Art, artist, Bible, Caravaggio, Christ of Saint John of the Cross, christianity, Compassion, cross, crucifixion, death, God, Jesus, Leonardo Da Vinci, Painting, religion, Salvador Dali, Salvator Mundi, The Flagellation of Christ, The Head of Christ, The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, Warner Sallman, William Adolphe Bouguereau
All of my fellow Seekers of Truth know that my interests are broad and far-reaching. My blog is made up of, dare I say, an incredible variety of topics.
Today is the two-year anniversary of “Seeker of Truth”. That’s right. On April 28, 2012, I introduced myself, pulled up a chair, and started writing. And I’ve spent the last two years blogging about many of my favourite things. But in 45 posts, I’ve never once covered my two favourite topics at the same time: Art and Jesus.
Jesus + Art = Me
If people could be broken down into a mere equation, that’s me right there. I have always loved paintings that depict Bible stories, Bible symbolism, and anything to do with Christ our Lord.
So what better way to celebrate the start of my third blogging year than by highlighting and discussing some of my favourite paintings of Jesus.
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit.
~ 1 Peter 3:18
The painting that absolutely tops my list is Caravaggio’s “The Incredulity of Saint Thomas”.
This painting speaks to me like no other. It is the most beautiful painting I’ve ever seen. The work was completed in 1602 and now hangs in the Sanssouci Palace in Potsdam, Germany. It’s my favourite painting in the entire world and the only one I must see in person before I die.
Caravaggio was THE master of chiaroscuro – the modelling of light and dark – and there is no better example of that than this piece. The scene illustrates John 20:24-29, and Caravaggio has captured the most important part – the instant Thomas believes: “Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in His hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.” A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then He said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” Thomas said to Him, “My Lord and my God!”
I’m simply in awe of the range of emotions that Caravaggio has managed to play across Thomas’ face. You can see his disbelief turn to shock and then realization. It’s subtle yet entirely obvious at the same time. Perhaps there’s even a twinge of guilt and shame hidden there; regret for his doubting.
The artist has breathed life into this painting. You can “hear” this piece – it’s very quiet. Caravaggio has put us in that room with Jesus and the disciples; we feel what they feel. And that is the mark of a true artist: The one who can draw the viewer in that they might actually take part in the scene.
In 1951, eccentric surrealist painter Salvador Dali introduced the world to his stunning painting, “Christ of Saint John of the Cross”.
The highly unusual perspective is what sets Dali’s painting apart from all others. The first time I saw this piece, I was mesmerized. Said Dali: “In the first place, in 1950, I had a ‘cosmic dream’ in which I saw this image in colour and which in my dream represented the ‘nucleus of the atom.’ This nucleus later took on a metaphysical sense; I considered it ‘the very unity of the universe,’ the Christ!”
Dali was inspired by this “from above” sketch of Jesus, done by the Spanish Saint John of the Cross (hence the painting’s title), some time between 1574 and 1577.
Much controversy surrounds Dali’s work, but I prefer to ignore politics and conjecture. I just appreciate it as one of the most endearingly peaceful depictions of the crucifixion that exists today.
Something very exciting happened in 2011. This next magnificent painting was identified as Da Vinci’s depiction of Jesus Christ – the “Salvator Mundi”. It is the first Leonardo to be accepted by scholars in more than a century.
“Salvator Mundi” simply means “Saviour of the World”, and is most often a depiction of Christ with His right hand raised and His left hand holding a globe/orb.
I love Da Vinci’s work, and my heart was all aflutter when this piece was declared to be Leonardo’s lost painting of Christ. There is a softness to Da Vinci’s work that I find quite calming and pleasant to look at. It’s both his gentle handling of the paint and the muted colours he uses that create this effect. This is one of my favourites of all his paintings, and I believe, one of the finest examples of his work.
This is a very majestic and regal looking Christ. But what I really like about it is that Da Vinci has somehow captured a look of both innocence and infinite wisdom in Jesus. This Jesus causes a stirring in my soul unlike any other. He seems completely unassuming, yet at the same time commands attention and respect. It’s this expertly executed juxtaposition that makes me want to reach out and touch the painting. It’s so beautifully rendered.
Another artist whose work has an inherently ethereal glow to it is William Adolphe Bouguereau. There are many examples of his gorgeous religious works, but here are two of my favourites.
This first painting, “The Flagellation of Christ”, was done in 1880. Bouguereau paints moments that are seemingly frozen in time. His hyperrealistic style captures the emotion of a single instant, giving his paintings an eerie yet intriguing atmosphere and creating an almost three-dimensional illusion. When I look at this painting, I feel as if I could actually walk through this scene, in and around the people, to take it all in.
Also by Bouguereau, the title of this piece says it all: “Compassion”. Completed in 1897, this is a painting the artist loved so much that he kept it for himself. It was donated by his descendants in 2009 to the Musée D’Orsay in Paris, France.
The painting shows not only this man’s compassion for Christ, but more importantly Christ’s compassion for him, and by extension, all of us. He made the ultimate sacrifice – He gave His own life that we might believe and be saved. “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” ~ John 15:13
This final painting has always been my favourite depiction of Jesus. Warner Sallman’s “The Head of Christ”, 1941.
I’d be lying if I said I knew for sure why this particular version of Christ is so special to me. Artistically speaking, the strong highlights really set off the earth-toned palette of the painting, creating an enveloping richness. As a result, there is a warmth to this piece that’s nearly tangible. Jesus’ expression is calm and stoic, and yet the artist has conveyed such kindness in His face. Like Da Vinci’s Jesus above, this is another example of how a face can display seemingly conflicting characteristics if it’s modelled by the right artist.
As much as I adore all of these paintings and many more just like them, there is one thing that’s always bothered me a bit about the way Jesus is depicted in beating/crucifixion scenes. He’s often so unmarked. There’s very little blood or evidence of trauma. While I can appreciate this aesthetic choice (it’s quite possibly made to emphasize His most recognizable wounds – palms, feet and side), when it came time to paint my own version of Jesus, Isaiah 52:14 kept pinging around in my mind. “… his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being and his form marred beyond human likeness…”
I’m also a big fan of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”, and what I liked most about that film was that there was absolutely nothing glamourous or made-up about it. That was a much more true-to-life depiction of our Lord than any other I’ve ever seen.
I completed “Jesus Crucified” in 2008, and for me, seeing Him bruised and bloodied just feels more appropriate.
I certainly won’t say that the other less gruesome portrayals are bad, definitely not. But I do feel that you lose the impact of what Christ actually did for us when the brutality of the whole affair is repressed. And in my opinion, when it comes to art, the message always takes precedence over aesthetics.
But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.
~ Isaiah 53:5
Art is many things. It’s a way to document the importance of the past, and it can capture the essence of a moment in the here and now. Through art you can communicate ideas, morals and attitudes, and it’s a way to preserve beauty and history.
And for me, there is nothing more beautiful and worthy of remembrance than my Lord Jesus.