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Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Art and Jesus

The Isenheim Altarpiece (detail, central panel), 1512-16, Mathias Grunewald
Copyright, Jim Lane
The Death, 1999, Jim Lane
For nearly two thousand years Christians have been observing the Lord's Supper (communion or mass) in which we are commanded by Christ to discern his body and proclaim His death until He comes. For more than a thousand years, artists the world over have worked to render images for that discernment. For those steeped in the art of portraying beauty to the world, this has not been an easy task. Christ's death was ugly. His pain and suffering were horrific. Yet his death, burial, and resurrection are the foundation upon which his life here on earth and all of Christianity rests.

Isenheim Altarpiece (detail)

The Crucified Christ, 1610-11
Peter Paul Rubens

During the next several weeks, in several topical, (non-consecutive) postings, I plan to take a look at that foundation and the edifice of Christ's life as seen by dozens of artists over the past thousand years. These men have molded and colored our mental images of the Christ we are commanded to remember. Some of these artists are world renown. Others are little-known or totally anonymous. Likewise, their art ranges from historic masterpieces to highly personal, sometimes even inaccurate characterizations of solemn beauty reflecting interpretations of scripture common in their time or imposed upon them by religious authorities.

I shall be writing from a Christian point of view fully realizing that not all who read my words accept the historic figure of Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, the son of God, or even the existence of a monotheistic godhead. Nonetheless, that does not lessen the importance of Jesus and his teachings in the shaping of civilized man, nor His impact upon art. This is primarily an art history lesson in which I will be mentioning artists, and captioning the works displayed with the usual title, date, and name of the artist. The purpose in revealing these works is to broaden your mental archive of images of Jesus Christ and make more familiar those who have fostered these images. If we are to remember the Lord's death until he comes again, it would seem just as important to recall the life leading to that death inasmuch as His life places his death in context and makes it all the more meaningful.

Christ the Good Shepherd, 3rd. Century
The Good Shepherd, Simon Dewey

Bust of Christ ,1585, El Greco
How does an artist bring to life the image of a man whom no one living today but God has ever seen? Portraits demand models. The earliest attempts were more symbols than portraits, usually depicting the savior as Christ, the Good Shepherd (above, left). Present-day artist, Simon Dewey (above, right), has chosen to elaborate on this symbol while the Spanish artist El Greco (right), in 1585, may have been one of the first to attempt a more traditional head and shoulders portrait. Catholic artists such as Bosseron Chambers have tried to probe more deeply into the very heart of Christ with his iconic Sacred Heart (below, left). His work has inspired the more modern image of Christ produced by Shepherd Fairey (below, right) once more as a symbol, commanding personal or perhaps societal change.

Sacred Heart, Bosseron Chambers
Change, 2010, Shepard Fairey
(after Bosseron Chambers)

As a new millennium began a few years ago, the Catholic church promoted a contest to spur artist in modernizing their image of Christ. The winner was Janet McKenzie with her Christ 2000 (below, left). The model was a woman. A hundred years earlier, Heinrich Hoffman saw Jesus in this manner in his Christ at Thirty-three (below, right). Of course NONE of these images are accurate. The Bible purposely does not describe Jesus in any way except to suggest he was in no way exceptional in appearance.
Christ 2000, Janet McKenzie
Christ at Thirty-three, Heinrich Hoffman
The Shroud of Turin, (face detail)
Perhaps the closest we might come to any kind of accurate image of Christ may not involve an artist's depiction at all, but in a centuries-old Catholic relic known as the Shroud of Turin (right), which many suggest features a kind of supernatural photosynthetic image of the crucified Jesus transferred to his burial shroud at the moment of His resurrection. Opinions differ as to its authenticity. But in any case, the best image of Christ is the one within us, the one which shines forth as we struggle to be more like him. Artists have often been conscious of the inward presence inasmuch as they have long tended to portray him as being like themselves. European artists saw Jesus as having European traits. American artists have even depicted him with blond hair and blue eyes. To African artists, he has a darker complexion. Human nature--our worship itself--seems to demand a mental image of Jesus, even one of God. Yet, at least since the Protestant Reformation, many Christians have come to fear the visual image of Christ, at best uneasy with what they see as its proximity to idol worship. At the same time, images of Christ and his ministry have long been a teaching tool, starting in ancient times when many Christians could not read, to the present day with young children in Bible classes. Today, images of Christ have moved from painted canvas to the silver screen to DVDs. Regardless of the format, artists continue to be intimately involved in how we mentally and emotionally discern the body and the blood of Christ until he comes.

The Passion of Christ, 2004, Mel Gibson.
The body and the blood--Too accurate a depiction?


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