Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Art That Searches for a Truer Look at Jesus

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Art That Searches for a Truer Look at Jesus

Article excerpt

One of the major roles of Western art over the centuries has been to represent Jesus Christ. And to convey orthodox Christian theology.

An exhibition at Britain's National Gallery, called "Seeing Salvation: The Image of Christ," investigates this role. To do this, the gallery borrows works from other institutions while making use of its own remarkable collection.

At one time, this theme would have been considered easily accessible to most visitors. Not today, it seems.

Director Neil MacGregor writes that "a third of [the National Gallery's] pictures are Christian," but "many of our visitors now are not. And it is clear that for most this is a difficult inheritance."

The exhibition is a noble and multifaceted explanatory display. Some of the gallery's most beautiful paintings of Christian subjects - Piero della Francesca's "Baptism," for example - remain on view in the main galleries. The show is not an attempt to gather together supreme masterpieces, though some are included.

The unfamiliarity to many viewers of the themes explored in this exhibition - the use of signs and symbols in early Christianity, for instance, or the concept of "The Saving Body" in much later art - highlights large questions. Non-Christian viewers might be forgiven for wondering, given the inventive ways of many artists, whether the story of Christ were not pure myth. Nobody actually knows what Jesus looked like, they might reason, so how can art accurately represent him?

A section of the exhibition is, nevertheless, devoted to images of the typically long-haired, lean, and bearded features that are even today immediately identifiable.

The introduction to this section of the exhibition, "The True Likeness," begins: "Everyone in medieval Europe would have been confident that they knew what Christ looked like. Images of his face were everywhere, many of them claiming to be copies or versions of a miraculous 'true likeness' of Christ housed in St. Peter's in Rome."

To modern skeptics, though, such venerated relics are likely to seem authentic only to the naive. And visitors might also wonder how a religion of ineffability can have so radically slipped into the worship of icons and images.

This question is one that, over centuries, has occupied and concerned the thoughts of Christians themselves. How, if at all, can the ineffable, nonmaterial nature of Christ, his essential divinity, possibly be depicted by painters and sculptors? How can a medium that is entirely visual do the remotest justice to a subject that at its essence is invisible? …

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