In 2004 Dr. Rowan Williams, then archbishop of Canterbury, wrote an introduction to the exhibition catalog for “Presence: Images of Christ for the Third Millennium,” reflecting on the challenges inherent to the task of representing Jesus in art and how different artists through the years have coped with those challenges. The Guardian published an excerpt, and it is that excerpt that I want to engage here.
Eschewing obviousness in favor of irony
The primary challenge for the artist attempting to depict Christ is how to convey his dual nature: fully man yet fully God. It’s one of the greatest paradoxes of Christianity, and it presents a problem for both theologians and artists. For artists, that problem is formal: How can a figure be rendered as thisworldly and otherworldly at the same time? What does divinity clothed in humanity look like?
Some artists throw their hands up in surrender, saying that it can’t be done. Others attempt to solve the issue by representing a human being engulfed in light, an indication that here is someone special. Such was the recourse of most artists from the seventeenth through early twentieth centuries, whose work Williams considers to be, for the most part, spiritually flat. The Baroque, German Nazarene, Pre-Raphaelite, and naturalist movements failed in their attempts to create meaningful religious art because, says Williams, the works lacked irony; they simply deferred to the familiar:
The style renders visible the obviousness of religious sentiment of a certain kind, and so makes practically unthinkable any perception other than that already familiar. That is not to say it cannot operate as religious art of a kind, as what you might call casual reinforcement of shared piety; but it fails, once again, as a depiction of difference or distinctiveness, and so as a depiction of the divine importance, the reference-changing character, of Jesus.