“In all three faiths mankind strives for God through the Word. But unlike Muslims and Jews, Christians (or at least early Christians) have seen their God; for Christianity is the religion of the Word made flesh, and largely as a consequence, it is also a religion of the image.
Making an image of God who has become man is, as we shall see, a tricky business. Artists attempting it have to negotiate a series of specifically visual problems, unknown to authors. Paradox is easy to write, but hard to paint.” -‘Seeing Salvation’ by Neil Macgregor and Erika Langmuir, p.13
Jesus the Messiah is an enigma to depict. The historical teaching of the Christian church is clear, not on his likeness or whether one should even dare to depict him in paint, but on the dual nature of the Christ. He is both perfectly man and perfectly God. Perfectly contingent and perfectly immortal. For the artist, perfectly particular and perfectly universal.
And so how to paint a God-man who lived a very specific life in space-time who was and is at the same time representing all of humanity in his self-authored cosmic tragedy can be quite baffling. In the western Church the ‘true likeness’ of Christ (the skinny, long-haired, white man we all recognise as ‘Jesus’) is based on the medieval myth of a non-canonical lady called Veronica who wiped the sweat off Christ’s face during his torturous journey to the cross. She looked at her handkerchief only to find that the Nazarene’s ‘true likeness’ had been imprinted, ‘not by human hands’ (for the technical among us, an ‘acheiropoieton’). The whereabouts of the cloth today is somewhat dubious, and the questions of its authenticity are more than problematic. But since, every kind of reproduction has been made, giving the gentle pale-faced man artistic canonicity.
I digress. How is the painter, illustrator, or sculptor to represent the timeless and time bound all in one body? Many artists resolved that the best way was in the suckling babe image, the innocent boy born to die. It is interesting that the Church’s theological history and meandering can be traced through how artists painted (or were commissioned to have painted) Jesus for both public and private displays.
We see in Byzantine imagery the frame of an eternal Christ, literally immortalised in a rigid and impenetrable veneer (see here for Richard Beck’s great and succinct analysis of this imagery). Yet in Matthias Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece (1512-1516) we meet with a very particularly crucified Christ who has been afflicted with the plague, comforting the suffering in the hospital of the monastery of St. Anthony.
In my wrangling with how to paint a historical yet eternal Jesus, I have tried to appropriate the universal image of the eastern tradition (pre-‘true likeness’) and combine it with contemporary particularity. When I was in my second year at sixth-form I had begun portrait painting, particularly focusing on the homeless of Birmingham. I had painted a man called Paul who, in the opinion of my art class, “looked a little like Jesus”; his thin, narrow face, pale complexion, and facial hair bore semblance to the ‘true likeness’.
With this in mind I decided to paint my largest work yet, an 8-foot tall Byzantine icon of Christ as a homeless Big-Issue vendor. With almost six years retrospect there are many things I would change about this image, but it stands as an ebenezer to my thinking and art practice at the time (I do wish I had taken a better photograph of it though).
Funnily enough, I am volunteering back at my old school to get some experience teaching before applying for a PGCE and many of the art teachers will introduce me to a new class as ‘Sir who painted the giant homeless Jesus’. The painting was actually displayed in the school reception by the new head teacher for four years after I had left and so my reflection on the homeless condition of the ‘man of sorrows’ as both an eternal ruler and time-bound subject was shared with hundreds of students over the course of a few years.
Today I will still hear students ask about whether the work really was Jesus and why he is homeless, even some disagreeing as to whether the painting was ‘of Jesus’ or just a ‘normal homeless person’. I do confess, this makes the official position of not being able to proselytise a little difficult.
But since this painting, I have occasionally been brought back to both painting and the iconic Christ. In my second year at university studying Fine Art I painted a pixelated version of one of the earliest Byzantine Panocrator (Ruler of all) images (again, I wish I had taken a better image). This Christ saw his particularity mediated through digitalisation, asking myself the question, “What does a ‘true likeness’ mean in a binary world of flattened images?”. The almost-blurring of Christ’s face represents the wrestlings I was having (and still have) with the ‘image of Christ in art’. This was my icon, my post-modern Christ, reduced to scrambled colour blocks, one of many images demanding our attention.
Since, a friend of mine and artist called Joel asked me to create a painting for his house, giving me a blank and black canvas. Having recently painted my self-portrait to narcissism and digitalisation, I wanted to return to pixel paintings, but this time reducing the image furthermore to monochrome. In this icon we see the Panocrator without the book, only head and shoulders in the frame, the sort of image for passport photos and school albums.
The reason why I have chosen this frame was not just external constraints of the canvas (for I could shrink the image) but because I wanted to see how much I could reduce the typical Christ image, pre-Veronica, and yet still be met with the same reception of, ‘Oh that’s Jesus, right?’. Oddly enough, the image still works, the universal is still attained despite the purging of particularity. The ‘particular’ in this Panocrator is found in the imperfect pixels themselves, reiterating the ex-carnation (out of flesh) of my last blog post.
This is a Christ of an excarnate world, a choice of pixels, a flattened canvas, and a glossed surface. Yet somehow still Pano-crator, still holding something of authority and the mystique of the eastern King.
But my question to you the reader is, how are we to depict both the particular Yeshua and the universal Theos today? I do not imagine there are ‘right and wrong’ answers, but as I continue in my art practice, I do want to know what other people are doing with the history Christians have inherited, and the contemporary condition of portrait painting.
Benjamin Harris (This post was originally posted on Ben’s Musings blog and is reproduced with permission)