University of Southern California

Center for Religion & Civic Culture

Looking at Jesus In Paintings

Image of Looking at Jesus In Paintings

Note from Prof. Krieger: I have been working in City Heights in San Diego, and documenting the churches there. I have a book in progress on “pollution” and one of its foci is images of Christ and how they are always imbued with flesh and reality, and how the transcendent and the mundane are so ineradicably intertwined by picturing and storytelling. The blog post attached is from my work on that book.

In Jesus' lifetime he was not so distinct from other Jews, except perhaps for his charismatic qualities. He was a Jew within a spectrum of Judaism. The Pharisees and the other rabbis had not only to cope with dissident Jews, but also with their Roman environment. Jesus was not their only or even major problem. The separation of the Christians from the Jews, what seems fairly sharp now, was of course not so clear then. While modern Christians might like to believe, as would his early followers, that there were unmistakable signs of who Jesus was, the situation was more fluid. Any clarity we now see, as did Paul, is a retrospective construct.

Even if Jews do not now recognize the markers of transcendence that say Jesus is Christ, modern Christians must surely hold out retrospective hope for Jews contemporary with Jesus. That is, if we cannot agree on who is marked for ultimate election or salvation, we also will not agree on who is surely not so marked. Jesus' followers, Christians, could not have known which of the persecutors—Romans, Pharisees, Sadducees, pagans—would be won over in time, just who would see the light and be convinced by the miraculous evidence. So when Rubens paints The Tribute Money he must portray the rabbis as not only potential persecutors (along with Rome), but as potential converts. This is the least he owes to historical verisimilitude. At that moment one could not be sure who would end up on each side. Yet Rubens knows about Jesus' authenticity in a way no early Christian could have, and he does not resist the temptation to express that knowledge.

How modern Christians are to treat Jews contemporary with Jesus epitomizes a more general problem. Jesus Christ is a figure who is claimed to be transcendent. Transcendence lifts him out of the fleshly world into a spiritual one. Yet we know he is flesh. We must pay allegiance to both the flesh and the spirit, as contemporary scholarship has shown. More generally, we pay allegiance to the actual facts of life and to transcendent idealizations—keeping in mind that the notions of fact and idealization and that something is a fact or an idealization, is a product of the cultural work we do? A portrait of a person is both a canvas covered with a pigmented emulsion and a vital representation of him, and if that person is a Christ it is also a spiritual representation. It is not material or personal or transcendent. It is all three; no one is the truth; they are different and opposed. Explanations, reductive or otherwise, of how they are reconcilable and are not really opposed just displace the tension of marginality onto other aspects of our lives. The tension is an inescapable fact for us.

For self-proclaimed believers, explanation and demystification will fail. They see the spiritual or the living portrait immediately. They are not confused by the material supports. It never occurs to them that they might be in a dream world, or be seeing mostly empty space filled with a few atoms, to use the skeptic's usual examples. Philosophic, scientific, and materialist claims are quite distant from the believers' everyday manifest world.

Transcendent things have a history through which they have acquired our respect. It is a history with at least three strands: a history of how veneration and honor are to be displayed in general; of how a particular person comes to be so honored; and of how a representation of him is taken to be authentic and worthy of devotion. Jesus' body has a history, as an embodiment of divinity, as a relic, as an object, and as his body in life. These histories have depended not only on conventionally documented events, but on artists' renderings of those events which then gives them concreteness. The actual depends on what we take to be transcendent, as much as the transcendent is a historical product of the actual. This is as true for a painting of an historical event as for a portrayed Christ's relationship to the actual Jesus.

Modern Jews know that Jesus was flesh, but Christians know that he was Godly flesh emptied of its divinity, an entirely different species. But when the Christians were not so separate from the Jews, the nature of Jesus' flesh was not so surely settled. The transcendent objects we have now are historical artifacts, separated out from their original social life, and elevated into un-made, revealed things. They are fetishes. As we shall see, voyeurism is an appropriate attitude toward them.