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Jesus Christ

The Face of Jesus

Georges Rouault (1871-1958). The Collection of Modern Religious Art – The Vatican, Rome. 1946.

Jesus Christ remains a mask. A mask of impenetrable mystery. After two thousand years of reflection, of teachings by theologians of various religions, of intense intuitive search into the soul of the events by many artists and after centuries of devote praying the mysteries of Jesus’s figure remain.

Who was the Jesus from before Easter, the historical figure? What was he like, how did he move and what moved him? The Jesus from after Easter remains even more elusive. For if we still have tangible images and writings about his public life, his presence after the Resurrection is the central mystic of the Christian religion and exactly this presence founded Christianity. After Easter started the church and the church added meanings after meanings, dogmas and beliefs that were again put to tests and sometimes demolished in history.

Of Jesus remains an outline; of him remain the dark strokes of features of which testify only legends from the beginnings of our times. Nothing more can be expressed than the simple features that come to us from out of the darkness of periods that have left no definite proofs. The artist can only express this mystery and agree that the central theme of Christianity is the question ‘Do you believe without historical proof the testimony of a few people whose credibility can not be challenged anymore with the means of our modern science’.

The face of dark lines comes out of the colours of history. We are not certain what face this is. The features of Jesus were described in a letter written by the Roman Governor of Judaea Publius Lentulus but that letter surfaced only in the fourteenth century. The face of the Sudarium of Veronica might be the right face but there are several Sudarrii that are candidate for the true one and the most famous one, the one of the Vatican, may be a false one or a copy. The face might be the face of the mandylion of Edessa but there are also various pictures that could claim to be the mandylion. The Turin Shroud might be this mandylion but our modern science proved the cloth to be of the fourteenth century and no other claim has been peer reviewed. The face of all these images is made of combinations of legends and of credulous hopes assembled over centuries.

It was the face of God and the face of a man.

Jesus was a man. He was first a historical personality that really existed. The writings of his life were compiled from eyewitnesses and from stories added in the first century. Fifty years passed between his death and the first accounts. The writings were of a community of zealous men, all won for the cause, who needed their cause to be popular and to grow. Yet, these scriptures were accepted as divinely inspired first by the Roman Catholic Church and then by all Christians, by most of the Protestant congregations and innumerable sects. The Protestants were most sceptical and open to inquiry, critics, investigation and formulation of hypotheses that diverted from Roman Catholic dogma. But overall they also venerated the scriptures. From the first century on the faith conquered Europe. For the face of the God was the face of man. The face was known or guessed, the life of the man was a historical truth. The man had claimed to be the Son of God.

Europe accepted the faith eagerly. It offered transcendence, spirituality, hope and solace for the suppressed and the poor. The new faith acclaimed extraordinary, epic feats. It supported conquest and expansion. European man was not alone on his travels or strives. The Emmaüs theme of the personal God that accompanied always the isolated idealist allowed man to surpass himself. Europeans were allowed in the name of Jesus and his mighty apostle James to fight the infidel and that meant an outlet for its energies. The Popes required conversion to Catholicism. This only enforced and legalised the Europeans’ drive for adventure and conquest of territories, the urge that had remained in the people that had wandered over thousands of kilometres to settle in the continent of dramatic landscapes open on all sides to the seas. Europeans navigated over all the unknown seas, confiding their hopes in their God. In the God that had become a personal God and thus was ever present, always accompanied anyone on the perilous voyages. All the navigators threw their lots to the transcendent God Jesus and set off, confident that they were seeking God in the India to which the apostle Matthew had preceded them and to Africa where Prester John had founded a kingdom.

All the conquests were made in the knowledge of the unambiguous message of love of Jesus. This message had appealed to the masses that were in misery. Throughout the centuries, no feeling appealed more to the Europeans; no feeling more seemed out of this world and thus inspired by God. Love meant transcendence of the highest level and Jesus told only that one feeling could save. Many cruel wars were fought on the continent. The Hundred Year War, the Thirty Year War, the wars of Louis XIV, the Napoleonic Wars, the First and Second World War. Endemic plaque and misery killed millions. Only the teaching of love helped sustain the masses. The face of mystery promised love and love always was sought after, the emotion that would in the end always prevail and be craved for. For no society can thrive, support and enforce itself without love. Far more than any other aspect the love appealed to Europeans. That is why there are far more pictures of the Virgin Mary than of any other theme of spirituality. Love meant mutual support, the believe in a better and sweeter world of peace. Love meant compassion and social institutions like the Venetian scuoli. It meant the glue that kept society together. It was the protective maphorion under which all could find shelter.

The figure of God was very present, clear and powerful in the first books of the old Bible. Then its voice waned, the actions and the involvement of God in the great conquests of people less obvious. After centuries of silence, recounted in Jewish history, centuries during which the cries of the Prophets became ever more desperate and their longing for a Messiah ever greater, suddenly God came again on the scene amidst an oppressed society of pious believers. Before the advent of Jesus it was as if the reasoning and logic of the Greek Philosophers and the Roman practical engineers and politicians pushed the myths in the background. But in historical times the face of God appeared in a person who called himself the Son of God. Suddenly for many there was again the clear and bright face. Then came the centuries of dogma, of exaltation and glorification without restraint and doubt. The face was known by then and portraits witnessed. These were the Sudarrii and the mandylions.

Then the face of God retreated once more in the shadows.

Our modern reasoning, logic and scepticism prevailed since the Enlightenment period. Scientific and historical investigation examined the portraits and checked the historical veracity of the accounts. Scientists enforced with the authority of objectivity, doubted all, proved nothing and disproved nothing but explained the processes of how man could have been urged to believe in myths, needed a God image for personal comfort and as a psychological anchor to drive his adventures. Religion was explained as being the expression of man’s own needs for social co-existence and these needs were maybe imposed in his gene information by an evolution of thousands of years. Transcendence and spiritualism were not necessary anymore. The face became stripped of its most marked features. It was the face of the moral messages, but secular humanism also could define a solid basis for morality. It was the face of protection but the materialism of the late twentieth century years could provide for all in a European and North American welfare society and thus it was proven that man himself could build such a protected society. In a world of growing welfare a personal God of solace was less and less necessary.

The face of Jesus had proclaimed love to be the highest transcendental value, but also this feeling was relativised and recuperated finally by the lay philosophers who introduced it in their writings. What remained were the dark outlines of a face that contained no power but that was the face of a god reclining in the darkness. And of course, the existence of a god was no longer necessary in the minds of materialistic wealthy societies of man who started to conquer space. So the face again receded to the background so that as in Georges Rouault’s picture only the dark lines remained as a few black strokes, as a far memory.

Whether one believes in a God and in Jesus Christ is an act of faith. The existence of God cannot be proven and cannot be disproved by our science and our reasoning and logic. Faith is an act of individual intuition. Maybe people with the greatest sensibility feel the presence more clearly than others do. Among these were certainly the great genius artists that made images of their personal Jesus.

Georges Rouault was one of those artists who believed. He was born in Paris in 1871, in a France that was ever more secularised but in which faith also continued to be lived passionately. At fourteen years old he was apprenticed to an artisan who worked with glass and who restored medieval stained glass windows. One may have remarked how Rouault’s face of Jesus was painted with the thick black lines of the lead linings of gothic stained glass cathedral windowpanes. Rouault was a Christian and a Roman Catholic. He was deeply influenced by the spiritualism of Gustave Moreau, a French Symbolist painter. A well-known episode of Rouault’s life was his stay in 1901 in the monastery of Ligugé. Ligugé was probably the oldest monastery of France, even though its buildings are modern now. Ligugé still exists today, it is situated just south of the city of Poitiers and it has a workshop of enamel jewellery and works of art that still produces Rouault’s designs.

Rouault was not recognised at first, his expressionist art too alien and new. He prepared scenes and costumes for the ballet ‘The Prodigal Son’ of Serge Diaghilev, and here at least is a small connection with Chagall. Rouault had to wait until the middle of the 1920’s before large exhibitions were organised of his work. He designed stained glass windows for the Church of Plateau d’Assy and his ‘Holy Face’ was reproduced in a tapestry for the Chapel of Hem. Slowly, Rouault’s art was accepted and he became famous. He died in 1958 in Paris.

One of the major works of Georges Rouault is a series of fifty-eight drawings in black and white. He made the series during a crucial period of his artistic production, from 1922 to 1927. The inspiration of his drawings may originate from the horrors of World War I, but Rouault handled all subjects in figures. The first part consisting of thirty-three drawings is called ‘Miserere’, the following twenty-five ones are called ‘War’ but the whole series is now presented under the first name in the Museum of La Rochelle. One of the major Catholic works of our era is thus most cherished in what was once the most fervent Protestant town of France. ‘Miserere’ was made from 1922 to 1923, ‘War’ mostly from 1926 to 1927. Many drawings were modified subsequently and Rouault only presented them to the public in 1946-1947, even only after World War II. Miserere is a reflection on God. It is a confrontation between God and the human nature. God and man are shown in suffering, in pain and in passion, drawn in only the fast thick, black strokes of mind-images. ‘Miserere’ is a work full of humanity, a cry for help and humble recognition of the bewilderment of man confronted with the suffering of life. ‘Miserere’ is the ultimate work of the artist faced with the impossibility to understand the nature of a God of love confronted with human suffering. This hearth-tearing fight inspired also other artists to large series of works of art. The greatest artist of all was probably Francisco de Goya y Lucientes who made his ‘Caprichos’ and ‘Desastres de la Guerra’. Like Goya’s drawings, Rouault’s work is all bitterness, but Rouault’s drawings always carry a hope that Goya had abandoned. Therefore the title of Rouault’s work was ‘Miserere Nobis’, or ‘Help us Lord’.

Why have all the qualities that made Jesus Christ for centuries the leader of European man’s thoughts and of European society disappeared? The belief in the leadership of the image and of the Christian churches has waned. The predominance of the clergy lay in its claim of managing more information than common man manages. The church clergy knew more than its members did. Its hierarchy claimed intimate knowledge of the spiritual world so that priests and bishops and monks received some of the divine qualities. But that difference in knowledge has disappeared and thus the additional quality. The information gap was closed by the philosophers of the eighteenth century who forced man into knowledge by science and rational thinking. A contemporary individual cannot believe anymore that a church hierarchy knows more about God than he or her. Each of us as individuals of the twenty-first century knows about as much about God as the church priests and bishops. This may be a powerful thought. But it means also that each stands alone without the comfort of a teacher and of a leader. We are confronted each for himself or herself with the decision to believe or not in a religion, in the Bible, in absolute freedom. We have to live in the certainty that there is no priest with the absolute certainty.

It may well be that the number of believers in Christianity or in any other religion dwindles because of fear of that freedom and of its consequences. It is easier not to believe than to believe because the consequences of not to believe are more simple and more easy. In any case more simple than believing a Jesus Christ was indeed the Son of God because that means living to super-human rules and principles as proclaimed by Jesus. No man or woman can be such a saint. But one thing is certain. With the disappearance of the information gap between the church hierarchy and common man the role of that hierarchy has to change from the traditional roles. The role of teaching, of promulgating and of distributing the information remains. But that role will have to be exercised in humility and steadfastness.

What then remains of the appeal and of the truths of Christendom? The belief or lack of belief remains. In the absolute freedom of choice for the believers lie a glory and a beauty that is as compelling as it was in the fifteenth century.

In the end, in our modern society of absolute freedom of choice the only differentiation in any choice will be aesthetics. Aesthetics of thoughts increasingly leads young people to religion as an individual choice. In this book we have shown some of the aesthetics that were linked with Christianity, not just in images, but also in thought. The greatest painters of the centuries from 1200 to the present demonstrated the aesthetics of the beliefs and thoughts, of the marvellous ethics of Christian religion by which could be lived. The Italian Renaissance idealised and divinised man more than any other period and that spirit shaped European civilisation more than the more realist, earthy images of northern Europe.

Pope Julius II was right after all. Here was a figure of overpowering genius who understood fundamentally how the most forceful appeals to humans, beauty and art, would and could lead to Christianity. He had used the sword, money and the word but in the end he must have understood that only aesthetics, the beauty led the people in the most effective way to God. He called to him the greatest artists of his century and by a strange chance of fate these proved to be the greatest geniuses of history. But in doing that Julius II and other Popes also created the largest schism that Christianity would know for the excesses that were needed to realise the glory of European Catholicism in beauty proved too expensive, too un-human. These Popes gave dominance to ideas and the realist spirit of northern Europe clashed with the southern culture.

Where then does the freedom come from? Christians have an answer that also explains the mystery of Christ. Freedom is because God has not entirely revealed himself. If the revelation had been complete there would have been no freedom. How free would we have been in the absolute certainty of the existence of a God interfering in our lives and our decisions?

If Jesus Christ had appeared in our times he would have been examined with all the artefacts and methods of our modern science. He would have been dissected in flesh and thoughts. It would have been established without a logical doubt whether God sent him or not. Jesus appeared in a moment of history when these modern tools of investigation did not yet exist, but at the same time when humanity had evolved far enough for history writing and written accounts. And he appeared in a people, the Jews, with a tradition of historical writing. But again, herein lies no proof of Jesus’s divine nature for Christianity may have occurred exactly then because the time was ripe for it. Many other religions sprang from these centuries. Jesus lived in times from which we have a picture, a written mask made by the people who lived with him. That picture and mask comes out of the dark but it has clear outlines as Rouault’s visages of Christ.

A well-known description of the face of Jesus was given in a Latin text dating from the thirteenth century. The text was supposedly written as a letter by a man called Lentulus, a Roman official of Jesus’s times, written during the reign of Emperor Tiberius. The letter describes Jesus as a tall and handsome man, with long, smooth hair the colour of unripe hazel-nut, falling onto Jesus’s shoulders and parted in the middle in the fashion of the Nazareans. His face was fair, though it could be reddened by the sun. Jesus had a beard, forked a little at the chin, but not a long beard, and of the same colour as his hair. His face looked mature and he had flashing, clear, grey eyes. Jesus never laughed. He was grave and reserved in talk. The letter is most probably a legend, but it shows how people thought of Jesus in the Middle Ages and this image has remained real in our mind. Rouault showed a more vague, inner picture of emotions.

If you don’t believe in a God and in Jesus, you may have gained several insights from this book. You may better understand how important the influence of Christian religion was on society and how this influence continues through some of the most beautiful messages of goodness and solidarity. You may have gained respect for the emotions of the artists. You may have grasped the importance of Christian spirituality in the European societies from 1200 to 1700 certainly and then its diminishing role until our times. For the period after 1700 you may have read about the constant struggles between spiritualism and materialism, between State and Church. But you may still have seen how spirituality and transcendent values such as love never disappeared, always remained present in the minds of artists and thus of society. You will enjoy the grandeur of the visions humans can have, as you may have seen how artists also brought images of Jesus in everyday life. You may not have found God but you may have followed a path of reflection and of spirituality. You will know the marvellous poetic images that extraordinary humans can bring to life when they have a generous belief. And maybe you will find comfort in knowing that the artists created paradigms of thought that influenced generations. You may better understand the power of the values proclaimed by Jesus and how these influenced our history.

If you believe in a God you will probably feel comforted in the knowledge that you stand in the company of some of the most marvellous and intelligent people of history. You will like it to know that you can stand next to Michelangelo Buonarroti, Tiziano Vecellio, Sandro Botticelli, Andrea Mantegna, Charles Le Brun, and Georges Rouault. You who have read and admired until this page will very probably know that these painters also thought and doubted their religion and their image of God but always chose the exaltation in the end. You will know that you need not be ashamed for your belief and you can relish the sensitivity expressed in the pictures. You will have the spirituality of feeling united with nature as an added force. You will know that the values proposed and offered by Jesus and the early Christian community form a powerful basis to arrange your life by, just as the artists expressed altruism and goodness far more than ugliness and violence. Love is the only value and only love is enough.

Other Paintings:

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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