Bleak Theology A post-punk counterweight to joy.

Good Friday and Joy Division

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I’ve been quiet for the past few months while I’ve been focused on writing my book, Don’t Walk Away: Joy Division as Theological Lamentation. What I thought would be one obligatory chapter on religious history of became three very unexpected chapters. I’ve been making good headway, currently working on lyrics analysis. I would love for the book to come out by the end of the year. We’ll see how things go.

Good Friday loomed heavily for Joy Division in 1980. On that first night of the Christian Triduum, Ian Curtis would suffer an embarrassing epileptic seizure on stage while performing in London. On Easter morning back in Macclesfield, he would thwart his own suicide attempt of overdosing on medication. But a few weeks before that, he would have agreed with his bandmates on the image that would be used for the cover of Closer, a French photograph of Italian funerary statues, of women mourning Jesus in the tomb. In May, he would be dead and in July, Closer would be released.

Below is my section from my third chapter in Part I: The Factory and the Cathedral, about the Good Friday scene used for Closer and the story around and behind it. There is some art criticism, some Bible, some Dostoyevsky, and some respectful speculation. I have attempted to contact Peter Hook and Peter Saville with no success. I don’t know how to contact Morris and I know that Sumner would like to leave Joy Division in the past. I’m doing what I can to bring this ignored aspect of Joy Division’s history to light for the first time.

Feel free to share, but do not steal. Citations are in my draft and any permissions required will be secured.

“We’ve Got a Tomb on the Cover of the Album”

During the second half of March 1980, Joy Division was in London recording the songs that would become their second album. Knowing Saville did not meet deadlines, Gretton brought the band to his nearby studio to pressure him into presenting cover ideas. Unsurprisingly, Saville wasn’t prepared, even as he had not heard any of the tracks of the still-unnamed album. But to show what was exciting him at the time, he pulled out a copy of Zoom magazine that featured photos of statues by the French photographer Bernard-Pierre Wolff. 

(photo by Stuart Freedman/In Pictures via Getty Images Images)

The tomb photographed lies in Genoa, Italy’s famed Monumental Cemetery of Sagliano, sculpted by Demetrio Giacomo Paernio around 1910 for the powerful Appiani family. What struck Saville was the lifelike appearance of the statues. The high quality of the figures and the photography made it difficult to determine if they were statues or if they were dusty models in a photo shoot. Saville understands them to be “a view on classicism through the contemporary medium of photography. That’s what makes it postmodern and ‘neo-neoclassical’.” Wolff had intriguingly juxtaposed in a single shoot Saville’s two poles of classical and contemporary. Saville did not expect the band to have such an immediately positive interest and reaction. Hook notes that Curtis really liked them. Joy Division looked through the pages and collectively agreed upon the now-iconic image. 

At first glance, it is a life-sized burial scene from ancient Roman times captured in chiaroscuro. The image is of a dead young man lying on a stone slab that is draped in a cloth. His hands resting on his chest, he is wrapped in a burial shroud with his serene, bearded face uncovered. Mourning him are four women, positioned declining from left to right to draw the eye down toward the deceased. The left hand of the standing woman’s rests on the right shoulder of another woman kneeling, who clasps it with both of her own. The kneeling woman stares intently at the haloed man’s face. The woman to her right, head lowered, supports her left arm against the slab. The fourth, her head against the floor, her hair flowing over her arms. In the lower right hand corner on the floor is an ancient oil lamp. This is inside a tomb and it is dark.

More carefully examined, this is not simply a group of women weeping over a loved one or a saint, but a final scene from Good Friday. They mourn over the crucified body of Jesus in the tomb reserved for Joseph of Arimathea. His halo, carved in relief, is faint but distinct. Even in death, his divinity shines. Soon, the women will leave and the great stone will be rolled against the tomb’s entrance. But for now, this single moment of the story is captured eternally in rock. It is solemn, silent, still.

Wolff’s photo, however, is a close-up of the Appiani tomb that, through both framing and shadow, does not present the entire scene of the sculpture. Though Saville and the band and ourselves do not see the the full tomb, it is valuable to provide a comprehensive account of what is left out of the shot. The woman standing on the far left is, herself, haloed, indicating her as Mary, the mother of Jesus. To remove all doubt, below her in stone is carved the words “STABAT MATER”, Latin for “The mother was standing”, from a famous thirteenth century hymn to Mary. Her gaze is raised toward Heaven. The two middle women could be Joanna and Mary, the mother of James. The bare-headed fourth woman, is possibly Mary Magdalene, who is mentioned being at the tomb and is sometimes attributed to be the unnamed sinful woman who wiped Jesus feet with her hair and anointed him with perfume. Hovering above Jesus’ haloed head is a dove, representing the Holy Spirit that appeared descending upon Jesus at his baptism, grasping an olive branch, the sign of peace, in its mouth. Equidistant from Mary and the Holy Spirit above the dead Christ is a small outline of a cross, with four human figures in each quadrant of space it creates, possibly signifying the four evangelists of the gospels. For a static tableau, it is a very busy scene full of biblical allusions and meaning.

This scene of collective mourning is known in art criticism as a Lamentation. If the scene had been only Jesus and his mother, it would be a Pietà. Not strictly from the gospels, these scenes come from later apocryphal and meditative narratives, first presented in medieval art. A Lamentation coincides with, but is not directly taken from, the Entombment, Holy Week’s fourteenth and final Station of the Cross. The Stations of the Cross are a liturgical account of the biblical events of Christ’s day of execution, beginning with his condemnation through his death. The Stations are most commonly found in Roman Catholic and Anglican traditions and are an essential part of celebrating the Passion and the end of the forty days of Lent.

In 1980, Ash Wednesday fell on February 20th. The liturgical season of Lent was well under way when Joy Division was in the studio recording in late March and when Saville showed the photographs to the band. Reflects Saville, “But what was Ian already thinking? I’m showing them images of tombs because I think they look trendy, and for all I know he’s thinking ‘That’s where I’ll write my suicide.’” Collectively, everyone around Curtis did not expect him to end his life, admitting to misunderstanding the severity of his depression and to missing or ignoring the signs of his imminent death.

It is impossible to know if Saville is correct, but liturgically-astute Curtis may very well have been of that mind. Only in retrospect can such questions and possibilities seem clear as we interpret events and objects from a particular frame of reference. All theology is autobiographical and my personal connection to Joy Division informs both my vantage point and my theological constructions. Thus, such suppositions are part of my reflection process as I correlate accounts of experience with the broader Christian tradition. As a theologian and one deeply appreciative of the sound, images, history, and possible meanings of Joy Division, I find such attention and analysis compelling. There is value in delicately and respectfully exploring the theological meanings that could be attributed because it offers both new lenses of understanding of Curtis, himself, and an opportunity to wrestle with broader theological themes and matters for ourselves. I do this not to attribute motive or to provide a definite account or interpretation, but because it allows me as a fan and Christian to delve deeper into the theological issues of anxiety, existential suffering, and lamentation.

Within the liturgical context of Lent, an unsettling timeline appears from Joy Division’s meeting with Saville during the recording of Closer through his first suicide attempt earlier in April and his second, ultimately successful one. It is a sophisticated reading grounded in liturgical, literary, and artistic symbols, but symbols that Curtis would be readily aware of and able to utilize for his own self-understanding. Beginning with Wolff’s photo, I suggest Curtis created a personal connection between that Good Friday tomb scene and his established love for both the works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Iggy Pop. 

Curtis was a voracious reader of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, a fellow religious, epileptic writer who focused deeply on existential themes, notably the human condition and suffering. He owned a Penguin Classics edition of The Idiot. Hook notes that he enjoyed talking with his girlfriend, Annik Honoré about Dostoyevsky and William Burroughs. Inspired by Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, he penned the lyrics for the posthumously released “The Kill”. One of his favorite albums was Iggy Pop’s first album apart from The Stooges, called The Idiot, released in 1977. David Bowie, another favorite artist of Curtis, had introduced Pop to Dostoyevsky’s novel and had helped him produce the eponymous album, which the novel inspired. 

The novel’s protagonist is Prince Myshkin, a kind and wise young man, who is treated as an “idiot” because of his seemingly blithe understanding of the world. It is an expectedly complex and deep work and arguably Dostoyevsky’s most explicit investigation of Christian themes. The Idiot was definitely in Curtis’s personal library. He very well could have recognized that the album owed itself to the work. 

At the sight of the dead Jesus at the Appiani tomb, Curtis may have paired the image with the timely fact that it was Lent. He may also have recalled a significant painting in The Idiot, Hans Holbein’s The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb. After the epileptic Prince Myshkin and Rogozhin gaze at it, Rogozhin asks him if he believes in God. To which the prince cries “Why, a man’s faith might be ruined by looking at that picture!” Myshkin then shares four recent encounters he has had with people concerning faith in God: an atheist, a murderer, a traitor, and a faithful new mother. He then says, “Listen, Parfyon; you put a question to me just now. This is my reply. The essence of religious feeling has nothing to do with reason, or atheism, or crime, or acts of any kind—it has nothing to do with these things—and never had.” His faith remains intact. Later, the atheist Hippolite Terentyev remembers being also captivated by the painting. In the midst of a long meditation on the work and the agony and radical theology of Good Friday, he says, 

“But, strange to say, when one looks at this corpse of this tortured man, a certain curious question arises: if just a corpse (and it certainly must have been like this) was seen by all His disciples, by those who were to become His chief apostles, by the women who had followed Him and stood at the foot of the cross, by all who believed in Him and adored Him, how could they believe, gazing on such a cadaver as that, that this martyr would be resurrected?’

While Holbein’s painting presents the brutalized dead Christ alone on a slab, the cover of Closer is this agonizing scene of The Idiot fully visualized. Is it not possible that Ian Curtis, having undergone his own personal crisis of faith, is seeking to present his crisis visually along with it lyrically or perhaps to invoke such a crisis within others? Could this Lamentation, sculpted by Paernio, unwittingly be Curtis’ lamentation about his own loss of faith in God, in his own disbelief in the Resurrection? Could he be surreptitiously presenting the viewer with the crises of faith presented to both Myshkin and Terentyev? 

Through Wolff’s photograph, Curtis confronts the viewer of, the listener of Closer with a dead Messiah, “with the women who had followed Him and stood by the cross” mourning him in stone. In this theological crisis that the first followers of Jesus experienced, Curtis is presenting it anew in this modern age of anxiety. Collapsing two thousand years of history, Curtis follows Søren Kierkegaard’s observation in Concluding Unscientific Postscript: the contemporary follower of Jesus had no advantage over any believer later in history. The women in the tomb and viewer of Closer must freely decide to have faith in the Resurrection. While only the viewer can choose whether they side with Myshkin or Terentyev, it is Terentyev in the next chapter, after a length speech about religion, who attempts to shoot himself, failing only because he neglects to load the gun properly.

Saville’s suggestion was an unexpected godsend. Curtis and Gretton had chosen not to use religious imagery for Unknown Pleasures’ title, but here was a fortuitous opportunity presented by the designer, himself, and in which the band was enthusiastic. The potential meanings of the funerary photo could personally satisfy everyone involved. It was cool and it was bleak. With the cover image agreed upon, Curtis continued to wrestle with his inner turmoils about his relationships, his physical and mental health, and his future with the band; his ruined faith represented here for all to see.

During a grueling concert schedule, on April 4, Good Friday, Curtis suffered on stage a significant seizure in London. Back in Macclesfield, on Easter Sunday, he consumes an overdose of his medication, but panics, thinking he has not taken a sufficient amount. Fearing that the medication will severely injure him, he asks his wife to take him to the hospital. The liturgical timing of the seizure, combined with a recollection of the decision to use the Good Friday photo provides Curtis with an opportunity to reflect on Holy Saturday, the darkest day of the Triduum when Jesus is dead in the tomb. Paradoxically, the suicide attempt on Easter Sunday could be one of release. Did he see himself as Terentyev? Curtis’ rationale could have been not for ultimate resurrection, but for escape from his mortal coil. 

In mid-May, Curtis found himself at his absolute end. Alone at home on the night of May 17th, he watched on television Werner Herzog’s Stroszek. The film is about a German musician who travels to the United States, seeking a better life with his girlfriend. After his girlfriend leaves him, he eventually shoots himself. It has been speculated that watching the film partly influenced Curtis to follow in the main character’s footsteps. After his death, Pop’s The Idiot was found still spinning on his turntable. Back in 1977, Ian and Deborah had gone on a date to see Pop at the Manchester Apollo on his Idiot tour, where Bowie had played keyboard, and he had been deeply affected by Pop’s performance. Deborah says that in his note found to her, he wrote that he no longer wanted to be alive, but did not explicitly say that he wanted to commit suicide. 

I suggest that for Curtis, listening to that album was a way of simultaneously connecting to the themes of existential crisis, epilepsy, and religious faith he had read in Dostoyevsky’s gargantuan novel. This connection is similar to the possible sense that he connected with Herzog’s film featured a musician alone, wrestling with an impossible situation. The Appiani tomb photo becomes less Saville’s “suicide note” and more a despairing image regarding one’s loss of faith. Consumed ultimately by anguish and overwhelmed by sound and vision, all hope was, indeed, lost.

Later that day on May 18th, Tony Wilson called Saville to tell him that Curtis had hanged himself. Absorbing the horrible news, Saville replied “Tony, we’ve got a tomb on the cover of the album.” At that point, the sleeve was close to being at the printer, if not already there. An emergency meeting was called and the three members decided that because Curtis had been part of the process and had agreed upon that image, they would leave it unchanged. In the aftermath of the album’s release, they was accused of exploiting Curtis, the public unaware the band was honoring the wishes of their friend.

The two studio albums of the band demonstrate a shift toward overt theological lamentation. Joy Division discarded crying in the wilderness and embraced crying in the tomb, the outside for the inside, the most distantiated for the most intimate, the absent most present for the present most absent. Rather than embracing the prophetic words of terrible things to come, Joy Division chose the memorializing image of terrible things that had occurred. Rather than crying about what could happen, Joy Division later embraced crying over what had happened. In Unknown Pleasures there was an aborted religious beginning and in Closer its successful end. In Saville’s studio, Joy Division chose not merely an image of the dead Christ, but the dead Christ prepared for burial and mourned. In the end, Curtis and Gretton got their religious tears. But those whom Curtis left behind, they had tears in their eyes.

This dialectic of beginning and end, of action and memorialization could be seen as a stretch, or even a hermeneutical leap. Except that in the aftermath of the death of Ian Curtis, that is exactly what the surviving members did. In 1981, the survivors of Joy Division released a compilation of unreleased tracks and live recordings. They named the album Still. Joy Division had ended, no longer able to move, yet now remained and remains eternally present. Resurrected as New Order, the surviving members, now with Morris’s then-girlfriend, later wife Gillian Gilbert on keyboards, got back into the studio at Wilson’s urging and would release that same year their first album Movement. What had ended in tears had begun anew in hope.

Religious language and image are powerful tools, often so unwieldy that they escape the author and artist’s control. Such language and image function beyond the immediate, the specific, and the intentional to provide opportunities of new interpretation and understanding. “What was Ian already thinking?” asks Saville on our behalf. He voices what we do not dare say – or suppose – aloud. But with time and the gradual inability to identify or recognize particular religious symbols, religious language and image become unfamiliar and ineffectual. At some point, we don’t even know to ask the thoughts of Curtis. The iconography of the album, itself, develops a status of its own.

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By Burke
Bleak Theology A post-punk counterweight to joy.

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