The primal cry of horror: The a-theology of Francis Bacon

Rina Arya

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In statements about his work Bacon makes many anti-religious, and more specifically, anti-Christian statements. However, what is paradoxical is that although these statements are unequivocally disparaging about the Christian faith, in his art work he is not only drawn to but is utterly preoccupied with the symbols of Christianity, in particular those of the Crucifixion and the Pope. I want to account for his prolific and indeed obsessive use of the symbol of the Crucifixion in his work. Was he employing the Crucifixion in a conventional way to support the Christian narrative, or was he subverting or inverting its meaning? I am positing two traditions, a 'Christian' tradition (as denoted by the phrase 'right-way up'), which is predetermined by the narrative of resolution and salvation, as typified by the Resurrection and is represented here by Grünewald's Crucifixion panel from the Isenheim Altarpiece (in Colmar, c. 1515-1516, see Fig. 2) and the other tradition, which is represented by Bacon's seminal work, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944), which I will describe as an 'inversion', where the (bodily) fragments of the Crucifixion do not partake in a salvation in the sense of being made whole, but remain as fragments. It is too simplistic to regard Bacon's continual employment of religious symbols solely from the perspective of (expressing his) unbelief. A more radical interpretation would suggest that Bacon is employing these symbols to further his alternative spiritual message. Bacon's redeployment of the symbol to communicate to a twentieth century audience constitutes what I have identified as a 'partial reversion'. In other words, Bacon is using the symbol of the Crucifixion not to uphold the Christian narrative, nor to express his atheism but to convey spiritual truths about the human condition that are pertinent to his day. In his 'partial reversion', what I have referred to as his 'a-theology', Bacon takes the viewer to arguably the holiest moment in the Christian narrative, the desertion of Christ at the foot of the Cross. However, it is only a 'partial' and not a full reversion because we are left contemplating the pain and suffering of humankind without the promise of redemption through salvation.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)275-283
Number of pages9
JournalArtibus et Historiae
Publication statusPublished - 18 Nov 2011
Externally publishedYes


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