THE EMPTY plinth in Trafalgar Square was finally occupied after more than 150 years yesterday, by a life-sized statue of Christ. Mark Wallinger's Ecce Homo - Behold The Man - was unveiled in the square's north-west corner.
The statue, cast in white marble resin, shows Christ with his hands bound behind his back. He is without hair or beard and is wearing a gold-plated crown of barbed wire.
First impressions among tourists and other visitors included surprise that the statue was so small compared with the other triumphalist monuments in the square, such as Nelson's Column, the lions and George IV on horseback.
Their surprise would have been greater if some of the more outlandish suggestions for works to occupy the empty plinth had been taken up. These included a 24ft high pigeon, Margaret Thatcher driving a tank, and (encompassing two national treasures in one) a sculpture of the Queen Mother holding the reins of Red Rum. The last suggestion was ruled out because members of the Royal Family cannot be depicted in a public sculpture during their lifetime.
Wallinger's statue is the first of three works, all by British artists, which will be displayed one after the other on the plinth until May 2001, by which time a permanent display will have been chosen by a Royal Society of Arts committee headed by Sir John Mortimer, the writer.
Wallinger, 40, from Camberwell, south London, said Ecce Homo was intended to show Christ at the point when he was handed over to the crowds by Pontius Pilate. He said he had modelled the statue on an ordinary person of an ordinary height in order to show Christ's humanity. "I am an agnostic but the history of Western art has been absolutely dominated by Christian imagery and I am familiar with the subject, even though I'm not an absolute believer," he said.
The unveiling of the statue came after a five-year campaign, led by Prue Leith, the writer and deputy chairman of the Royal Society of Arts. She said: "I think it is wonderful to see such a small vulnerable figure in the midst of these proud military Victorian heroes and it is young and it is different."
The statue was put together at a sculpture castings studio in Henley- on-Thames, Oxfordshire, using 26-year-old sculptor Christopher Welch as the model. He said: "I was chosen because I'm about 6ft tall and I'm in the right age range, between 25 and 35, the age at which Christ was crucified. There have been a lot of changes since the castings were taken from me but it is great to see it today."
Frank Fergus, 45, from Essex, who was in charge of the maintenance company which looks after the square, said: "I was expecting something much larger. He does not look to me like a statue of Christ, he looks more like Julius Caesar or something like that. I think it is refreshing, though, to see Christ presented on a human scale."
Sandy Nairne, the director of national programmes at the Tate Gallery, said the statue was a "simple but startling image".
The other works due to be displayed are Rachel Whiteread's untitled upside-down cast of the plinth and Phil Woodrow's giant bronze Regardless of History, which shows a human head, crushed by a book and held on the plinth by a leafless tree.
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