The Danger of Portraying a Soft Jesus

I have been reflecting on how we portray Jesus in art. I did a quick google search using the words “paintings Jesus.” The results were about what I expected, but it still astonished me. It seems we are very comfortable with Jesus as the gentle teacher, compassionate healer and the good shepherd. We also seem to be oddly comfortable with the suffering Jesus, the crucified Jesus and the resurrected Jesus. Of course those are all true, but what about Jesus the Lion of Judah, the courageous man with calloused hands, cleanser of the temple, judge of the nations, the one who is coming back wielding a sword and sceptre, wearing a robe dipped in blood? I even googled “lion of judah paintings” which primarily displayed cute gentle pet-able lions. I tried various terms related to the second coming and came up with a preponderance of soft gentle images. How ironic since Revelations chapter 19 juxtaposes the wedding of the Lamb and the rider of the white horse who will strike down the nations. We don’t get one with out the other.

I guess this bias should not surprise me. We all like the idea of a loving merciful Jesus. I certainly do. We are, however, less comfortable talking about Jesus the King of the armies of heaven coming in judgment. Please  understand that I am not suggesting we ditch the gentle and compassionate depictions of Jesus, but i think that we are choosing to miss something. The good news of the Gospel is only good news because there is a judgment. The wonder of the mercy and grace of Jesus finds substance because he is also the King of Kings and Lord or Lords who will judge the nations. Grace and mercy are only needed in the face of judgment and condemnation.

The fact that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus only has meaning if there is condemnation for those who are not. There is nothing politically correct about that statement. I will seem harsh, even arrogant to others. Understand that I don’t like it either, but as I accept grace of Jesus as taught in the Bible, so I must also accept the judgement it teaches. As unlikely as it might seem to some, this is also the reason the Church must act as the hands and feet of Jesus spreading His grace and mercy through the gospel. This should drive Christians to love – radical love offering radical grace in the face of judgment.

Below are some of the few paintings that depict Jesus as the courageous warrior Lord.

Rembrant, Christ in the Storm on the Lake of Galiliee

File:Rembrandt Christ in the Storm on the Lake of Galilee.jpg

 

Bernardino Mei, Christ Cleansing the Temple

File:Mei, Bernardino - Christ Cleansing the Temple - c. 1655.jpg

 

Michelangelo, The Last Judgment

File:Michelangelo, Giudizio Universale 02.jpg

Finding My Muse – Part 2 (A Mirror Into The Soul)

In my last post Finding My Muse – Part 1, I explored what I called the Mona Lisa Effect. It is when a painting draws you in to discover the story revealed in part in the painting, that something that keeps you coming back again and again.

It is no easy endeavor to take a blank canvas and capture a moment such that it compels us to stop long enough to enter into a time and place other wise unknown to us.

When we look at a painting (the same is true of photographs), we are voyeurs peering at moment captured on canvas. If the viewer is a voyeur, how much more so is the artist who contemplates the image for an hour, a week or perhaps years, the image slowly emerging as the brush caresses the canvas. The artist takes what is seen with the eyes, reshapes it in the  intimacy of the theater of the mind, and releases it to make the journey to the cold white canvas.

The story captured may be profound, sublime or entirely pedestrian. IF the artist has excelled and  final work hung upon a wall, we are compelled to stop and play the voyeur peaking through the bushes to see the world in a way we have never seen it before.

Perhaps “voyeur” is an unfortunate term in that it has obvious negative connotations that are not intended here.  Unlike a voyeur, we enter in at the artist’s invitation to participate in the story. Yet, like the artist, what we see is both present and untouchable, real and unreal.

In the creation of art and the viewing of art, there is a danger, a precipice that entices us like a sirens call. I believe it was George Bernard Shaw who said, “You use a glass mirror to see your face; you use art to see your soul.”

When a painting reveals what could be or should be or even will be in a way that makes us desire to be who God created us to be, that is a good thing. When a painting reveals the lust and covetousness, the evil that lurks in our hearts, that too is a good thing, since in so doing we see our selves as we are. We see our selves as being far from who God created us to be.

The precipice is not in revealing of who we are, but in pushing so far that the mirror into the soul, the work of art, becomes a source of perpetuating the evil that lurks within. It is painfully obvious when the line has been dramatically crossed. In the extreme, we have graphic blood and gore movies, and blatant pornography. At this extreme, the images have but one purpose, to inappropriately arouse our primary senses — our lower brain functions.

On the other extreme we have whitewashed walls lacking anything human or aesthetic. They are devoid of life. They are devoid of story, of humanity. It is like staring into mirror that reflects nothing back. It is disconnected from our experiences.

As a Pastor, I work with real people with real stories. Some stories are painful, others more joyful, but no story is whitewashed…at least not for long. We are a messy people living in a messy world.

As an artist, I seek to tell a story, often obliquely. It may be a story of hope, of the passing of time, of inner struggles, the desire to be loved, the pain of brokenness, of new beginnings, the stories of people and the stories of creation. Whether it is a buffalo on the plains or a contemplative elderly woman, there is a story and it says something about us. What do I love, what do I hate, what do I seek, what do I fear…?

As a Pastor and as an artist, I seek to draw people away from the emptiness of whitewashed walls, and to draw people from the primeval side of the precipice into a place where we see our selves as we are that we might find hope in the one who frees us to be who we were created to be.

…to be continued

Finding My Muse – Part 1 (the Mona Lisa effect)

Now that my masters studies are behind me I can turn my thoughts to a question that has been plaguing me for some time.

What interests me as an artist? What is it that inspires me to paint? 

As I reflect on my own sketches, paintings and photographs, there are some that I like and many I would rather shred, paint over or otherwise delete. I am also drawn to some other artist’s work, but find other works hold fleeting interest.

I do enjoy dramatic landscapes, subtle landscapes, for that mater almost any landscape, but my attention is only held by a few. There is something about those few that keep me coming back to look at them, something that stirs something within. It is that special something that makes one painting rise above the rest.

The same is true of figurative or life work — paintings with people as the dominant subject. Some are romantic, some may even stir a more sensual response, some are stunningly well done (I am certainly not talking about mine in that context). Other life works are informative, perhaps a historical rendering. Like landscapes, only a few capture my attention and keep me coming back.

There was I time when I thought composition was the key. No doubt it is very important. A poorly composed picture lacks visual interest. That is true of geometric composition, values and colors. These are foundational. If these building blocks are not working, the painting will not hold my attention. That said, I have seen some wonderfully composed paintings that just do not ‘do it’ for me.

So I move onto a second answer that keeps coming to mind — “story.” Paintings that lack “story” can be magnificent realistic representations of creation’s grandeur to abstract pieces with no discernable point. Unfortunately I find many still life works to be like this too, well done but static. The exceptions are delightful, but it takes more than pretty flowers to hold my interest. I know some (many?) of my own work easily fits into this storey-less category.

If there is one human sociological thread, it is story. We all have them. They define who we are, where we came from, why we do what we do, who we look like, how we dress, what we eat, where we sleep…you get the picture. Even when we talk about pedestrian things like the weather, we drift toward telling stories. “Remember the late snow we had in May this year?” “I remember back when I was kid…”

When a painting tells a story, suggestively, subtly or even abstractly, it draws me in. There is something human about it. It’s like over hearing a piece of a conversation as you walk down the street and wonder what the rest of the story is. Our minds are quite happy to fill in the details even if preposterously inaccurate.

On the other hand, in some art the story is too overt and over powering. The “story” is so in your face that there is nothing more to discover, the viewing experience is self terminating. Such pieces are little more than a stop sign on the imagination highway. No interpretation is needed. These can be technically wonderful executed works of art, but there is an element missing.

As I look at works of masters and amateurs alike, there is a common thread that draw me in and holds me. It is more than composition or story alone. There is an engagement, a conversation. When the story is suggested, but not all told, when questions are asked but not fully answered, when the viewer is drawn onto the scene and compelled to participate in the story each time they look at the painting, that is when it rises above the prolific common.

Perhaps we can call this the Mona Lisa effect. In some ways it is an uninteresting painting, little more than a simple portrait, a “snap shot” from an age before cameras…except for that smile. What was she thinking? I wonder if da Vinci knew we would still be trying to figure that out 500 years later.

Of course not many paintings rise to this lofty level. As much as I desire to attain some sense of the Mona Lisa effect in my own work, only a few of my paintings have even approached the foot hills, let alone begun to climb to such lofty heights. Yet this dialog between artist and viewer, this engaging story telling is the muse that keeps me going back to my easel. 

…to be continued

 

 

PS – There is a profound parallel to how we communicate verbally. Do we respond to questions in ways that terminate conversations or do we open a door to meaningful dialog? I suspect that there is a degree of laziness in all of us that wants simple answers that keep us from having to engage.

The Color Harmony of Creation

I have wondered from time to time what life would have been like before Adam and Eve had knowledge of good and evil.

Genesis 3:5  For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

The idea of “good” vs. “evil” requires a dualism, the belief in two opposing principles. It seems at times that one does not have to look far to see vestiges of this assumed dualism in nature. We live in a world of opposites…or do we?

Consider the colors red and green. They are opposites on the color wheel, red being on of the three primary colors and green being a mix of the yellow and blue, the other primaries. The artist, however does not think of red and green as opposites, rather they are considered complements. Place complementary colors next to each other and they stand out. They complement each other. They are unique since the perfect complement of red will have no red in it. Interestingly, if you mix perfect complements, the vibrant colors are reduced to gray, even black.

Male and female complement each other because they are different, but one is not lesser. They are not opposites, rather complementary varieties of the same thing. Colors of humanity if you will.  We could speak of the weather in a similar way. Rain and sun complement each other, sustaining life. All of one or all of the other is devastating. Even as a tulip bulb needs the cold before it will grow in the spring, but it needs warmth to grow. Summer and winter complement each other, sustaining life through the seasons. This is the harmony of creation.

Speaking of creation, the book of Genesis tell us, “And God saw that it is good.”  Creation is good.

If creation is good, what is evil? Allow me to suggest an artistic metaphor. When that which is complementary is mixed together, it looses vibrancy. A new thing has not been created. The rich harmony has merely been reduced to a colorless mess.

The presumption of evil is the judgement that what God has created in perfect harmony is not good. Evil is to presume to judge God. Who are we to judge our creator? Who are we to presume to know what is good and what is evil…as if such a thing intrinsically exists. We can only truly know good, for that is all that God created, but it is only in creation as God intended that we can know it.

The problem, however is that we have messed with the color harmony of creation. It is only by scraping off the palette and loading on fresh paint that the vibrancy of creation can be restored. This is the reconciling work of Jesus Christ. This is redemption. This is the new creation.

The Human Touch – Craftsmanship and Artistry

That we live in a changing world is hardly breaking news. There is, however, one element of change that has been persistently infiltrating the human experience with its murky fingers, mass production.  There was a time when if you wanted a new table you would either build it yourself or purchase it from a craftsman (craftsperson if you prefer). Today you can still buy from a craftsman, but most people will buy mass produced items, perhaps from a big box store that specializes in “boxed” furniture.

 

In the past, the craftsman’s table was easy to pick out by simple observation of the quality of work. He or she was master of their craft. Today, factories turn out a steady stream of high quality products with a consistency unheard of a few centuries back. Yes, there are exceptions to “high quality,” but let’s face it, there are a lot of good products coming off assembly lines. In an odd twist, today we often can only tell a craftsman’s work by some minor inconsistency or imperfection. Of course, dedicated craftsmen still ply their trade, but many turn to one of a kind pieces, works of art if you will.

 

Speaking of art, portraits were once the domain of dedicated artists labouring with brushes and pigments. Now you can go to the “portrait studio” in your local “we sell every thing” department store where they will snap a predictable photo and if you like, print the common photo on canvas. Painters too have gone print crazy in attempts to maximize profits (although there is a backlash against this in the art world). Then there is factory “art”; those mass produced home deco prints you find in bargain stores. From a pure visual aesthetic perspective, the mass produced table, portrait or print are pleasant enough. Sometimes they are very pleasant.

 

So why do people still seek out “craftsman” furniture, sit for long hours to have a portrait painted, or pay the high price for other original works of art?

 

I am not sure of the answer, but let me toss out a few thoughts. First, there are those who either for investment or ego delight in owning the craftsman’s or artist’s work. Perhaps this is some sort of latent aristocratic impulse. Whatever the case, these are the people who often keep food on the table of craftsmen and artists. Whatever their motivation, they are willing to pay the price that craftsmen and artists rely on to survive.

 

I do believe, however, that there is a deeper, more “human” reason. We all benefit from mass production (understand that I am not speaking here against mass production although it is a worthy topic to consider). The question here is, “what is missing” in a “boxed” table, a digital print portrait or factory art? The answer I believe is what we so often lack in our hectic and isolated lives—a human touch.

 

I have a pen. It is one of many, but there is something different about this one. My cousin handcrafted this pen from olive wood. Sure, there are a few “factory” pieces that make up the pen, but he turned and polished the wood. We don’t see each other very often—not often enough. Yet, when I pick up that pen, I think of my cousin. He cared enough to spend the time and effort to make something special. It wasn’t a job. It was a work of love. There is a little part of the craftsman in that pen. There is a human touch.

 

Perhaps that is what makes a craftsman or artist’s work so valuable. Knowing that he or she has spent hours in a labour of love, making the table or painting the portrait, a sense of connection with the one who created the work. There is a human touch that makes the table or portrait much more valuable, at least to those who will slow down and let it speak to them.

 

______

PS – Perhaps that is why we have some of the environmental problems today. On the one hand, the paintings of the old masters are valued because of who painted them. On the other hand, the boxed table is disposable. Likewise, if the Creator isn’t valued, His creation is treated as disposable. We need to slow down and let the Creator speak to us through His creation.