Friday, I attended a lecture at the Walter’s Art Gallery: “Is this the Face of Christ? A Good Friday Lecture”
Bring your light lunch to this richly illustrated talk, in which Gary Vikan will explore the emergence of the ‘canonical’ face of Christ in the early medieval period. For nearly 1,500 years, illustrators of the story of Jesus of all backgrounds — from Byzantine mosaics to Hollywood filmmakers — have remained true to this face.
Dr. Vikan will explore how that face was and is used in Orthodox devotion, and how, over the centuries, it was subtly adapted theologically and stylistically to suit the various Christian nations of the world.
Gary Vikan is the director of the Walters Art Museum.
Early Christian examples of Christ in art, depicted him in a number of classical motifs: the classical shepherd, hero and philosopher. These appear especially on Roman sarcophagi of early Christians, who at the time existed as an underground cult in a society where religious syncretism was the norm and the Christian and Jewish cults resisted it to their detriment.
Vikan went onto describe the development of pilgrimage and relic-veneration through the acts of Helen, Constantine’s mother in the Holy Land. This comes, at least in part, out of an older classical, pagan tradition, but in the Christian tradition Christ and the saints transfered their holiness to the things they touched and the places they visited. For early Christians before Constantine’s conversion this compunction to travel and collect material was largely unknown as God was understood to be everywhere. This notion of holiness-concentrated from the Late Antique is the origin for the pilgrimages and relics of Christendom.
It is roughly from this point that the lecture turned to a very specific relic: a shroud discovered around 550 AD/CE. The significance of this shroud comes from a story, in which King Abgar of Edessa sends messengers to ask for aid from Jesus, who refuses Abgar’s request. Determined for some source of aid, Abgar sends a painter to capture an image of Jesus, but Christ’s radiance prevents him from his mission. Jesus takes a piece of fabric and wipes his face with it, giving it to the artist, and upon this the image of his face is preserved. This is the semitic image of Jesus that becomes the canonical image of Jesus in the Orthodox religions and eventually moves to the West (Vikan hypothesized by the mid-7th century it has certainly made the trip).
Once it is clear, from the tradition of Abgar, what Jesus looks like, it is the only way he can be represented. (It also mandates that the image of Jesus be two-dimensional, because that is the way the image is past down from Jesus, himself, thus ruling out statuary.) Having said that, each culture (indeed, each artist) makes the image its own–something regarded as quite natural since Jesus is the Son of Man. A debate, and ultimately a conflict, arises over the images: iconoclasts ultimately believing that the images, or icons, were the objects of worship and thus idols to be cast down and destroyed; whereas, iconophiles regarded the image as an object of veneration–not worship–which served to focus the faithful. Icons could do more by harnessing the holiness on the image. As a result, they were frequently brought to the city walls for defense–a practice continuing in twentieth-century Russia, even as recently as the Cold War.
This adoption of the image of Christ to one’s culture persists today in artistic representations of Jesus and in cinematic representations.
In America, the persistent image of the blue-eyed Jesus Christ starts with the painting (that was handed out to every G.I. in World War II) by a Swedish-American immigrant, Werner Sullivan. This prompts the image of Jesus in the film The Greatest Story Ever Told and subsequently Mel Gibson’s selection of James Caviezel for The Passion. Thus, the image of the (anglo-) American Jesus.