“In truth, there was only one Christian and he died on the cross.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

Sacrifice can have multiple meanings – declining something that one’s body craves; limiting oneself to menial and humbling tasks that are beneficial to others and less so to oneself; the killing of innocent creatures in the blind hope that one’s soul may gain eternal salvation; and the ultimate sacrifice in relinquishing one’s own life for a greater common good.

Mark Mallia (born 1965) is known for his versatility in tackling themes as varied as colourful abstracts, gothic Poesque crows, and expressionistic portraits of voyeurs, among others.

Sporadically, he comes up with tenebrous monochromatic crucifixions which essentially celebrate the charred relics of a splayed body on a cross. Upon viewing these paintings, childhood memo­ries of Catholic rituals and religious indoctrination jolt us from our adulthood slumber; suddenly the works take on a spiri­tual dimension and lead us to acknowledge them as worthy of our reverence and awe.

The collection of paintings in the Zabach exhibition shows Mallia in a different light. The title translates from Aramaic as sacrifice. This is the first exhibition by the artist to be wholly dedicated to episodes in the passion and death of Jesus Christ. Mallia chooses particular moments that define – sometimes apocryphally, as in the Veronica episode – the ultimate sacrifice, in which the Messiah becomes a lowly sacrificial lamb so that humanity may be redeemed from sin and granted the Kingdom of Heaven.

The timing of the exhibition to coincide with Lent is not accidental. The private chapel in Triq it-Torri, Mosta, and its numerous graven images, contribute to the mood of sobriety, and provide a suitable backdrop to a contemporary artistic celebration of a theme that has been explored by numerous artists worthy of their name throughout the centuries.

Several local and international modern artists have given us their interpretation of the theme of the passion and crucifixion of Jesus Christ. During the Renaissance, Mannerist and Baroque periods, the Catholic Church was the most powerful patron of the arts. It therefore follows that many of the great artists of the times were commissioned by the ecclesiastical authorities to create a steady stream of work to adorn its shrines and monuments of worship. Cimabue’s famous Crucifixion, inspired by the Byzantine and Gothic works that preceded it, sparked the European Renaissance. Giotto’s frescoes, most notably the ones inside the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, introduced the illiterate churchgoers to a pictorial storytelling of the life and death of the Messiah.

These crucifixions are highly stylised works, providing a melting pot of ideas and influences for the Maltese artist

Modernism brought a revolution in the iconography of religious art, sometimes scandalising an audience not yet prepared for the onslaught of a theme previously considered to be the domain of bishops, cardinals and popes. The period succeeded to shake off the theosophical stranglehold that was suffocating its expression. Among the modern artists stood Paul Gauguin, Emil Nolde and Georges Rouault, whose works somewhat reinvigorated tradition. Pablo Picasso’s 1930 Crucifixion kicked convention away in a frenzy of amoeboid monsters surrounding a barely humanoid Christ.

Francis Bacon eliminated all the background noise in his Crucifixion of 1933, whose ghostly translucency of a crucified body is unsettling. The 20th century was one of great strife and upheaval, culminating in the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Perhaps the British artist was warning humanity that a thermonuclear apocalypse was not only, and no longer, the stuff of nightmares.

Malta lost out on a potential heritage of powerful modern sacred art inside its churches, with the local ecclesiastical authorities unwilling to regard artists of the stature of Josef Kalleya, Carmenu Mangion and Antoine Camilleri in a very positive light. The religious easel paintings of these pioneers of Maltese Modernism are indicative of what could have been.

With the death of Giuseppe Calì and Lazzaro Pisani, Maltese church art had the opportunity to join the 20th century, but failed to do so. The exceptions are Anton Inglott’s masterpiece The Death of St Joseph, commissioned for the Msida parish church, and the ill-fated altarpiece for the Stella Maris parish church by Giorgio Preca – which to this day languishes in a wayside chapel in Żejtun.

Emvin Cremona compromised on a style that was sugary but acceptable to both the authorities and the churchgoers. Thus, he enjoyed the lion’s share of commissions during most of the latter half of the 20th century.

The Zabach works are Mallia’s take on an idiom that requires a breath of fresh air to prosper. French master Bernard Buffet is one of his muses. Buffet’s early crucifixions depicting a waif-like Christ were very autobiographical, when the Second World War was still fresh in the French collective memory. These crucifixions are highly stylised works, providing a melting pot of ideas and influences for the Maltese artist.

Mallia’s crucifixion paintings invite us into a post-apocalyptic world where every being, even the Son of God, is carbonised in an act of ultimate human madness. A trail of cinders seems to indicate that the ultimate sacrifice has been in vain, and that the ship of redemption has sailed.

Perhaps Mallia thinks that the divine and the human are doomed to share a common fate if mankind perseveres in not heeding the signs of the times.

Zabach runs until March 31 at the Kappella tad-Duluri, Mosta.