RELIGIOUS ART -- JESUS IN THE 21ST CENTURY
The mission of this article is to explore a variety of artistic expression in presenting the image of Jesus Christ, and perhaps clarify our own belief and feelings for Jesus in the 21st century. We will try to accomplish this mission in reference to three major purposes of art:
1. To uplift the Spirit
2. To inspire the Mind
3. To bring Beauty to the Home
Our method of exploring the images of Jesus will be to start at the earliest Christian art, and then proceed chronologically to the 21st Century.
The first image for consideration is an icon from the 6th Century AD. It is found in St. Katherine's Monastery at Mt. Sinai. When we examine this image, we see the Savior presented in the rigid style of the period. He stares at the viewer with large eyes, yet seems somewhat remote. He is the object of worship, distant in personal relationship. He holds the Scriptures, and offers a blessing to those who revere Him.
We must remember that icons such as this were a focus of worship. Kneeling believers would offer prayers of help and succor before them.
Advancing several hundred years, we enter the period of Medieval Art. Here, we see an example of sculpture from the Chartres Cathedral in France. The features of the Savior are softened, but he appears introspective, calm and passive. We might wonder about His interest in our lives.
Here is an example of a precious ivory sculpture, a triptych featuring the crucifixion of Jesus as the center piece. The atmosphere is calm, somewhat rigid. The Savior looks away from the soldiers who play out their role in His Passion. Perhaps, he looks upon the women who stand by. Others in attendance are presented as quiet observers of one of the great events of history. The left and right portions of the triptych permit the artist to feature special individuals of the early Christian Church. They too play out their role in quiet fashion. We might ask what impact this piece of religious art had on the faithful Christian of the Middle Ages, and what it has on our minds today. Certainly, the piece was a reminder of the sacrifice of the Savior. It was an image to teach the people the events of the Crucifixion, and to remind them of the other characters who made up the heritage of the religious teaching of the day. It was often a focus of worship. Today, we would probably look at the artifact as work of art, holding a beauty if its own, and also a teaching tool to help us see religion and art in some historical perspective. However, it might not appeal to our vision of Jesus and our relationship to Him.
The Middle Ages brought to the fore another image of Jesus, that of a child in the care of His mother. The tradition of the Madonna figure becomes an integral part of the religious art of the period. A picture of mother and child always has power to touch the heart of the observer.
The Madonna images brought satisfaction through many centuries. How does it present Jesus? It is far from the iconic figure of the 6th Century shown above. His godhood is subordinate to His position as a small child nurtured by His earthly mother. His physical nature supercedes His godly nature. Is He an object of worship? Probably not.
If we examine the sculpture of Mary and Jesus in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, we see again the subordinate position of Jesus and the importance placed upon the position of Mary.
This relationship is also displayed in this stained glass found in Notre Dame Cathedral. Jesus sits on the lap of Mary, the dove of the Holy Ghost is above, while the angels and saints give their worship.
Moving on to the 16th Century and the glorious period of the religious art of the Renaissance, we see a great change in the artistic representations of the Savior. We also can appreciate the tremendous advances in artistic technique that permitted the artist to portray the deep emotions of the subjects of his art.
When we look at this Madonna by Raphael we see a lovely scene of mother and child with a pastoral landscape. This could be any mother and child. Was this beautiful piece of art designed to be an object of worship? Probably not. It is a tender expression of love of a mother for her child. It uplifts the spirit, and brings beauty into our lives. Is it a means to know and understand Jesus? Maybe yes, or maybe no.
When we consider the works of Michelangelo, we see a much different aspect of the Savior. In his sculpture of Jesus with His cross, the influence of ancient Greek art is very obvious. This figure could have been found in any Greek temple. Christ takes up His cross with majesty, and a calm classical pose that belies the agony of His sacrifice.
In Michelangelo's Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel in Rome, we see the Christ in a powerful position, giving out the promised judgment to the good and not so good. Again, the figure is in classical style. The Christ is beardless. He looks down with upraised arm to do His work. The figure of Mary is rather meek and submissive, a considerable change from the powerful Madonna of the Middle Ages.
But not all artists of the period pictured Jesus as did Michelangelo. Consider the drama of El Greco's depiction of Christ being mocked by the soldiers. Jesus in His red robe captures the central position. In this busy and hectic composition, He is calm, eyes heavenward, fulfilling the prophecy that He would be led to the slaughter as a meek lamb.
Bellini in this sensitive drawing of the Entombment displays the friends of the dead Christ mourning their loss. Jesus is the object of their love. A piece of art meant to be worshipped? The Renaissance did not care for that. But Bellini did display the emotion that comes from meditating upon the Savior and His Atonement.
In this remarkable painting by Grunewald we see the resurrected Christ. Forceful colors signify the glory of the resurrected Lord. The majesty of Jesus is central to the composition.
As we move beyond the time of the Renaissance, religious art seems to move off center stage. The decline of the influence and patronage of the church, the rise of powerful temporal rulers, the building of palaces rather than cathedrals, all of these factors moved the economic support of the artists from religious subjects to the glorification of the mundane. It can be harder to find examples of great religious art that will define the times.
In this piece by Blake during the Romantic Period, we see Jesus overcoming the temptations of Satan. This is an emotional piece, calling to mind the ability we might have to overcome our own temptations in the manner of Christ.
The 19th Century has some truly significant contributors to religious art. When we look at Hoffman's "Christ at 33", we can see an image of the Savior that seems to treat both his divine and mortal characteristics. We see the benevolent demeanor we seem to desire of our Savior. We sense His strength, but not to the detriment of His love for mankind.
Carl Bloch is another giant of the 19th Century who left a legacy of religious art that touches the minds and hearts of 21st Century men and women. Bloch's depiction of the Savior interacting with the people of His day brings force to His mission to bring love and service to the believer. This image of Jesus with a little child reflects love and compassion.
20th Century art fragments our perceptions. It causes us to re-think our beliefs and perceptions of our relation with Deity. Some people find this art challenging. It confronts the viewer with explosive new expressions of traditional themes.
Several examples of paintings of the Crucifixion bring this to the forefront.
Colors and shapes define the subject. The feeling is at once brilliant and thoughtful. Can we relate to this Jesus on the cross? What talents must we develop to comprehend the artist's message?
Salvador Dali's work places us above the crucified Jesus, looking down upon the scene below to the sea and the fisherman's boat. We are presented with an almost eternal perspective of the traditional Crucifixion scene.
Gaugin in his Yellow Crucifixion
places us in a scene of calm worship by everyday people. The Christ is central to the landscape of rolling hills and stylized trees.
Is there a feeling of the Middle Ages nestled in the new use of color and angular proportions?
for all of its 20th Century exploration of color and shape, also seems to hearken back to the Middle Ages with its calm expressions of grief and sorrow. The natural exposition of the human form as we saw in the Renaissance is gone. However, there is tragedy in the composition. And we can truly sense the pain of the Jesus and His friends.
One last Madonna. With the world-wide expansion of ideas, and new-found tolerance for all peoples, we see this lovely representation of a Black Madonna. Always touching to the heart, mother and child now express the feeling that religion can, and must, encompass all people, and that ideas of God's love, and the mission of His Son, can fill the hearts of everyone.
The 21st Century will doubtless carry on the exploration of religious art into new and marvelous dimensions. At this time we look to artists such a Simon Dewey to bring talent and restraint to our image of Jesus. In this century we do not seem to be afraid to see the Christ as a warm and loving person. One who cares for us and watches over us as the Good Shepherd. Not only the object of devotion and worship, but also the object of our love and affection.
Religious art, as it attempts to relate God's love for us, and our love for God, will truly fulfill its mission to uplift the Spirit, inspire the Mind, and bring Beauty to the Home.
Special thanks to Fletcher Enterprises for the use of their collection of images.