Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus

Last night we had our second meeting about John Eldredge, Wild at Heart. We were discussing Chapter 2, which is about the wild heart of God, especially as it is manifested in Jesus. At one point, Eldredge says that all the images of Jesus we have around are limp and passive — at least, all the ones he’s seen in churches are.

And I thought, ‘Well, clearly he’s been to all the wrong churches.’

So I went through my postcard collection to bring a few non-limp Jesuses to show the other guys. These aren’t the exact postcards, but here are the images of Jesus I brought to study last night:

San Marco, Venice

Sacré-Coeur, Paris

A twelfth-century piece of Limoges work of Christ in majesty now in the Musée de Cluny, Paris

The stained glass window of the Last Judgement from St Andrew’s Scottish Episcopal Cathedral, Inverness

Jesus and Apa Mena, a sixth- or seventh-century Coptic icon now in the Louvre

The dome of Machairas Monastery, Cyprus

The Cross as Tree of Life from San Clemente, Rome

The apsidal mosaic of Santa Maria in Trastevere, Rome

The Triumphal Arch and apsidal mosaic of San Paolo fuori le Mura, Rome

The images of Christ we see inevitably influence us and our faith, they affect how we view our Lord and Saviour. This is part of why the Reformed reject them — they can skew just as easily as uphold a right faith in Christ. And it must be admitted that Eldredge is not wrong about so much Protestant religious art.

One of the guys last night said that so much Protestant art is sappy and sentimental because it’s made for children, to illustrate a story or make the Bible accessible. It is not art for adults. He is probably right, which troubles me — my toddler likes Art of the Byzantine Era, Pauline Baynes’ illustrated Nicene Creed, and the occasional bookmark of the Sistine Chapel right alongside his Dr. Suess, Paw Patrol, and Beatrix Potter.

Why do we sell our children short and underestimate them?

What sort of messages about Jesus are we communicating to them and ourselves through this art?

Gentle Jesus, meek and mild,

against which Wild at Heart is reacting.

I think John Eldredge wants,

Mighty Jesus, fierce and wild.

The art above, most of which is medieval (with one each of modern Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican items), presents us mighty Jesus, King of Kings. He sits enthroned, passing judgement. He reigns as he dies, bringing life to the world. He can certainly be your Friend. And he blesses us from his majesty. Loves pours forth from his Sacred Heart.

Christ the King, throned in glory — this is the great theme of so many medieval mosaics and frescoes.

Yet he is the upside-down king, and here is why the Reformed are concerned about these images. Christ in glory — certainly true. But not wholly true.

One image I did not bring but wish I could have was the crucifix from Vercelli:

Christ is standing on the cross, in power. As King. Not hanging in weakness as in the later, Gothic crucifixes. At the moment of his greatest human weakness, at the point of his death, Jesus is at his most powerful. Some Byzantine crucifixion icons have the inscription, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of Glory,’ to emphasise the point.

Whatever our position on any of these images in particular or images of Christ in general, Eldredge has a good point — the carpenter of Nazareth Who refashions the crooked timber of humanity into something beautiful was neither limp nor passive.

Christ, Pantokrator and Friend in Egypt and Sinai

Earlier today I submitted an article to a journal using hagiography to dispute the idea that in the Byzantine world Christ was distant from worshippers, the unapproachable God, the Pantokrator on high. Because I’m a lumper, I could not help bringing in, alongside many references to Late Antique ascetic literature East and West, a couple of references to sixth-century art.

When people think of Christ Pantokrator, the image from many Eastern Christian domes springs to mind, such as this eleventh-century one from the Church of the Holy Apostles, Athens (my photo):

105414620_b5e57cd417_o

Or, better, this famous thirteenth-century mosaic in Hagia Sophia, Constantinople:

Christ_Pantocrator_mosaic_from_Hagia_Sophia_2744_x_2900_pixels_3.1_MB

I didn’t mention these in the article, but for many people they convey distance and inaccessibility of the divine Person.

A Justinianic mosaic that I did mention and which can be seen to communicate a similar idea of unapproachable glory and Light is the icon of the Transfiguration from St Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai:

transfiguration_of_jesus1335889926066

The thing is, when I read monastic literature of the fifth and sixth centuries, I do not find an inaccessible Christ. Although there is evidence of the growing cult of the saints (see Peter Brown, The Cult of the Saints — and I’ve read a good review of Robert Bartlett, Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things?), the piety of the vast majority of early Byzantine ascetic/mystic/monastic texts is Christocentric, and Christ is not far or unapproachable to His followers.

Thus, the preferred Christ Pantokrator is sixth-century, not eleventh or thirteenth. Like the Transfiguration, it comes from St Catherine’s, Sinai:

Spas_vsederzhitel_sinay

This is one of the most famous icons in the world; it is the first of the Pantokrator type, from what I recall, and one of the oldest Eastern Mediterranean images of Christ to survive. Christ Pantokrator appears here with one half of his face gentle, one half stern. He is the perfect Desert abba, if you think of it.

The oldest Coptic icon may also be sixth-century and currently resides in the Louvre (I’ve seen it!). It is a different vision of Christ from any of the above — Christ and Apa Mena (my photo):

IMG_9994

Christ is Pantokrator. All-powerful. For He is the Second Person of the Trinity.

Christ can also be our Friend. For such is how He described Himself to His Disciples.

Come, let us follow Him.