Art reflects various cultures, belief systems

By Carrie A. Moore
Deseret Morning News
      What’s your mental image of Jesus?
      Do you picture a tall, slender, white man with a peaceful face, long, brown hair, blue eyes and a white robe? A cherubic-looking baby surrounded by adoring parents and shepherds? A teacher surrounded by crowds near the Sea of Galilee?
      The question of what Christ actually looked like has both mystified and intrigued billions of his followers for nearly two millennia since his death. Artists across the centuries have created their depictions based in part on their own cultural milieu — most reflecting a reverence for their own or their viewers’ belief in his divinity.
      A new exhibit opening Nov. 17 at Brigham Young University will explore depictions of Christ in art and feature a two-day lecture series examining "Art, Belief and Meaning." The symposium, scheduled Nov. 16 and 17 at the school’s Museum of Art, will feature a variety of scholars discussing topics centered around the theme, "Pious Pictures: Christian Iconography and Personal Expression in the Production of Faith-Based Art."
      The symposium is free and open to the public and will kick off the museum’s newest exhibition, "Beholding Salvation: Images of Christ."
      David Morgan, professor of Christianity and the arts at Christ College, Valparaiso University, is among the symposium presenters. He said selected images of Christ that have become familiar to those of various faiths are used to promote their particular doctrine, even though that usage "often differs from what the artist intended."
      Large treatises on copyright law and fair use of such images have been outlined over time, yet ultimately, "the owners of an image have rather little control over how it’s used" because the meaning of the image "changes every time it’s put in a new context."
      For example, an image would have a very different meaning for children as part of a Sunday School bulletin than it would for readers of an art history book containing the same image. "Context is something larger than the artist, or the institution that owns the image."
      The concept can be readily illustrated in reference to a sculpture of Christ called the "Christus," a larger-than-life version of which stands in the rotunda at the north LDS Visitors Center on Temple Square. Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have come to revere the image as something of a "Mormon icon," according to Matthew Richardson, associate professor of religion at BYU. He will speak on the topic during the symposium next month, and addressed it in an article published in 2003 in the Journal of Mormon History.
      "What some have considered ‘a veritable emblem of the Protestant faith’ has, in many ways, become to many an icon in the (LDS) Church," he wrote. "Each year, 3.5 million people view the Christus on Temple Square and another 2 million see six different copies of it in LDS visitors centers throughout the world." It also appears in a variety of other LDS venues, including the church’s official Web site.
      Richardson chronicles how top church leaders came to acquire their first copy of the "Christus" in 1959 as a visual proclamation to the world that Latter-day Saints are Christians. Yet the sculptor, Bertel Thorvaldsen, finished the piece in 1833 after being commissioned to create the work for the Lutheran Church of Our Lady in Copenhagen, where the original still stands.
      "For many people of faith, what matters more than anything is growing close to their standard of Jesus. They want to have this intimacy," Morgan said, noting most have an image in their mind that’s been there since childhood. "They went to Sunday School and saw pictures hanging on the wall of a slender, solemn man with brown hair and big eyes. He’s been etched on the inside of their minds."
      That "Nordic Jesus" has little resemblance to what are believed to be the earliest artistic images of Christ, some of which can still be seen in the Roman catacombs, where early Christians buried their dead and often portrayed him as the symbolic "good shepherd." While there is no authenticated account detailing what Christ looked like, a few descriptions and images surfaced during the centuries after his death purporting to detail his features, among them the Shroud of Turin and the Veil of Veronica — both supposedly imprinted with the physical likeness of Christ’s face.
      Another is a letter that surfaced about 1,000 years ago and was attributed to a man named Publius Lentulus, who claimed to have been a contemporary of Jesus, Morgan said. He supposedly wrote to the Roman Senate detailing a very literal description of Christ’s face — "brown, shoulder-length hair, large eyes — some versions say blue eyes — a long sunken face, very solemn and serious, with a short, cropped beard. If you look at a lot of pictures, that’s exactly what he looks like."
      Of course the letter was written after the visual tradition was already established, with the idea of authenticating it, Morgan said.
      Other depictions have come as a result of dreams or visions recorded by clergy, laymen and even the artists themselves.
      "This is an idea that’s still with us, and for many it’s the basis of the authority of the image. … If you have something that traces back to what is believed the direct origin, that lifts it out of what this or that person thought and gives it a sort of universal status," he said. "For many believers of different kinds, that’s the kind of legitimacy they want and need."
      Over the centuries, depictions of Christ have taken on the ethnicity of the cultures in which they were created, resulting in images that show him as Asian, black African and Spanish.
      Vern Swanson, director of the Springville Museum of Art, said he’s seen and even displayed a large variety of depictions of Jesus — including one by a Mongolian artist who cast him as Mongolian — and wouldn’t have trouble displaying any kind of ethnic portrayal as long as it is "what we would call ‘reverential.’ If they’re painting him as a black woman in drag, no way. But if it made sense culturally to the person."
      Some images of Christ are expected to be a part of the museum’s 21st annual "Religious and Spiritual Exhibition," which also opens next month. It runs Nov. 8 through Dec. 27
      Many artists have chosen Christ’s passion and crucifixion as the subject of their art, but Jay Heuman, a Jewish art historian and curator of education at the Salt Lake Art Center, said there are few depictions of Jesus’ crucifixion by Jewish artists due to the simple fact that Jews don’t believe he is divine or that his death has anything to do with eternal salvation.
      LDS artists don’t often portray the crucifixion either, he said, but for a completely different reason — that their faith focuses on the life of Christ and avoids any reverence for the crucifix as a symbol of their faith. "For both faiths, it’s either considered taboo or not on the radar screen. For LDS artists, there are theological reasons. For Jewish artists, very few of whom have handled that theme, they see it as more a cultural taboo."
      He’ll present a lecture on the topic during the BYU symposium and noted that mainstream artists in the past 200 years have generally moved away from explicitly Christian themes to "unique personal means of expressing spiritual concerns. … They’re reaching inside, whether that’s something spiritual along the traditional path or something more pantheistic, that sees a notion of the divine or the spirit in everything."
      Culturally, Utahns tend to envision "the Nordic Jesus — we kind of see him as a mirror of ourselves," Swanson said, noting that Utahns Greg Olsen and Del Parson, along with part-time Utah resident Simon Dewey, are among the "top six portrayers of (Christ’s image) in America" at present. "They sell to a Mormon and a non-Mormon audience and are very important nationally and even internationally. Their depictions are extremely idealistic," which appeals to many, he said.
      Morgan said few people stop to think about why they imagine Christ the way they do, adding the BYU symposium will likely "challenge the immediacy of our imaginations. We can slow down and look at the mental visual process of imagining what Jesus looked like.
      "If you show him as a Jewish guy, he may not be as refined" as many have imagined him. By examining "why we’ve always imagined he looked a certain way … we can perhaps begin to pry some space between what we think is real and what is actually real."