I’m neither an artist nor an historian, but I’ve been fascinated with the way Jesus has been portrayed by artists throughout history. Over the next few posts I’m planning to take a very selective look at how we have pictured Jesus at different eras and in different cultures.
I remember visiting a cathedral once with one of my children when she was quite little. We came across a reproduction of this painting by Antonello da Messina:
My little daughter looked at it quite closely before pronouncing sadly, “Poor Jesus.”
Poor Jesus, indeed. In fact, I think that was the very reaction Antonello da Messina was aiming for. In the 1470s, he painted a series of similar images entitled Ecce Homo. In each painting, Jesus looks heartbreakingly forlorn.
The title Ecce Homo comes from the Latin for “behold the man,” the words used by Pontius Pilate when he presented a beaten Jesus, bound and crowned with thorns, to the hostile crowd before his crucifixion (Jn. 19:5). Even though the first depictions of the ecce homo scene appeared in the ninth and tenth centuries in Syrian-Byzantine culture, they became incredibly popular in the Middle Ages (which is why, no doubt, Messina painted so many of them).
Ecce homo pictures were used as devotional aids. By gazing upon the suffering of Christ — abandoned, beaten, humiliated — the observer could feel the weight of the burden that Jesus bore for their sins. When the great German religious and social reformer, Nikolaus von Zinzendorf looked at an ecce homo scene painted by Domenico Feti in the Dusseldorf Art Museum in 1720, he said he heard Jesus say to him, “This have I done for you – Now what will you do for me?”
Gulp. That sounds heavy. But that was kind of the point. Looking deeply into the suffering of Christ was meant to foster a profound sense of gratitude to God for his sacrifice. And so meditating on an ecce homo scene was particularly poignant for Europeans at that time. It seemed like a quiet moment of respite between Jesus’ humiliation and his crucifixion. His trial, the scourging, and crucifixion were scenes full of action and drama. But in the scene between his beating and his journey to Calvary, Jesus stands quietly before us in a moment of quiet horror.
It was most famously captured in this painting by the Renaissance artist, Andrea Mantegna in 1500:
Jesus’ body bears the marks of his beating. His hands are bound. His head is crowned with thorns. There is a rope around his neck. But Mantegna has also added a crowd scene. Aside from Jesus, there are five others in the frame: two on the left, one on the right, and two behind. The person on the left is supposed to be a Jew, and the one on the right an old woman.
Also in the picture are two messages in Latin, reading ” Crucify him, trap him, crucify.” They act as ancient speech bubbles, as if being yelled by the crowd. The text on the left, over the Jewish man’s head is gibberish. Mantegna simply created a pseudo-Hebrew in cursive script to indicate the involvement of the Jews in the death of Christ. And he wasn’t the only one to present images that bordered on antisemitic caricatures. Ecce homo scenes became increasing critical of the people of Jerusalem portraying them as Jesus-haters, something that fed the streams of European racism.
But a more common form of the ecce homo style, especially after the Reformation, was the simple head-and-shoulders portrait of the suffering Christ:
Whereas, some ecce homo pictures present Jesus looking directly at the viewer, as if to challenge us to judge whether he should be crucified or not, these images above show him gazing heavenward during his humiliation. Some of them depict him on the cross, rather than before Pilate and the baying crowd.
One of the more industrious painters of these kinds of ecce homo scenes is the Bolognese artist Guido Reni. He churned out multiple versions of this scene, most of which have Jesus fixated on something above him during his time of greatest suffering, like this one from 1640:
What is poor Jesus looking at up there?
It seems that Baroque artists like Reni were conflating Jesus’ so-called high priestly prayer from John 17 with his appearance before Pilate. That prayer, which Jesus prays on the eve of his arrest, begins this way: “After Jesus said this, he looked toward heaven and prayed: ‘Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you’.” (Jn.17:1) Artists imagined Jesus, at the point of his death on the cross, looking heavenward and praying a similar prayer.
The idea was that Jesus glorified the Father on the cross and that one of the ways the Father glorified the Son was to inspires artists to produce such glorious artwork. But it wasn’t just the odd Baroque artist, like Reni, who thought this. This was part of a concerted program developed by the Roman Catholic Church.
To counter the growth of Protestantism in the 1500s and beyond, the Roman Catholic Church launched a spectacular propaganda program, using art and architecture to make an overtly emotional and sensory appeal to the faithful. They were trying to out-beautify the Protestants, many of whom were iconoclasts and opposed to the use of the arts for religious devotion. The result was the Baroque style.
In Rome, the Catholic Church employed artists like Caravaggio, Gentileschi, and Bernini to adorn their churches and keep the faithful, well, faithful. In the Spanish regions, the church patronized the work of Diego Velázquez and Peter Paul Rubens (Belgium was ruled by Spain back then), whose dramatic compositions and full-blooded figures are the epitome of Baroque painting. Here is his ecce homo scene, painted in 1612:
You can see the paradox between the sensuous and the spiritual that was typical of Baroque art. The natural sensuality of Jesus in this picture makes him more accessible to the average churchgoer, while the dramatic and illusory effects were designed to stimulate piety and devotion.
And that’s what ecce homo pictures are all about. We see the humanity of Jesus and sense his frailty and his brokenness. But his skyward gaze directs our senses toward heavenly concerns. These pictures are designed to say, “In the Reformed churches all you get is a sermon, but here you can gaze upon the sublime sacrifice of Christ and encounter the beauty of Paradise.”
You can read Part III Why Is Jesus So White? here.
To read a free chapter of my latest book, ReJesus: Remaking the Church in Our Founder’s Image, visit http://rejesusbook.com/
1 thought on “Picturing Jesus — Part II: What is Jesus looking at up there?”
The beautification project, despite being deliberate, does have a point. I do often feel a reverence & the holiness of God in Catholic churches I often don’t in Protestant ones. Of course, my experience is limited, so take that with a grain of salt.
On an unrelated note, since this is a series, I’d be fascinated to learn of women artists & their depictions of Jesus. Not because I think they’re radically different or better.
Just to know.
I think there were some in a book, She Who Is by: Elizabeth A. Johnson.
Oh, & I assume there will be a pos about modren depictions of Jesus.
Of course, an important note is to not be too carried away by all this. Because in the end, it won’t matter. But at the same time, it doesn’t hurt to imagine?