Christ in the world of art - Alessandro Scafi
Jubilee 2000 Search



Alessandro Scafi

In a great number of works of art, Jesus Christ - he for whom, according to Saint Peter, everything was created and in whom everything subsists - appears as a baby. The paradox of a God incarnate, and therefore also of a God as a newborn or as a little child, is represented in all of those cloths, frescoes, mosaics or sculptures, which during many centuries of Christian art have attempted to depict the infancy of the Son of God. While it is the case that the Gospels recount little about the first years of the life of the Redeemer, the artists have always tried to use their imaginations to remedy this poverty of details, and the patrimony of depiction's where Jesus is portrayed as a baby is very vast. Many episodes of the infancy of Christ have been translated in visual language: the Nativity, the Adoration of the shepherds, the Adoration of the Magi, the Presentation at the Temple and the Circumcision of Jesus, the Escape to Egypt, Jesus and the Doctors. And that is aside from all of the representations of with the Sacred Family or the Madonna with Child. According to the sacred writers, a group of shepherds and three wise Orientals saw Christ as a newborn. Generations of artists have tried to use their colors to give us the same privilege and allow us to view that scene. For example, the Nativity by Piero della Francesca, in the National Gallery in London, is the final work of the master, intended to describe the first day of the Son of God on the earth. The Child is in the foreground, nude on a drape of deep blue velvet. The Virgin of Nazareth - now the Mother of God - displays a gesture of adoration towards the Child. She appears as a very delicate adolescent in prayer. Behind her, there is Joseph, seated and pensive, and then two simple and humble shepherds who are, however, aware of the arrival of Christ, because one of them seems to be indicating the divine light of the comet. A chorus of angels celebrates through song the miracle of the Incarnation, while next to the immobile steer there is a donkey that is braying. The mystery of the Nativity is presented by Piero in an old hut, reduced to a graying wreck, made out of small stones and crowned by weeds. The countryside in the background is reminiscent of the high valley of the Tiber. The figures and images are freely distributed in the space, and almost blocked in eternal immobility, in this interpretation of the sacred night of Bethlehem, when the Divine wanted to empty himself from his power and infinite perfection, and came to encounter us in history, throughout the new born.

In the Gemaldegalerie in Dresda, another painting, finished around 1530 by Correggio, describes with extraordinary effects of light the Adoration of the pastors. The darkness of night is broken by the intense light which emanates from the child. They are the first hours of the Son of God on earth. That night, the totally Other, the mysterious being transcendent and far away manifested himself in the human form. The event was announced to the pastors by the Angel. The Magi were told of it by the stars. And it is precisely them - perhaps Caldei priests or astrologers from the Persian court, or Arab princes, but in the paintings, certainly kings - to recognize the great mystery: that child was a king who was being born, Man of God at the same time. A King, to whom they offered gold; a God, to honor with incense, a Man, ready to face death, and therefore to be buried with myrrh.

The Magi had left land and palaces on the spur of what has been painted so often through the centuries: they had followed a thin ray of light, reflected on the sand of foreign deserts, for having understood that the child was the awaited king, promised through the centuries. Even in the round painting of the beginning of the Four hundreds by Domenico Veneziano, they were approaching the little one with their gifts, in silence. The oldest is prostrated towards the ground and is kissing his feet, while the comet star disappears in the aurora. Happy with their discovery, these three Oriental men, are still today riding horseback in colors, in the Medici Chapel, in Florence, between the turbans, camels and the leopards, imagined by Benozzo Gozzoli.

At the Staatliche Museen in Berlin, meanwhile, a distemper on cloth by Andrea Mantegna depicts the moment in which Mary of Nazareth presents the divine newborn at the Temple of Jerusalem. The law of Moses, in fact, prescribed that each first-born had to be consecrated to the Lord, and the Gospel of Luke narrates how the custom was respected by Mary and Joseph. Mantegna painted the child in bandages and in tears. An old priest is giving him back to the sweet kindness of the Mother. The artist's brush was even able to reconstruct another important moment in the infancy of the Son of God. In Florence's Uffizi you can find a table where Mantegna imagined the circumcision of the Baby. The operation, which for the Jews is a sign of the Alliance with God, is about to be undertaken by a Rabbi with a knife. Like in many other paintings of the same subject, there is an assistant with a bowl in hand. The little Jesus is being held by Mary. Assisting in the rite is Joseph, and other figures cornered in a solemn architectural environment. In front of the mystery of the Omnipotent God, Cause before the existence, who is born by a women and warped in cloths, even the Origin, Christian thinker from the first centuries, did not hide his stupor.

Amongst all the miracles and the extraordinary works undertaken by the Son of God, there is one that transcends human intellect and which the fragility of mortal intelligence is not able to conceive nor understand: the way in which, that is, the infinite power of the divine majesty, that is to say the Word of the Father, and the same knowledge of God, in which all visible and invisible things were created, we must believe it closed off in the limits of that man who appeared in Judea. the Knowledge of God, then, enters in the womb of the woman, was born as a child and emitted his cries, just like all the other children who cry.

It was impossible, according to Oriegne, understanding a mystery that transcends our intelligence. In the IV century, even Zenone, the Bishop of Verona contemplated the enigma of a God child:

Fitting himself amongst men, God enclosed himself in the clothes of the body: for a while he takes on a human life, he who gives eternity to time. Oh marvel! (...) Oh immense novelty! Reducing himself to child for the love of his image, God cries; he tolerates being wrapped in clothes, he who has come to wipe away the debts of the world. He is placed in a manger in a stable, proclaiming in this way that he is the shepherd and food of all people. He subjects himself to the gamma of time, he who for his eternity does not admit time in itself.

Many sacred writers, in reality, have meditated on the extraordinary fact that the Word, come from the Father, as the perfect God and not susceptible to any development or growth, had made himself similar to us, and therefore child, made to grow in the body and the intelligence, from the first steps of childhood, slowly towards maturity. The artists contemplated this enigma even more than the theologians. The Child, for example, appears in many paintings which recall the Escape of the Sacred Family in Egypt, where we see the little one in the arms of Mary, on the back of a donkey. In the Rest, during the escape in Egypt, a dear theme to Baroque art, the Virgin and the Child appear sitting under a palm tree, with Joseph next to them, the bundle placed on the ground, and the donkey in the background, while the angel flies above their heads or offers them food. Sometimes, the tree bends its branches to offer dates to the Child, or Mary washes their clothes on the banks of the river, while Joseph takes care of the Child. The artists tried to imagine the childhood and the adolescence of this Incarnate God, who on the canvases of the Return from Egypt already appears older. In the paintings with the Sacred Family, about Nazareth, Mary sews, or reads, with the child in her arms, while her husband, as a good carpenter, works at his bench. Or, the family sits around the table. The masterpieces of Leonardo or Raphael remind us that a very common subject was that of the Virgin with Baby Jesus and Saint John. In fact, they narrated that coming back from Egypt the Sacred Family stayed at the home of Mary's cousin, Elizabeth, whose child, the future Saint John, already showed respect towards Christ.

Obviously the classic painting in which it is possible to contemplate the mystery of a God who was a child is that of the type «Madonna with Child», an image which even today dominates the walls of European museums. There is one recurring thing in the paintings of Jesus the Child: references to his destiny as the Redeemer. In this way, in some Nativity scenes you can note - amongst the gifts being offered by the shepherds - a lamb with his legs tied, the symbol of the sacrificial Lamb. The Palm tree, the one that often symbolizes the Escape to Egypt, is the emblem of the Christian martyr. If Jesus the Child is painted while at the table with Mary and Joseph, bread and chalice allude to the sacrifice of the Eucharist, or there are indications that the beam which is on Joseph's work bench will be used for the Cross. The theme of the circumcision is in itself an omen, since it was the first time that the blood of the Redeemer was shed. And we could also speak of the Presentation at the Temple, when he touched the old Simian of propehtizing the future sacrifice.

Even the objects which the Child holds in his hands in the paintings which capture him with his mother have a symbolic significance which recall his mission. If he is holding an apple, traditionally considered the fruit of the conscience, this alludes to his role as Redeemer. Grapes would represent the Eucharistic wine. For example, in the Madonna with Child of Masaccio, at the National Gallery in London, Baby Jesus is chewing on a grape in his hand, while, with the other, puts some in his mouth. White and purple grapes together mean the blood and the water from the rib of the Crucified Son of Man. Seeds of grain recall the Eucharistic bread, cherries, the fruit of Paradise, while the pomegranate alludes to the Resurrection. A lamb evokes the sacrifice of Christ, like in the work by Leonardo. In the Madonna del Cardellino by Raphael, at the Uffizi, we see the little Jesus playing with the goldfinch: according to the legend, a goldfinch flew on Jesus' head as he was climbing to his death, and pulled a thorn from his forehead. That is how the little bird spotted itself with red, actually splashing itself with a drop of blood from the Savior.

Then there is an interesting evangelical episode that many artists have wanted to depict. Jesus was 12 years old, and with his parents went to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover, after the feast, Mary and Joseph started off on the journey towards Nazareth, thinking that the boy was somewhere with the others, around evening time they looked for him amongst relatives and acquaintances and, not having found him, they returned to Jerusalem, where Jesus evidently had stayed without his parents knowing. After having searched for him for three days, they found him listening to and interrogating the doctors in the Temple, surprising everyone with his intelligence and this answers. Seeing him, his mother was astounded: «Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been looking for you anxiously». And he said to them: «How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?» (Luke 2, 41-51).

Many artists have depicted this episode from the life of the Messiah, generally the scene takes place inside the he Temple of Solomon. The 12 year old Jesus is at the center of a group of old men with gray beards who listen to him ecstatically. In some paintings, the Child counts on his fingers his arguments. Mary and Joseph enter from one side, or sometimes Mary holds one hands on the shoulders of Christ, as though trying to take him away, admonishing him. Among the others, Beato Angelico has painted the young Jesus amongst the Rabbis in one of the paintings for the Armadio degli argenti, now in the Florentine museum of San Marco. It is an important theme, because it deals with the first documented situation of Jesus as teacher. But, it is also the story of the thoughtlessness of a 12 year old boy who makes his parents anxious. Human and divine are here the enigma where the authority of the Son of God is confused with the development of an adolescent.

Art and the Word made man

The representation of Jesus the Child, the paradox of representing God as a child, is the sign of how all the art which represents Jesus grows on the fundamental antimony of the Word which is made into man, of a God who is Absolutely Other and Present, who exists before time, and who is born in time, which the heavens cannot contain, but is then contained in the womb of Mary. The Lord, whose image could not be seen without dying, and whose name the Jews did not even want to pronounce, made himself man in the bosom of a woman, and showed himself to men. As Teodoro Studita underlines, «the Inconceivable becomes conceived in the womb of the Virgin; the Incommensurable grows to three cubits high; the Unqualifiable acquires a quality; the Indefinable stands up, sits down, sleeps; the Incorporeal enters into a body...and therefore He himself indescribable and describable at the same time».

The Church of the first centuries reached the contemplation of the Mystery of the Incarnation, suffering heresy and organizing councils, through a long theological work. The Christological heresies of the first centuries constitute in reality a perennial temptation for all Christians: underlining the humanity of Christ to put his divinity into the shadows, or underlining his divinity to leave behind his humanity. even the artists, who were called to exalt the divine in man and the man in God, oscillated in their images between a divine Christ, transcendental and almighty, and an historic man, Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified prophet of Galilee. Germano, the Patriarch of Constantinople wrote this:

In perennial memory of the life of our living Lord Jesus Christ...we have received the tradition of representing Him in his human form, that is in his visible Theophany, while knowing that in this way we exalt the humiliation of the Word of God.

Asking himself why in the Old Testament, there was the prohibition of painting sacred images, Giovanni Damasceno responded that at the time they did not know the Incarnation: at one time there was the Incorporeal who became man, that is Christ and was Incarnate, God can be painted. Painting the face and body of Christ was then the representation of faith. But the paradox remained, because the divine always preserved its transcendence and its mystery. In this way, the Council VII of Nicea , of 787 expressed itself:

Though the Catholic Church represents paintings of Christ in his human form, it does not separate his body from divinity which is united: on the contrary, it believes that his body is deified and is confessed with its divinity.

This deified body of the Word is invested with sacred energy all the material, welding the divine and the human, ephemeral with eternal. Christian art celebrates the beauty of the cosmos reflected in the holiness of the body which is filled with divine energy. A great interest is taken in this concept of the art of icons, whose splendor was developed in close ties with Byzantine art, from the IV to the XV centuries. For those who paint or contemplate an icon, there is revealed the mystery of the Incarnation and the transfiguration of the material. The Son of God is represented in the icon in a concrete humanity, but universal, capable of taking within itself all men, precisely because it is indissoluble tied to divinity which transcends all things. That is why his face is not fixed in a natural environment, but it is amplified to the infinite, to reveal the most intimate structure of the being.

The portrait of Jesus

But what did Jesus really look like? The Word was not Incarnate during the era of the technology of cameras or recorders. He did not leave behind photographs of himself or tape recordings. Providence wanted that the memory of his person pass only through the meditation of the apostles and always thanks to a direct and living contact. Therefore, every generation was called to renew the stupor of a new encounter. And this also happened through art. The challenge to which the Christian artists were called was effectively sublime: drawing, painting, sculpting the human face of God. Efrem Siro, doctor of the Church in the IV century, underlined with enthusiasm the saving event of the vision of God in Jesus. This is what he wrote in the Hymn for the birth of Christ:

Moses desired contemplating the glory of God, but it was not possible for him to see it as he desired. (...) Then, no man hoped to see God and remain in life; today all those who saw him have risen from the second death to life.

The image of Christ was that amongst those which dominated the history of art the most in the last two thousand years. Christians from many generations envisioned for themselves an idea of the physical aspect of Jesus of Nazareth, beginning from the many works of art which focused on him. But for those who wanted to faithfully construct the images of his face, the color of his hair, the stature of his body, to really imagine how the Son of God appeared, we realize that in reality there are no drawings or descriptions of Christ which date to the era in which he lived. In the first centuries there was talk of paintings of the Savior painted while he was in life. Giovanni Damasceno and Andrea da Creta referred to paintings present in Jerusalem and Rome, which the legend attributes to Saint Luke. Following this tradition, many painters after that, for example, Roger van der Weyden, imagined, and painted, Luke in his study who was painting Jesus or the Madonna. But, obviously we have never come across any painting of Christ signed by Luke. Perhaps we must reign in our curiosity and renounce the possibility of seeing the God-Man face to face, discovering how he was?

In the Gospels, considered a historically acceptable source of the life of Jesus, we do not find descriptions of his physical aspect. Probably the sacred writers wanted above all to affirm the spiritual truths about him, telling about the wonders of his teachings, instead of falling into the pagan thirst for images and dealing with the particulars of no importance, like for example the color of his eyes or the shape of his muscles. It must also be said that Jesus and his disciples - the son of a humble carpenter and simple fishermen - came from a social background which was not used to commissioning paintings or commemorative busts. In the Jewish culture, making paintings of prophets or even of God, was considered a form of idolization. But once Christianity became diffused amongst the Gentiles, who were much more used to visibly representing heroes or divinities, there grew the need to have visible symbols and images of the Savior. Even if direct information was not available or figurative documents on the face of Christ, there remained the fact that it dealt with a human figure, therefore representable.

The first Christian artists represented Jesus with symbols or recycling allegorical images taken from the classic patrimony of art. An iconograph of Christ, developed between the Holy Land, Constantinople, Ravenna and Rome, slowly constituted the basis of future Western European art. This tradition was destined to consolidate and modify itself from century to century following the stimulus of local and epochal artistic tendencies in a Europe where there continued to emerge basilicas, cathedrals and manuscripts. The story of the representation of Christ in this way develops parallel to the history of art tout court. The face of Jesus underwent changes of physiognomy or expression from the times of the Byzantine style to those of Romanic and Gothic art, while with the Renaissance there was the emergence of the individual personalities of the artists -- this enriched and complicated the simplicity of the doctrine and the certainity of tradition. However, through a slow and plurisecular process of elaboration, a way of depicting the Redeemer and a determinate iconograph of the principal events of his life were defined. For example, beginning from the sixth century, Jesus was depicted with a beard, a distinctive sign of important teachers and spiritual leaders.

Notwithstanding the infinite variety of interpretations, and the possibility that they varied in thousands of details, the figure of Christ was soon defined: it is a figure of clear and regular lines, generally framed by long hair that falls along his neck and by a beard. His hair is generally the color of copper or chestnut. From these few common elements, on the other hand, each painting managed to produced a different picture of Christ. The Byzantine represented him in the solemn majesty of gold while he stared at men with big and severe eyes. The creators of the icons were not interested in a realistic rendering of the Word of God Incarnate, but simply the contemplation of the Mystery of the Incarnation in its essential aspect. The Christ of the artists of the Italian Renaissance, who studied anatomy and looked at the ancient works, invented a precise physiognomy, an elegant body that was plastically defined.

A different idea of Beauty was then seen in France, in Germany, in Spain, in Flanders, in the rest of Europe. The Christ of Memling or Hugo van der Goes is different from that of Brunelleschi, Botticelli or Perugino. Jesus is athletic in Rubens, intensely dramatic in Tintoretto, graceful in Zurbaran, agile in Murillo. By contrast, Rembrandt transforms Jesus' humanity in the pictorial presence simply with the magic of his chiaroscuro. Every century, every generation, every artist has had something to add to the depiction of Jesus. It is, however, significant that among the paintings of Jesus, the Byzantine tradition counted amongst the so-called Savior not painted by human hand, that is the image of Christ imprinted on a linen cloth, that which should be the most faithful representation of his visage. Like the Holy Shroud, kept in Turin, this was subject to particular veneration, precisely because of the idea of an earthly image of the Savior not designed by man. In addition, the Bible describes a God who does not permit himself to be defined or manipulated: it is the God of Abraham and of Jesus Christ, a distinct and concrete presence with which to entrust a rapport of dependence and not an idol to manage.

In the Alte Pinakothek of Munich, one finds a picture of Christ that is very particular: it is a work of 1500 of the great German painter and engraver Albrecht Durer. In truth it is not a picture of Christ, but a self-portrait of the artist. Durer superimposed his face over that of the Son of God: he has long hair, a well-manicured beard, and an intense look. The hieratic expression and the solemn gesture, evident in the represented figure, have always been attributed to Jesus. So, then, who do we have before us? Christ or Durer? Saint Paul exhorted the Christian to dress himself in the image of the Son of Man, and for the great engraver from Nuremberg to imitate Christ signified imitating the creative process of God. But, maybe not even the expression of oneself in a self-portrait is really obvious. The artist who searched for his hidden interior icon identified with the image of the Redeemer, a someone who he certainly was not, but perhaps a something that was very intimate to him.

Returning to youth

How therefore, can one penetrate the great mystery of the Incarnation? Jesus would probably smile, saying that it is not necessary to be super intelligent or very well educated. As the evangelists say, the son of the carpenter of Nazareth pointed to children as the model of who really is able to enter into the secrets of the Kingdom of God. Children certainly are incomplete and vulnerable, but they have a desire to learn and to grow and they are ready to explore. In fact, only an innocent stupor can render us willing to accept the incomprehensible or to see the coincidence of the opposites. And in this way, also in art, after Baby Jesus, we find Jesus and the children. In fact, Jesus, true Man and true God, once an adult demonstrated great attention towards children, blessing them and playing with them.

«And they were bringing children to him, that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw it he was indignant, and said to them, "Let the children come to me, do not hinder them, for to such belongs the Kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it". And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands upon them». (Mark, 10, 13-16).

The episode was often depicted, particularly in the art of northern Europe. The Savior is shown while he puts his hand on the head of a small child on foot or kneeling next to him. Other children are grouped around them. The mothers, holding their little babies in their arms, watch the scene. Sometimes the fathers are also present. Two or three apostles, usually Peter, or sometimes also James and John look on with disapproval instead. But it is precisely to them - and to us - that Jesus, the same who appeared as a Child in many works of art, wanted to teach something as was repeated by Pope Leo the Great in his sermons:

All of the wisdom of the Christian life, dear ones, does not consist in idle chatter, nor in the subtle disputes and not even in the craving for glory and praise, but in real humility wanted, as the Lord Jesus Christ chose from the mother's womb up until the torture of the cross, preferring it to any prestige, and which he taught us. When in fact his disciples argued amongst themselves as the evangelist tells us, who was the biggest in the Kingdom of Heaven, he called a small boy, and put him in the middle and told him: «In truth I say to you, if you do not convert and do not become like children you will not enter in the Kingdom of God. With Him, then, whoever becomes a child like this little boy, will be the biggest in Heaven» (Matthew 18, 1; Mark 9, 3; Luke 9, 4). Christ loves childhood, and in the beginning he accepted it with his body and soul. Christ loves childhood, teacher of humility, norm of innocence, model of meekness. Christ loves childhood, towards which he focuses the behavior of adults and makes them embraces each other even as they grow old.

The Kingdom of Heaven, that is the great mystery, which encompasses the paradox of the Incarnation, is a serious matter, glimpsed in vain by many. But it belongs only to those who resemble children.

(ALESSANDRO SCAFI, an art historian, is currently a researcher at the Warburg Institute of London and scholar of the British Academy. He is author and presenter of a radio program on Vatican Radio about the depictions of the Trinity in art. The article that we print here tells the story of the motives and the principle typologies in the depictions of the Son, of the Holy Spirit and of the Father, moving from Paleo-Christian art to Contemporary Art and interrogating the writings of theologians, poets and authors.)