For us English, Christ does not offer gaping gory wounds; He goes around knocking on doors effetely with a lantern

Did you see the recent advertising campaign for IKEA which was based on the slogan, "Don't be so English"? What must have been especially galling for many people was that this slightly dismissive exhortation was coming not from Americans or Italians but from a Swedish company.

But this week I went to the beautiful exhibition, "The Image of Christ", at the National Gallery, and one of the main impressions it left on me is that maybe we English really do have a problem. (I almost hesitate to say "we English", because I am only half-English; but given that my other half is Swedish, this is rather like diluting water with even more water and makes me even more feebly English than the English.)

To an Englishman, brought up with a basically secular C of E view of religion in which too much "enthusiasm" or "hysteria" in matters of religion is considered to be bad form, bad taste and ungentlemanly, this exhibition has a few severe shocks.

Not from the English artists. The English Christ is a man with whom you can feel comfortable and who you can rely on not to make an embarrassing scene. The catalogue describes William Holman Hunt's The Light of the World as "the most popular representation of Christ in the English-speaking world", and you can plainly see why. Christ is holding a lantern in the darkness and knocking against a locked door, and it represents the capacity of mankind to shut itself out from the truth of religion. The artist was asked why the door had no handle and he replied: "It is the door of the human heart, and that can only be opened from the inside."

But the point is that Christ is very calm, to the point of inertia, and he is evidently not knocking at the door at all, but rather giving that tentative fumble at the door which I used to give when I had piano lessons as a child - I hoped that if my "knock" was quiet enough, my music teacher might not hear and I could go away again.

It reminds me of the only conversation about religion I've ever had with a Church of England minister. When I arrived at university, everybody had a brief meeting with the college chaplain. He began by saying: "Things going all right?" And I said: "Well, you know." And then he said: "Do you er, are you er, do you er believe er?" And I said: "Well, not really." And that was it.

He ought to have said simply: "Have you ever thought what it would be like to be damned for eternity? Imagine a million million years of torment and that would not even be the first second of the eternity of your despair." Something like that. It would probably have worked.

The other English masterpiece is Stanley Spencer's great picture of Christ carrying the cross. It has a bustling crowd, and you can just glimpse Christ in the middle of it, bearing his burden with no more fuss than if he were carrying a plank on a building site. This is an English Calvary. He has his problems; but still, there's no point in making a scene about it and embarrassing everybody.

How different, how very different from the portrayals of Christ by other nationalities, some of whom are now fellow members of the European Community and with whom we may shortly be expected to share a currency. Take the 14th-century portrait of the Virgin and child by the Netherlandish artist Robert Campin. The Christ child is, quite blatantly, grasping and displaying his genitals. The point, apparently, is to show the baby's "dual nature". That's as maybe, but it's no excuse for fiddling "down there".

An Italian painting, by Giovanni Bellini, shows in eye-watering detail the circumcision of baby Jesus. Now, in England we've always been theoretically aware that Christ was born and raised a Jew, but that's no reason for dwelling on it. And it gets worse. We English know about Christ's wounds and the sacrament, but we've always seen it as symbolic. They're not like real wounds, and the thought of really drinking Christ's blood is disgusting. But these people further south see things differently. The Italian painter Bernardo Strozzi not only portrays the wound, but shows Doubting Thomas pushing his finger into it. And the wound, well, to a depraved mind, it might look like "something else". The Spanish are even worse, needless to say. In 1620, Francisco Ribalta portrays Holy Communion by showing Saint Francis drinking Christ's blood out of the wound as he hangs on the cross.

It's wonderful to be English and not bother with that beastliness. If only the beastliness weren't so much more interesting.

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Why I am voting for Ken Livingstone