devotional—institutional—aesthetic—academic. Where would that get us?

Speaking as someone who is professionally interested in religion and the legal and political order, it is striking perhaps that here we catch him, liturgically speaking, four weeks after Easter, suspended in time between the crucifixion—marked on the hands and feet and breast—and the ascension into heaven, suspended perhaps between the reign of Caesar and the coming Constantinian rule of church and state. He shows himself to us as he reportedly showed himself to his disciples during those still-uncertain days immediately after his descent into hell. But the showing is now drawn out in the uncanny way that liturgical time both compresses and stretches out the three days of the gospel accounts over weeks, months, and years.

According to the gospels, Jesus did a lot in that in-between time. According to Matthew, he first appears and speaks to the Marys on the path away from the tomb, telling them not to be afraid. Then he appears to the eleven in Galilee, instructing them to carry on his work. In Mark, he first appears alone to Mary Magdalene, then to the two Marys, and then to the eleven, again instructing them to preach to the Gentiles. As Luke tells it, he appears to two of the women immediately after the resurrection and is not recognized by them, although they have a long conversation about the crucifixion and its meaning. It is not until they all arrive in Emmaus and sit down to eat that they know him. In John, we are told that Mary Magdalene, encountering Jesus by the empty tomb, takes him for the gardener. The gardener? Later that evening, and then a week later, he appears in a locked room where the disciples are hiding out from the authorities, the second time having the famous interchange with “doubting Thomas.” Sometime later he appears on the beach and breakfasts with the apostles on their catch.

We see in these scriptural texts the church beginning to be assembled—the establishment of leadership—of authority—the sacramental warrants—the specification of the mission. It is an increasingly confident and articulate risen Jesus we meet in the gospels, provided with the words that the church needs, words that will be further explored in many ways over the centuries, beginning with Paul.

This statue presents a different challenge, I think, than do the words of the New Testament, although there is an analogous compression of time and space—of what Paul called “gathered” time.1 This image is not an illustrated bible story; it is Jesus remade by the later medieval and early modern imaginations—vivid and plastic in a way both more and less accessible to us. He is risen. His eyes are open and he stands beside us, in spite of the mortal wounds. Is he alive or dead? Is this the Christ after the harrowing hell of medieval fan fiction and early modern paintings? Does he resonate with an eye accustomed to the image of the zombie or the undead? Does the pain drawn on that body license or heal suffering, a question asked in recent works such as “A Fire in my Belly” by David Wojnarowicz and Tracy Fessenden’s remarkable reading of the life and work of Billie Holiday?2

The endless reproduction and yet attenuation, if that is what it is, of Catholic Christian religious culture in late modernity has rendered images of Christ both familiar and unfamiliar. Yet, like the literary or narrative device of the mise en abyme or metalepsis, which gives the reader the vertiginous experience of the other dimensionality of time, I would argue that an unexpected physical encounter with that image, out of place, can still plunge us into a complex multidimensional timespace, here represented in the recapitulation of salvation history accomplished in the simultaneity of a figure confusingly both crucified and resurrected. Like the liturgy, such an image has the capacity to stop time, destabilizing and heightening our awareness, mapping at once onto the cosmos, onto the annual church/state calendar, and onto the time of each person.3

The betweentime of the gospel narrative might also be seen to have more specific political implications. In his 2009 homily to the Roman church in Paris, Giorgio Agamben urges the church to understand itself as living not in the chronological time of “the juridification and commodification of human relations” that characterizes a church in which salvation history is permanently deferred, nor in the apocalyptic time of imminent crises, but in a messianic time conscious of the end but not collapsing into it, suspended in tension, already but not yet. For Agamben there is political urgency in that tension, calling us to action. Talal Asad, in his essay on Egyptian politics today, “Thinking About Tradition,” also speaks of the time compression that religion can accomplish. He argues that tradition always implies an engagement with the present: “Tradition may turn out to be not so much a model of the past that is inseparable from its interpretation in the present as a set of practices that presuppose today as a part of unfinished time.” He sees religious tradition, in contrast to the secular, as specializing in failure and finitude, with resources to think our way past the tragedy of the sovereign self and the sovereign state.

The persistence of the religious might be taken then as a demand to think anew, as Asad and Agamben and others urge us to do, through new forms of horizontal, relational, and social solidarity, beyond church and state, beyond secularization, beyond chronologies, sacred or secular . . . but it might also be taken as a demand not to look away—to linger in the confusion and the pain, honoring the sacrament of suffering.

In A Time for Everything, Karl Ove Knausgård meditates fictionally on angels, among other things, about what they are up to and what they want of us. At one point toward the end of the novel, the narrator’s father, a compelling but troublesome character, says to him, “’Did you know that seagulls were angels once?’” The narrator explains: “He lied about everything, but his lies were various; this one fortunately was only meant to tease us. ‘I didn’t know that,’ I said, and laughed. I could hear how forced it sounded.” Earlier in the novel, the author suggests that angels became increasingly insistent, even annoyingly intrusive, in the early modern period, as can be seen in late Renaissance paintings, fearful of their loss of connection to increasingly confident humans.

As Knausgård implies, laughter seems inadequate. 

Did you know that this was once our risen Lord?

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Thank you to Jeremy Biles and Alexandra Brown for conversations about this image and about other important things.


  1. See Alexandra Brown, “Gathering Time: Time, Typology, and Ethics in 1 Corinthians,” Interpretation 72.1 (January 2018).

  2. Tracy Fessenden, Religion Around Billie Holiday (NYU Press, forthcoming 2018).

  3. See Dorrit Cohn, “Metalepsis and Mise en Abyme,” Narrative (January 2012) 20: 105-114.