Everyone once in a while, someone, maybe a friend in conversation, maybe a preacher from a pulpit, will come down hard on traditional western images of Christ, saying that that pale, blond, slender Jesus is a remote image of someone who is very close. Or, as Mark Driscoll says, he can’t worship a Jesus whom he could beat up. Or there is a complaint that the white Jesus is just another example of western, imperial triumphalism over the Middle Eastern, Jewish roots of Christianity.
A few words about how misguided the above representations are in order, then.
Starting with the last first: Most of these images are too old to be imperialist. In fact, they’re often so old and from places so far removed from the Middle East that it would surprise me enormously to see a swarthy Jesus. In, say, mediaeval Norway. Third, I have a feeling that, even if the artists were thinking, ‘Let’s make Him look Jewish’, they would have made him pale, given that a lot of European Jews are, in fact, pale.
But just as there is more to slender, wispy mediaeval saints than their status as pillars, so also is there more to our images of Christ. We must ask ourselves why Jesus is sometimes blond, and why sometimes a fairly slender specimen of the male gender. The answer will silence those of Mark Driscoll’s ilk and hopefully be the starting place of an answer for those who find these Jesuses remote.
So, if you ever see a blond Jesus, why would that be? (Blond Jesuses are actually hard to find; mind you, my experience of looking is mostly Italian and Orthodox art.) The answer, as always with mediaeval art and architecture, is theological (who’d’ve guessed?):
These images are not supposed to be perfect, mimetic, historically accurate pictures of Jesus as he actually was whilst on earth. Byzantine icons (which are definitely never blond) and western mediaeval paintings/mosaics are, as Rowan Williams puts it, ‘theology in line and colour.’
Jesus is perfect. Jesus is God. He is, spiritually speaking, beautiful. In fact, He is Perfection. He is Beauty. He is the Good/Beautiful (to kalon) that Plato aspires to in the Symposium.
As a result, Jesus has a tendency to adhere to cultural standards of beauty wherever he goes. This is the short and simple answer why northern Europeans would make a blond Jesus — because they are blond. Because blond in their culture is beautiful. So Jesus is beautiful. So he is blond. And white. Like them. It is the enculturation of Christian theology and Gospel.
This, when combined with the spiritualising of the human form I blogged about earlier, produces our pale, slender Christ Crucified. Put Him in stained glass, and He also is a reminder of the Uncreated Light, drawing us upward into God with Gothic architecture and its spirituality of light and of height.
People still do this — we have black Christs, First Nations Christs, Chinese Christs. By doing this, we take the particularity of the Christian narrative — that God became a man in first-century Roman Judaea to save us — and make it universal — He did so for you, here and now in this remote corner of the world. Here in Paris, in Toronto, in Timbuktu — Christ is for you.
And He is Beautiful.
Yesterday I took advantage of free museum day in Paris to make my third trip to the Musée nationale du Moyen-Age (aka Musée de Cluny). Some items not previously viewed were on display, sometimes because they’ve redone some displays, sometimes because I may not have paid enough attention in previous visits. Anyway, besides some really amazing ivory carvings that really deserve their own posts, I spent a little time with some fragmentary Gothic sculpture.
But I took no photos of that sculpture. Nonetheless, here’s something like what I saw, only more complete, from the central portal of Chartres Cathedral:
These three figures, you will note, are extraordinarily tall and slender. Kind of cubey around the edges, too. This is in part because they are, in fact, pillars. Since they serve an architectural function and are not stand-alone statues, they have been adapted to the space.
Nonetheless, I have seen other mediaeval figures like this; this slender, elongated form is not reserved for Gothic column-statues. Byzantine icons also tend to be sort of … low on flesh, if you will.
This lack of fleshiness was first pointed out to me on a trip to the Troodos Mountains in Cyprus, where our guide, Fr Ioannis, a painter and iconographer, asked some of the better-informed what struck them about some of the frescoes at Panayia Podithou. The answer: They look fleshier than a lot of classic Byzantine icons.
Fr Ioannis explained that this was due to ‘Western’ (add, ‘Renaissance and later’) influences upon Cypriot iconography. A classic Byzantine icon will be long and slender with nary a muscle and certainly no bulk to the figures. I present to you, as an example, the fresco of the Transfiguration on the exterior of St Sozomen’s Church, Galata, Cyprus (15th-c, my photo):
You can see here that the figure of Christ in particular is a fairly unfleshy sort. This Byzantine style is also visible in an ivory plaque in the Musée de Cluny depicting the coronation of Holy Roman Emperor Otto II* and his wife, the Byzantine princess Theophano in 982/3:
The above is not my photo; mine was taken on my phone and is blurry. Nonetheless, this Byzantinising image is also very religious. In the centre is Christ who legitimates Otto II’s rule as Holy Roman Emperor; He is the largest, central figure, crowning the two monarchs who are dressed in Byzantine style. Compare it to my photo of this ivory carving of Christ crowning Romanos and Eudoxia in Constantinople a few decades earlier.
What this waifiness signifies, I believe (and as the post title suggests), is the spiritualisation of the human form. It is not necessarily a retreat from the goodness of the human body; the East and West are both accused of this in the Middle Ages, but if you take this visual evidence with the written evidence of the best theologians, you will see that there was a very strong belief in the inherent goodness of the human body as part of God’s creation.
In the Renaissance, the spiritual aspect of God’s good act of creating was found in expressing naturalism, from Fra Angelico to Michelangelo. In the Middle Ages, it was found in expressing spiritual truth.
The human person is not only a pscychosomatic unity but also inspired, inspirited, spiritual. We are tripartite — spirit-soul/mind/nous-flesh. Naturalism grounds the image in the present reality too much for the mediaeval mind. The goal is to set the mind on things above (Col. 3:2). Therefore, not only in subject matter (Christ, his Mother, the saints, Bible stories) but in style, that which is above is transmitted to our minds through the art.
The human form is elongated. Its muscle is toned down. It is still explicitly and specifically human in these mediaeval images. But now it is also otherworldly. It is spirit-and-body all at once. In a human face visible to you on the street today, you cannot see the soul. In contrast, in a mediaeval statue, ivory, or painting, you see the inner as well as the outer.
This spiritualising impacts the art in more ways than this, but I’ll leave it there for now. The next time you see such a form, I hope its intrinsic beauty will strike you to spend some time in your own nous looking for the spiritual and then moving upward to the God of the uncreated light.
This week of mediaeval (plus Ambrose) poetry began with Theodulf of Orleans’ triumphal eighth-century hymn in J M Neale’s wonderful Victorian rendering, ‘All Glory, Laud and Honour.’
But the earthly triumph of Palm Sunday so quickly turns to Good Friday, to ignominy and death.
In Holy Saturday, Christ’s body rests in the tomb, cold and dead.
The scattered disciples are probably in hiding.
We, however, have a different perspective because of tomorrow, when all the promises of God are fulfilled in Our Lord’s Resurrection. Western Christian hymnody and devotional poetry demonstrate this perspective, that the cross — a historical action filled with shame and defeat — is, in fact, the true triumph of God in his upside-down kingdom.
And so, in the light of this knowledge, St Ambrose, in the fourth century, composed a hymn to be sung at the Third Hour of prayer — and not just on Good Friday:
This is the hour that brought an end
to that long-standing grievous sin,
demolished then the realm of death,
and rid the world of ancient guilt.
Christ trampled down death by death on the Cross. He destroyed the power of sin and the devil. God entered into the fullness of human experience in Christ. It is victorious, as Fortunatus demonstrated to us on Tuesday, where the juxtaposition of the ‘standards of the King’ and the ‘mystery of the cross’ remind us of this victory over the forces of evil wrought for us on the tree.
Wednesday brought us the Ruthwell Cross with its inscription, yet another hymn bringing the royal aspect of Christ’s death to the fore of our thoughts.
And then on Thursday, I diverged from the passion hymns. I gave us a Eucharistic hymn by St Thomas Aquinas, the greatest theologian of the Middle Ages and liturgist of the feast of Corpus Christi. Whether we believe in the doctrine of Transubstantiation enshrined by Innocent III in 1226 or not, I believe that faithful Christians can stand behind Aquinas in ‘Pange, Lingua’ — Christ is present to us in the Eucharist; ‘This is my body’. And so, we turn from his body broken, bleeding, sorrowing, sighing, dying, on the Cross to his body present to us in the bread and the wine:
Fac me cruce inebriari. Et cruore Filii. -Innocent III
Make me drunk with the cross and the blood of the Son.
And then, Good Friday, when at the Third Hour the King of Glory ascended his throne, his sole earthly crown an instrument of torture, came the poem that inspired me to put together this assembly, the Middle English devotional poem, ‘Man and woman, look on me.’ This poem is a graphic reminder that Christ’s blood washes away our sins.
And as we meditated on Christ in our hearts, I provided art to look upon literally. All save the Giotto on Palm Sunday were photos I took in the churches and museums of continental Europe. The devotional life of mediaeval Europe was powerfully, mightily crucicentric. Maybe, sometimes, too much.
Yet on that Cross, the saviour died. God bled out.
One of the Holy Trinity suffered and died for us.
And so we have the ivory carvings, Gothic retables, stone crosses, frescoes, and manuscript illuminations of European devotion. So our physical eyes can behold what our spirits feast upon — the efficacious sacrifice of the Saviour.
If we enter into the blood and the gore and the sorrow and the pain of Good Friday, into the crown of thorns, the nail-pierced limbs, the spear in the side, how much more may we enter into the joy of glorious Easter and the empty tomb, the resurrected Saviour and the conquest of death.
The standards of the king advance,
the mystery of the cross shines forth,
whereby the founder of our flesh
in flesh upon a gibbet hung.
Here, his body pierced by nails,
and stretching forth his hands, his feet,
for the redemption of the world
as victim was he sacrificed.
Upon this gibbet, wounded sore,
pierced by the grim point of the lance,
that he might cleanse us of our sins
he dripped with water and with blood.
Thus were the prophecies fulfilled
that David sang in truthful strain,
proclaiming to the world at large
that God did reign from on the tree.
O beautiful and shining tree,
adorned with purple of the king,
selected, as its trunk deserved,
to touch so close such sacred limbs!
O blessed tree, upon whose arms
were hung the ransom of the world!
It weighed his body in its scales,
and bore away the prey of hell.
From your bark fragrance you diffuse;
sweeter than nectar is your taste;
rejoicing in your fecund fruit,
that splendid triumph you applaud.
All hail, O alter; victim, hail,
for sake of his passion’s great fame,
by which our Life endured his death,
and by his death restored our life.
-Venantius Fortunatus (d. ca 600), trans. P G Walsh with Christopher Husch, One Hundred Latin Hymns, 101-103
This past Christmas, one of the gifts I asked for was the Byzantine crucifix pictured above, which was available at a local Christian book shop. I wanted it because of my interest in Eastern Orthodoxy as well as the aesthetic beauty of it; it now hangs above my desk at home where I can look upon a reminder of the glorious, cosmic event that transformed the world and my own life.
Upon looking at this crucifix, however, it became clear to me that this was not actually a Byzantine crucifix. It looks Byzantine, especially given that Christ is standing in victory, not hanging in agony, but it is not. A big give away, besides the western Mediaeval style of the figures, is the Latin inscription above our Lord’s head:
Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. Not only is it in Latin, but it is not what Byzantine crucifixes tend to say. They tend to call him the King of Glory, not of the Jews.
Today I was wasting time on the interwebs, and, feeling like a bit of a fool, I now know where the crucifix is from:
I know I’ve seen images of this crucifix before I asked for the one at Christmas, but somehow it escaped me that they were one and the. The significance of this crucifix is as follows.
Francis of Assisi, when he had recently rejected his father’s wealth and all the rest, was in the old church of San Damiano praying one day. Hanging in the church was the crucifix in question.
Praying before this crucifix, Francis was told by Christ to rebuild His church. Thinking the Lord meant San Damiano, Francis did just that.
Later he learned that the church to be rebuilt was the one made of living stones, and Francis began his mission of evangelisation in earnest.
This crucifix, then, is very famous and holds a special place in the world of Franciscans.
As a work of art, it is interesting, as was pointed out at The National Shrine of St. Francis of Assisi. In this article, we are drawn to three elements in this painting of the crucified God. First, we see the crowd of people beside/surrounding Christ, Mary the Virgin and John the Evangelist on one side, Mary the wife of Cleopas, Mary of Magdala, and Longinus the centurion on the other.
At the second level, where Christ’s arms are outstretched embracing the world we see four angels and two men surrounding a black chamber — the empty tomb. The men are Sts. Peter and John, the apostolic witnesses of the empty tomb.
Third, above our Saviour’s head we see Him ascending into Heaven and greeted by angels.
The salvation event is before us here, with the crucified God standing central as a King in control, crucified, resurrected, ascending before our very eyes. Depicted in line and colour is the salvation of the world, the theology of our own lives. Here we see the centrepiece of our faith on the San Damiano crucifix, the crucifix that the Lord used to draw Francis to transform the world.
. . . even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. (John 4:14-15 KJV)