April 6, 2012

Amazing Artistic Depictions of Christ Pt. 1

I already know that this post is about to be a source of controversy in Christian circles. I can hear the voices now:

"You LIKE this filth? How can you do anything other than loathe, despise, and damn these sacrilegious depictions of our Lord and Savior???"

I suppose that now would be the best to time to give the disclaimer that I do NOT appreciate these creative representations of Christ because I believe them to be perfectly accurate or somehow more accurate than others that are available. Let's face it. None of us know the details of the physical attributes or personality traits of Jesus Christ.

I do, however, appreciate these works of art because they all have something different to offer. They all interpret the character of Christ in different ways, placing different emphases on various aspects of his nature. Since it is impossible to "know" exactly what Jesus was like while he walked this earth, I believe that it is healthy to entertain the possibility of unique perspectives. True or not, likely or not, these artists' renderings of the character of Christ make me think and make me want to learn more about what this Savior means to me.

In Visual Art

"Christ Crucified"

This is a painting by an artist of Spain's Golden Age known as Diego Velasquez. It might not seem incredibly unique at first glance,but when one considers the historical context in which it was painted, it suddenly becomes something very special.

As a backlash of the Protestant Reformation at the end of the 16th century, the Catholic Church commissioned many famous artists to downplay the ideals of the emerging protestants--free will, faith, and the ability to take one's eternal destiny into one's own hands. Seemingly the best way to achieve this was to emphasize the divinity and power of Christ and the glory of His sacrifice, thereby downplaying the power of man to do anything effectual in light of what Christ has already done. This produced an influx of depictions of Christ triumphantly gazing and often reaching heavenward in the last moments of His life (such as in this painting by Rubens), making clear that supremacy over death and hell was His alone.

In this tense religious epoch, Velasquez takes a different approach. His Christ is not gazing upward dramatically. He does not reach out towards his heavenly home. He doesn't even struggle. This is a Christ defeated. He hangs his head, having given up the fight and given Himself over to death that His children might live. With this painting, Velasquez urges believers, "Look at what your Savior did for you. Look at the shame and defeat he brought upon himself. How could you ever hope to do anything to deserve this?"

"Jesus Laughing"

The concept of a laughing Jesus has been a source of controversy for years, so it is not entirely surprising that the majority of artists daring enough to attempt this subject matter desire anonymity. While the original "Jesus Laughing" by Ralph Kozak was brilliant in its own way, I have completely fallen in love with this anonymous pencil sketch.

The Jesus in this image is the Jesus the non-believing world needs to see. He is not judgmental, damning to hell those who refuse to follow Him. He is the Jesus who said "let the little children come unto Me," and who scolded those who would not humble themselves "like a child." More than this, He is the Jesus who loves and delights in His children so much so that he cannot keep from laughing out loud. I also love the simplicity of this sketch. No colors, just true-to-life pencil strokes placing a fully human Son of God among simple humans where he could not be happier.

"Die Harder"

Although I have not found myself caught up in the controversy, I'm sure there has been an outcry of protest in response to this sculpture by David Mach. I actually discovered this work of art at Southwark Cathedral in London where it was installed this year for the duration of Lent. In London, this work has probably encountered the artistically experimental and open-minded who laud its creative merit as well as the religiously conservative who find it scandalous to bring Jesus Christ into the medium of modern art.

One thing that is beyond debate is the fact that this work of art is an amazing feat, regardless of whom it depicts. This life-sized sculpture is crafted entirely out of metal coat hangers. Now that is talent.

Furthermore, as a firm Christian believer, I take no offense to this grisly re-imagination of my Savior. Mach says (I believe accurately) that Christians today have become numb to the suffering of Christ. The crown of thorns, the gashes on His back, the nails through His hands and feet--these are all cliche to us. I don't think it was too desperate of this artist to think that he needed to depict Jesus screaming in agony with barbs through His entire body in order for people to stop and remember the pain of this torturous sacrifice.

Three more inspiring and controversial depictions of Christ in art after the jump!

"Prince of Peace"

In short, this impressive work of art was crafted by an eight-year-old prodigy who claims that she was only able to paint it because Jesus himself appeared to her in a vision, leading to the conversion of her entire family to Christianity. The face of her Jesus is soft yet strong, handsome yet not especially, and human yet majestic. I could say so much about this obviously inspired work, but I think it would be best to point you to the uplifting story of Akiane and Colton from the best-selling book Heaven Is for Real if you are interested in learning more about "Prince of Peace." 

In Literature

The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe 

Aslan as the allegorical Christ figure of Narnia--need I say more? Written as children's books, The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis truly bring to life for me the meaning of what it is to have faith like that of a little child. Aslan is awe-inspiring and a little frightening as most authority figures would be to a child regardless of however benevolent and kind they might be. Even so, he is gentle and accessible to the Pevensie children. They can call him a friend despite their reverence for him, and he calls them the same. I absolutely love the scene following Aslan's death and resurrection where he laughs and dances and rolls around in the dewy flowers with Lucy and Susan. The combination of powerful lion and playful pussycat works brilliantly as an allegory for Jesus Christ as both omnipotent God and loving brother.

Similarly to David Mach, Lewis reanimates the cliche story of Christ's sacrifice for His children. Instead of emphasizing the pain and torture, however, he places the entire story in a new and vibrant setting and infuses it with the wonderment of a child. This is pure and beautiful art.

The Last Temptation of Christ

Now here a we have a truly controversial work. This book by Niko Kazantzakis is unique in that it does not shy away from the very real human nature of Christ. It fully entertains and even encourages the possibility that Jesus Christ was tempted by every desire that still plagues mankind today. Most strikingly, it discusses the ever-present battle with sexual lust that even the Holy Bible does not discuss.

The obvious controversy exists between people who declare that this depiction defiles the image of a perfect and sinless God (and truly, many of this Jesus' "temptations" verge on being fantasies and therefore sin). Others will say, however, that the book is inspiring to the Christian believer. They say that if being fully God meant that Jesus could cruise through temptation without a problem, we can never hope to attain that. All we can do is worship Him and live our lives as we would. If, however, being fully human meant that He felt every temptation and urge just as strongly as we do and still chose to live according to God's plan, then there is hope for us. We really can be like Him.

I agree that Christians can glean a lot of helpful insight from this book if they keep in mind that it is a work of fiction exploring the yearning of every man and woman to find God in spite of human nature. Also, I don't want to give away too much, but the ending of this novel is absolutely perfect. I wouldn't change a thing.

Stay tuned for Part 2 where we will explore depictions of Christ in film, theater, and music.

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