Who says you can’t wear jeans to church? Jesus is doing it.
For the last two years, a bronze, denim-clad Jesus has been hanging off the side of the bell tower at Our Lady Immaculate and St. Philip Neri Catholic Church in Uckfield, East Sussex, England. The statue, created by Marcus Cornish, was unveiled two years ago and continues to be an eye-catcher for passersby. (To see a panoramic shot of the church and to hear what some area residents have to say, watch the 90-second BBC broadcast.)
“We wanted a figure of Christ not in suffering but dynamic and welcoming,” said parish priest Father David Buckley. “We felt this design summed up the spirit and activity of Christ perfectly, and I think it speaks for itself.”
Cornish, the artist, said that he meant for the statue to exemplify the truth that we are not to be afraid because Christ is always with us. He said that he clothed Jesus in contemporary dress to suggest that Jesus belongs as much to the present as he does to the past. “I hope this sculpture will inspire and communicate in very human terms, reaching out and being relevant to both the congregation and local community,” Cornish told The Telegraph. My reaction? I do like the spirit of the statue, its intention. Jesus’ wind-whipped hair and garments suggest a certain aliveness, and seem to say to me, “I’m loving life!” I also like how he’s leaning forward instead of standing up straight and stiff, as he is so often portrayed; this casual posture suggests a Christ who wants to engage with the world, a Christ who invites everyone to come experience the life that he gives. He refuses to stay fixed to the bricks, so he breaks through the invisible picture plane to make contact with the viewers below. Does the statue perfectly embody the spirit of Christ, as Father Buckley said? I don’t know about that. But then again, can any work by human hands ever come close to conveying the essence of an infinite, divine being?
Though I like the concept of the work and parts of its execution, I can’t say that I can fully embrace this portrayal of Christ. I think it’s because of his face. His eyes are squinted, and his mouth is contorted in an odd way—like he’s about to sneeze or something. I know that viewing a work on a computer screen is nothing like viewing it in person, so maybe something is being lost in translation, but it’s hard for me to connect with this Christ. But that could very well be because of his high placement. Distance always tends to lessen the impact of a work for me, because it makes the viewing experience less up close and personal. When artists create pieces that are going to be viewed from afar, they generally don’t spend much time perfecting facial details. But the eyes are my favorite entry point into portraits. Unfortunately, church toppers don’t allow that kind of access.
What do you think of the statue? Can you make anything of his facial expression? What about his pose? (It’s suggestive of the crucifixion, yet there’s no cross. Good move, or not?) Is this what a twenty-first-century Jesus should look like? What biblical truths does he express, if any?