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Saturday, July 9, 2016

Painting God

Savaoph God the Father, 1885-96, Mikhailovich Vasnetsov
God as an Architect,
William Blake
There's an old saying that, I suppose, has been around for ages which says, "God created man in his own image, and ever since, man has been recreating God in his own image." I think there's a great deal of truth in this pronouncement, and chief among those involved in this activity have been artists. Moreover, the main force supporting artists' efforts, has long been the principal pro-ponents of God and all he's come to stand for--the church. Setting aside some scriptural inter-pretations forbidding such efforts, I don't see this as entirely a negative endeavor. Inasmuch as no one knows what God looks like then everyone, including artists, have the freedom to form their own mental image of Him as a part of their struggle for a personal relationship with God. The problem is that artists have painted and drawn their personal images, circulated them among those lacking the creative will to form their own image of God, thus artists have been unduly influential in establishing the nature of the Supreme Being.

Pietà with God the Father and the Dove of the Holy Spirit,
1400-10, Jean Malouel
Creation of Adam and Eve, Lorenzo
Ghiberti, about, 1425, Florence Baptistery
Until about the time of the Italian Renaissance, many artists had painted the figure of Jesus Christ into their church sponsored religious art. However few, until, the early 15th-century, had dared to paint God himself. Although a Dutch painter named Jean Malouel, did so as early as 1400-10, with his Pietà with God the Father and the Dove of the Holy Spirit (above), and in 1425, the Early Renais-sance sculptor, Lorenzo Ghi-berti, had incorporated two figures representing God in his Gates of Paradise doors to the Florence Baptistery. One of his bronze panels (left) depicts God creating Adam and Eve. However, the fresco painter, Masaccio, was the first to paint God on a grand scale when he created his giant fresco, The Holy Trinity (below, left) for the Church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. In it he depicts a bearded, grandfatherly figure (outlined by the black box) presenting a crucified Christ to mourners and two donors (lower corners). From that daring start, there developed something of a competition among Renaissance artists to see who could paint the best God.
Holy Trinity, 1427, Masaccio,
Santa Maria Novella, Florence.
God is seen in the black box.
God Appearing to St. Mary 
Magdalen and St. Catherine

of Siena,1508, Fra Bartolommeo

Around 1508, Fra Bartolommeo painted God Appearing to St Mary Magdalen and St Catherine of Siena (above, right). The image of God is so similar to that of Masaccio's that it might well be considered a copy. No prize for that. Of course, it should come as no surprise that the winner is this competition was none other than the Florentine sculptor, Michelangelo Buonarroti. In decorating the Sistine Chapel ceiling in Rome around 1511, (below), he painted God so many times he might well be considered God's official portrait artist. In so doing, for better or worse, it was Michelangelo, more than any other artist, who "locked in" our most enduring image of God. Hardly a painter since, in depicting God, could claim not to have been influence by Michelangelo's iconic renderings.

Painting God, coming and going.
The Greek god, Zeus
Assuming that no artist works in a vacuum, and thus, every artist, even the titanic Renaissance master, Michelangelo, must have had some kind of mental source image from which he based his painted depiction. Of course, having grown up in Florence, Michelangelo undoubtedly knew of Masaccio's Holy Trinity and Ghiberti's Baptistery panel depicting God, yet his images on the Sistine ceiling bear little or no likeness to these works. Michelangelo was known to be a great admirer of Greek and Roman antiquities. Thus it was from them, specifically the statue of Zeus (left) from which he drew inspiration for both his ceiling and later, his sculpture of Moses. Com-paring the three, the similarities are simply uncanny.

God creating the animal life on earth by an artist simply known as "R." Notice, He bears a striking resemblance to Michelangelo's God.
Crowning of the Virgin,
early 17th century,
Peter Paul Rubens
In the centuries that followed, as artists continued to recreate God in their own image, the emphasis shifted from God the Creator (above), to God the Father (right), as seen in the work of Peter Paul Rubens dating from the early 17th-century. The painting is titled Crowning of the Virgin, a Baroque indulgence having absolutely not scriptural basis. The figure of God is seen in the black box, that of the Holy Spirit (dove) in the red box, while the head of Christ is noted in the blue box. The trinity was becoming a popular artist concept by this time. Even more than a hundred years after he died, the godly influence of Michelangelo's God remained the dominant rendering of the Almighty.

God the Father, 1654,
Pieter de Grebber
However Michelangelo was not the sole point of departure shared by artist as they sought to depict God the Father. Pieter de Grebber in his God the Father (left), dating from 1654, seems to have referred back more than a century to Cima da Conegliano's God the Father (below) dating from 1510-17.

God the Father, 1654, Cima da Conegliano,
In searching for more recent depictions of God, I was dismayed to find that very few exist. Mikhailovich Vasnetsov's Savaoph God the Father (top), from around 1885-96, caught my eye in that it seemed quite different from the others I'd see. Then, as I look for similar works from the same era, I found that, for the most part, there were none. Apparently, artists in more recent centuries have found it more profitable to depict the Son, rather than the Father. Salvador Dali's Last Supper came to mind. It dates from 1956, but does not, in fact, present the face of God but rather his outstretched, loving arms (below).

The Last Supper (detail), 1956, Salvador Dali
Then I came upon the work of the Utah artist, Jon McNaughton. Like most artists today, McNaughton paints Jesus rather than God as the focal point of his One Nation Under God (below), completed in 2009. (Most theologians today pretty much equate the two.) Much of McNaughton's work is religious, though in no way unique. What is unique as to his work is his rightwing conservative political views and his willingness to mix them on canvas with his Christian faith. Churches today seldom sponsor much art and, except for the National Endowment for the Arts, neither does the federal government. Thus McNaughton is free to paint both his ultra-conservative political and religious views in works blending the two. Needless to say, it would appear he has a very low opinion as to the separation of church and state.

One Nation Under God, 2009, Jon McNaughton


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