The Face of Christ: Part 4 – Christ in Culture and Art

As discussed in the previous installment of this series, it is both acceptable and good to preserve and appreciate art from around the world. In the following, we will discuss types of depictions of Christ, examine the implications of depicting His face, and get the chance to view examples of that art from around the globe.

While there is as much variety of art as there are cultures, many have pointed out that much art in America has a strong Western European influence. While this is not entirely true, for we cannot ignore the Jewish origin and Byzantine influence, in America, much of our art is of Western Europe. You may wonder why this is true in America, the melting pot. When we think of an image of Christ, we probably have the same general image that comes to mind. Where is the diversity? The answer to that is simple. A lot of our art in the United States, religious and otherwise, comes from and is based on the styles from Europe because most Americans are (way back, anyway) from Europe.

In addition, as we discussed last time, most of the arts were sponsored by the Church in later centuries. By “the church” I mostly mean the Roman Catholic Church, although there was less of a distinction then. As the Roman Catholic Church was largely centralized in the West, most of the Christian religious art we are used to seeing would look like art from the West. As Americans are primarily drawn from Europe, most of our exposure to art will be from Europe or influenced by European art.

However, if you were to go to some regions of the United States with large populations from a specific country, you will probably find art that has similar styles to where those people are from. Such is the case around the rest of the world. Each area or nation you went to would have art, including Christian art, similar to the country they are found and used in. People create art that is like the people they are from, pagan, Christian, or otherwise. Why would that not be true here? Today, however, and especially with the advent of the internet, we can access a wide variety of art to view and enjoy.

The privilege of living in the 21st century, especially in 21st-century America, is that we have access to art from across the globe and from seemingly countless cultures. We also have grown up in a culture, for better or worse, that is acutely focused on being accurate culturally and historically. We laugh at Medieval depictions of biblical scenes, like those where Mary and Joseph are dressed in the painter’s contemporary garb, scoffing at how the artist could have been so ignorant. But such representations have been true for ages, and are even true today. It was not seen as being insensitive or inaccurate. That was not the goal of the art. Instead, the goal was to bring scenes from the Bible to life for congregants to understand, enjoy, and learn from.

There is also the fact that artists often copied other art, and there was typically a consistent style across certain areas. This is especially true with orthodox iconography. But both these and other images found in churches then and today were for worship, decoration, and education, made in the style of the culture (1). It is only in most recent years that religious art has made an effort to be historically accurate or correct as we think of it today. That is not to say how it was done in the past or how it is done now is good or bad; it just is what it is. It is art in context.

But what about these images of Christ’s face? I have always struggled with depictions of Christ that show His face. It probably has a lot to do with my upbringing and the influence of my mother, as she often took issue with such depictions. Actually, she had a problem with any depiction that did not look like what we think of as a 1st-century Jewish man. I remember her even coloring over Christ’s hair in a picture Bible we had! So, I have always had an odd relationship with art showing the face of Christ. I was always concerned, especially as a child, that we did something wrong to depict His face. I mean, this is the Son of God we are talking about. What if we got it wrong? It is certainly reassuring that our salvation rests on God alone and not our works!

But along these lines of not showing the face of Christ, I know of an artist that depicts scenes from the Bible, typically painting Gospel stories. He never shows the face of Christ, but the paintings are incredibly moving. Still, there was this picture at the Church I grew up in of Christ that I loved. It was a graphite drawing of Christ, His face turned away, and He had the crown of thorns on His head. That one has always stuck with me. It showed the humanity of Christ in His suffering, and maybe even the moments of the Father turning His face away from His Son who had taken on our sin.

And this brings me back to the quote from the previous installment. There are those paintings and images where you can see the face of our Lord and Savior, and you see the humanity. Jesus is not some distant thing, though we could never have reached Him on our own. No, instead, Jesus dwelt among mankind. He is Immanuel. He is God with us in human form. In the depictions where we see the face of Christ, we connect on an emotional level as people do, through the emotions displayed on His face. We see God come to earth to be with His creation and save His children. And as we discussed before, there is nothing wrong or immoral by depicting His face (1).

Thus, it is with this understanding that I view images of Christ from around the world. People across the globe have depicted Him, their God in the flesh come to save them, as they know how to represent people. They show the scenes from the Bible as though they happened in their culture. And why not? It does not matter what culture they happened in – other than it is good to know history – for these events happened when God came to earth to take on the form of a man to live and die for His creation. These stories, this message, this Gospel was meant for all people.

During this time, I have taken the chance to look for such depictions of Christ from around the world. Many I had seen before, both as a teacher of history and a student of art, but many I had not. I am glad for this opportunity. Moreover, I am glad to share this opportunity and these beautiful examples with you! The following will show examples of art from many cultures depicting Christ.

Most of these you have probably not seen before. It was difficult for me to choose art to show here. There was such a variety! But here is a sampling. I hope you will look into more art from the 1st century through the Medieval period, the Renaissance, and the modern age around the world. In total, this art demonstrates that while there are general ways we typically depict Christ, primarily if a particular sect or community influences them, the perceived ethnicity can vary. As you will see, specific aspects of Christ’s face or dress often take on aspects of the culture in which He is being depicted. This is not a bad or good thing; it is just typical of how art has always been created. While there are seemingly endless examples of Christian art, we will only view a few examples of artistic depictions of Christ from around the world.

How wonderful it is that the people of God from across the globe have used their unique talents to depict their Savior to His glory and to the edification of His people! These images here are only a small selection for obvious space reasons. But what a time to be alive where a simple search can bring us to so many amazing pieces of art! I hope you will also take the chance to look at art from around the world from all places, all times, and all people. Finally, it will be these people, and the message sent to these people, that will be discussed in the following and final installment of this series.

Blessings to you and yours,

~Madelyn Rose Craig

Works Referenced

  1. “Art, Ecclesiastical and Religious.” Christian Cyclopedia. Edited by Erwin L. Lueker, Luther Poellot, Paul Jackson. Concordia Publishing House. 2000. G. G. Coulton, Art and the Reformation, 2d ed. (Cambridge, 1953); K. M. McClinton, Christian Church Art Through the Ages (New York, 1962); E. Male, Religious Art from the Twelfth to the Eighteenth Century (New York, 1963); E. Male, The Gothic Image (New York, 1958).

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