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Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Images of Christ

The somewhat androgynous
and racially ambiguous
Christ 2000, the competition
won by Janet McKenzie,
He is undoubtedly the most famous man who ever lived. And insofar as art is concerned, He's the most recreated figure to ever flow from the minds of artists over the past 20 centuries. And regardless of your religious background, or lack of one, He's certainly had a profound effect, directly and indirectly in all our lives. Cities are named after Him, books, paintings, sculpture, movies, music, plays, TV, poetry, and, of course, the Bible all proclaim His life and teachings. Yet everything we know visually about this Man has come from the minds of artists. The Bible gives little, if any, description of Him except to say that there was nothing physically about Him that would attract attention. I guess we could infer from this that He was fairly ordinary looking, though artists have done their best down through the ages to depict Him as anything but.

Christ the Good Shepherd,
mid-3rd century, San Callisto
Catacomb, Rome, is one of
the earliest depictions of Christ.
Perhaps the most interesting element in the depiction of Jesus of Nazareth by some of the greatest artists of the past two thousand years is the incredible diversity in their images. Much of this diversity can be labelled a matter of style. Not surprisingly, two millennia have seen painting styles change enormously, and Christ is present in all of them. From the oldest ceiling images of the Good Shepherd surviving in the catacombs of Rome (right) to a portrait competition fostered by the Catholic church in 2000 (above, left), there is a style and interpretation of Jesus to fit nearly everyone's image of the Man. Perhaps not all, but very nearly every major artist who ever lived has turned his hand to the subject, whether painting a portrait image or in some way telling the story of His life. And what they have rendered makes for one of the most fascinating studies any art lover could pursue.

The face from the Shroud of Turin,
may, in fact, be the most accurate
image of Christ.
We see Christ as a thousand artists have seen Him. We see the enormous Christ-figure towering over Rio de Janeiro, the sculptures of Michelangelo, the paintings of Rembrandt, el Greco, Rubens, Masaccio, Titian, Raphael, Leonardo, as well as dozens of visions of unknown artists. Many are of Christ as a child. Some are sweet, some touching, some are almost unbearably elegant, others grossly ugly. Some are uplifting, others are deeply distressing. Yet all are moving in their own way.
The Death, Burial, and Resurrection, 1999, Jim Lane,
a triptych altarpiece, my own contribution to the long history of Christ images.

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