Politicians, campaigners, philosophers, journalists and many others always clamour to express their views on sensitive ethical issues through the press. In conjuring an emotion and provoking a reaction, however, art can surpass this medium – on the issue of capital punishment, two pieces stand out to me in doing so.

St Bartholomew was one of the twelve apostles, flayed alive for refusing to worship Pagan gods. Damien Hirst’s St Bartholomew: Exquisite Pain symbolises the greatness of freedom of speech and strength to say what you believe.

‘St Bartholomew: Exquisite Pain’ by Damien Hirst

The sculpture conveys a key message: unjustified pain can be overcome to achieve greatness. Hirst says: ‘It has the feel of a rape of the innocents’, but despite this aesthetic the figure still steps forward and displays strength and defiance. The pose is neither timid nor physically hurt. His skin, draped over one arm, is carried as a trophy with the scissors, showing the insignificance of pain inflicted by those who are wrong, and celebrating how resilience against injustice can transcend the petty physical.

Whilst St Bartholomew was killed for obviously unjust reasons, I believe the message criticising capital punishment in general, remains. The taking of someone’s life intentionally is always murder, and even if the accused is guilty, they become a victim. The sculpture objectifies another key argument against using capital punishment: the killing of an innocent man while believing him guilty is an unforgivable tragedy. It also shows the martyrdom offered to those facing the punishment: rise above or defy it and you can be seen as heroic and brave, while your punisher is shamed.

Paul Delaroche’s The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, however, I think acquiesces to capital punishment, and to me this destroys its appeal. I cannot deny its artistic magnificence, but it is also cruel, painful and a true example of why capital punishment is so wrong.


'The Execution of Lady Jane Grey' by Paul Delaroche, displayed in the National Gallery

Its historical reality heightens the sense of injustice. Lady Jane Grey’s reign lasted nine days – resulting in her execution, aged 16, along with her husband and father: to whom she was a mere puppet.

Painted with uncanny realism, the event is portrayed in a private setting. Although inaccurate, this makes the observer feel like a witness – not a historian observing an informative article. When the painting was first showcased in 1834 it caused a sensation – it is not hard to see why.

While most of the painting is in darkness, Jane is bathed in light – aesthetically asserting her innocence. Fresh straw lies around the block, there to soak up blood that will follow. This makes it even more devastating, as instead of creating a still scene in your head it creates a series of pictures, ending with the death of an innocent girl.

Delaroche’s masterpiece succeeds in conjuring the emotion of watching an execution – it has more emotional punch than many of today’s graphic films. It portrays a state of mind no human should ever be forced to experience: completely contradictory to human nature but the essence of capital punishment.

Jane’s innocence is, like Hirst’s piece, a key argument against using capital punishment. But what makes Delaroche’s work more upsetting is her resignation. Her acquiescence with the execution and passive acceptance – trying to find the block with her hands – gives the piece a sense of hopelessness Hirst’s does not have. Delaroche protests Jane’s innocence with his artistic technique and symbolism – but she does not.

The Streatham Portrait believed to be of Lady Jane Grey

By contrast to Lady Jane Grey, St. Bartholomew was obscure – as an apostle, not even his name is certain. However, in Hirst’s depiction he emerges from his insignificance and there can be no question of his power. His freedom and will, and the pleasure of exerting it and not submitting, as Jane does, makes the sculpture fantastic to witness. The fact that he is overcoming his punishment makes the pain and his killers insignificant, and him ‘exquisite’.

With thanks to mymodernmet.com and Wikipedia for photos.

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