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Images of Christ

January 27, 2010

Artistic depictions of Jesus Christ have provoked a fascinating debate.   Christian thinkers have struggled with the question of whether or not artistic depictions of Christ are in violation of the second of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:3-4):

You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.  You shall not bow down to them or serve them . . . .

The question is fodder for much deeper theological investigation.  This particular debate raises questions about how one puts the big picture of the Bible together: 

  • Are Old Testament commands binding for believers? 
  • Do certain aspects of the law still apply to believers (such as the moral law), while other aspects of the law (ceremonial) are no longer binding? 
  • Is the command against images of God part of the moral law or the ceremonial law? 
  • Has the incarnation changed the prohibitions of images of God, since the only image of the invisible God has been revealed?

These are complex questions, but a rather simple one is often ignored in the debate.  What do images of Christ display about our view of Christ?  For the moment, let’s set aside the moral, normative examination of Christ-art, and let’s embark on a descriptive examination of Christ-art.  Three artistic renderings of Christ’s revelation to the disciples at Emmaus will provide the evidence for this investigation.

Christ:  The Quintessential Western European

One of the more comical aspects of depictions of Christ is the dominance of the Caucasian portrayal of Christ.  A first century Jewish carpenter came to be depicted as a tall, thin, pale (yet glowing), angular Western European. A good example of the Caucasian Christ is Pascal-Adolphe-Jean Dagnan-Bouveret’s Christ and the Disciples at Emmaus (1896-7). 

Dagnan-Bouveret makes Christ the focal point of the painting through several artistic devices.  Christ is centered between two pillars, and nearly every object of the painting points toward Christ.  Visual lines are drawn by the servant on the left, who points a dish toward Christ, the disciple kneeling on the right, and Christ’s own arms, which point the audience toward Christ’s glowing face.  The sunrise behind Christ also draws the audience toward Christ’s face.

Dagnan-Bouveret’s painting is the standard, Western depiction of Christ.  It emphasizes the other-worldliness of the Son of God by making him the Platonic form of a European man.

Christ:  The Protest Symbol

Caravaggio’s Emmaus scene (1601) is a quite different take on the biblical account.  He uses similar lines of perspective to draw the viewer toward Christ, but his Christ is much less ideal (rounded-face, stockier build), and his disciples are more vivid (they actually looked surprised). 

Caravaggio was a controversial figure.  The National Gallery notes that “much to the horror of his critics, he used ordinary working people with irregular, rough and characterful faces as models for his saints and showed them in recognisably contemporary surroundings.” 

The Catholic church was particularly roused by Caravaggio’s use of ordinary subjects for extraordinary biblical and ecclesial characters.  A legend recounts that Caravaggio employed a prostitute to pose as the virgin Mary.

Caravaggio’s Emmaus scene would have a similar effect on the clergy.  Christ is noticeably absent of artistic nomina sacra, that is, suggestions of his divinity:  no halo, no glowing visage.  While his painting may appropriately capture Isaiah 53:2—“he had no form of majesty that we should look at him”—it nevertheless lacks the reverent piety typical for depictions of Christ.

Christ:  Most Lovely in the Church

An even more divergent scene is undertaken by Rembrandt Van Rijn (1606-1669).  In the Netherlands, Rembrandt artistically labored in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation.  In this context, many of his works diverge from standard Catholic devotional art. 

His depiction of the scene at Emmaus is quite different from Dagnan-Bouveret’s.  The face of Christ is hardly discernable.  In fact, the perspective of the painting deemphasizes Christ and draws the viewer to two places.  First, the viewer is drawn to the disciple’s face, which flames with the glory of the resurrected Christ.  Second, the viewer notices that the servant in the background emits a similar, though less brilliant, light as Christ. 

This technique is rife with ecclesiological and theological implications.  Since the ascension of Christ, the beauty of the Lord is most evident in his body and bride, the church.  That the servant shares the light of Christ draws upon the biblical motif of Christ as servant of all (cf. Mark 10:45).

Deciphering the Images

Dagnan-Bouveret and Caravaggio contributed to artistic trends that persist today.  Devotional representations of Christ still include ideal Western European facial features; artists often project their idea of the “second Adam” onto the historical person of Jesus Christ.  Similarly, Christ still makes his appearance in protest-art; ideologues know his image will inflame the church and culture for their causes.

The church would be better off avoiding both of these strands of Christ-art.  Idealized images of Christ and rhetorically abrasive representations of Christ will not further the cause of the church.  Rather, the church should learn to see itself as the visage of Christ.  In this regard, master Rembrandt’s scene is lovelier than Dagnan-Bouveret’s or Caravaggio’s renderings of Emmaus.

The apostle Paul tells the Ephesian church that Christ “came and preached peace to you who were far off” (2:17).  Biblical scholars could search far and wide for a gospel account of Christ in Ephesus, but there’s no historical record of such a visit.  However, the book of Acts recounts the preaching of Paul in Ephesus (18:19, chs. 19-20).  How do we reconcile these accounts? 

The church is Christ’s ambassador, body, and bride, “the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph 1:23).  As God redeems and sanctifies sinners, he is painting the greatest portrait of Christ.  Let us, then, acquire the taste for true Christian art.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. January 29, 2010 12:01 am

    Good timing, Jason! Caravaggio is in the news of late!

    I took the M.Div. course here at SBTS on Visual Art in the Protestant Tradition. It was really interesting, especially the iconoclastic debate. I did a paper on the development of the Protestant Reformed (from Erasmus to Calvin) redirection of Christian art from visual images into the sacraments. I’ll have to send it to you sometime.

  2. August 20, 2010 8:51 am

    The Holy Scriptures have many passages encouraging us to seek the Face of God, when Christ came He revealed the Face of God in His whole Being, His Words, His actions, and in his physical, spiritual ‘PRESENCE”. You cannot look into the eyes of any person without having a sense of timeless intimacy and the same must have been true , even more so, for anyone looking into the eyes of Christ while he walked the earth. The Transfiguration of Christ and the Glorified Body of Christ recall to every Christian that Christ Redeems us body and soul. Seeking the Face of Christ in prayer, meditation and in artwork (which is another form of prayer for icon artists or any Christian artist) is a Holy activity. if God blesses a man with a piece of artwork through grace acting in that work so that it does reveal in some manner the image of Christ to others, than that man has been an angelic artist…the drawn, painted images on the catacombs preceded the written and types/ printed words of scriptures…so never disregard these sacramentals as avenues of grace and love.

  3. December 30, 2010 2:19 pm

    We’re currently wrestling with the issue of images of Christ in books, movies, art, etc. Having been in a fundamentalist church for 4 years, I generally avoided them, but now that I’m out of that well-meaning but somewhat legalistic environment, I’m re-examining the issue. Interestingly, I was deeply touched by the baby Jesus in the move The Nativity Story. There was something about seeing God in helpless human flesh the pulled at my heart….and then of course, I felt a twinge of guilt from my fundamentalist instincts. Currently, I’m leaning slightly towards images (in good taste) being ok as there is not really an explicit prohibition of such images in the New Testament (I’ll save my in- depth paper on this issue till I go to seminary : )

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