Imaging the Divine: Jesus and Christ-Figures in Film

By Lloyd Baugh | Go to book overview

General Introduction

From early in the Christian era, artists and simple believers have sought to create representations of Jesus the Christ. Among the earliest of these representations were the graffiti on the walls and tombs in the catacombs, and carved on sarcophagi: the "icthus" and later the fish design, the chi-rho sign for "Christos," the anchor sign, the peacock. Roman (pagan) mosaics were "converted" to Christian use, with the face of Jesus being superimposed over that of the sun god Helios. The cross sign and the representation of Jesus crucified came into use relatively late, as the crucifixion of Jesus was at first considered to be a shame and a scandal.

The representation of Jesus the Christ in early icons created by monks became so popular, and the spiritual and liturgical veneration of these images of a severe otherworldly Jesus so widespread, that it led, in the seventh century, to a serious conflict in the Church. One side, represented by the iconoclasts or image-breakers, insisted that the veneration of icons was in fact adoration and thus idolatry, the opposite side, best represented by John of Damascus, insisted that the Incarnation, that is Jesus, fully divine and fully human as determined dogmatically by the Council of Chalcedon (451), allows the representation of Jesus the Christ in art. The controversy was settled by the Council of Nicea (787), in favor of the representation of Jesus, a decision which clearly encouraged the continued development of the art of the icon and other forms of art which came to represent Jesus and the Christian mysteries.

Working in the east and then in the great cathedrals of Monréale, Cefalù and Ravenna, the mosaic artists of Byzantium represented Christ as the Pantocrator, a severe, transcendent figure, in a style developed first by the eastern iconographers. In western Europe, the stonemason-sculptors and the makers of stained glass sought to represent a Jesus Christ more divine than human, often making him larger than the figures around him, enthroned, transfigured or in judgment. The early medieval painters, on wood or in frescoes, also stressed the transcendent dimension, the divine nature of Christ. In the Middle Ages, dramatic artists began creating theatrical representations of the Christ and his passion, in the passion plays of Bavaria and elsewhere, and the mysteries of his life, in, for example, the great mystery cycles in Britain.

These representations in the beginning were primitive, in folk-art style, but they developed into highly sophisticated, formal dramas, some of which

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