Rowan Williams talks Jesus art

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.

In other words, the calm, stately, radiant Christ that still lives on in much of today’s art fails to confront viewers with anything new. In one of its earlier forms, the Christ Pantocrator of Eastern Orthodox iconography, this image was ironic. (So Williams says; the irony is lost on me.) But “once the irony has been lost or forgotten, once a tradition has become ‘obviously’ the way to depict Christ, the image can retain power of a kind, but its witness to change becomes less evident.”

Williams commends a few contemporary artists for their ironic use of familiar or half-familiar religious images: Mark Wallinger’s Ecce Homo, Michael Gough’s Iconography (a performance piece), Yuri Titov’s broken icons, and Roger Wagner’s Menorah.

I understand what Williams values in these religious artworks, but ironic isn’t the word I’d use to describe them or that quality that religious art needs but often lacks. Perhaps the four examples above are ironic in the sense that they’re unexpected, sure, but irony can be done wrong as well—not only irreverently but also with little to offer the viewer beyond a chuckle or a dropped jaw. That’s not to say that art should never challenge or offend us; on the contrary, it often should. But what I find in the secular art world is that Jesus is often appropriated as a symbol of cultural Christianity and then is indignified in some way as a supposed statement on either the commercialization of religion or the hypocrisy or naivete of Christians. Maybe this is another example of a particular trope losing its irony and thus its power to say anything meaningful; the image of a cheapened Christ—Christ as Ken doll, Christ as Mickey Mouse, Christ as altar wine ice pop—has become obvious, easy, safe. Unfortunately many artists avoid the hard work of actually exploring who Jesus is, what he did and taught, and what he might mean for today before pulling his likeness out of their bag of tricks.

Some examples of Jesus done right

Rather than encouraging an ironic treatment of Christ’s likeness in art, I would say instead—perhaps too vaguely—that good contemporary religious art is that which engages traditional iconography in fresh ways. It searches for new metaphors, meanings, and links in the old narratives, considering how Christ is relevant to our modern-day context. Such works might display an innovation of materials, style, setting, or form.

In the past I’ve highlighted several examples of what I deem inspired contemporary depictions of Christ. These include

Other artists who in my mind have successfully (and prolifically) depicted Christ are Arcabas, Nicholas Mynheer, and Julia Stankova; they consistently breathe new life into an old story through their work, each having developed their own distinctive style, and each continuing to make insightful connections. In terms of contextualization, Indian artist Jyoti Sahi and Chinese artist He Qi do an excellent job of using symbols and narratives from their respective cultures to explore the significance of Christ’s work from an Eastern perspective.

Group interpretation: or, The importance of community in meaning making

Williams tells us that Christian art has never been self-explanatory. Images can only tell us, “Here is something important”; to find out what that something is, we actually have to share the life of the people who made the image. “The image will not tell you its own importance,” Williams writes. “You are invited to sit alongside people for whom this matters and discover why. If you don’t, the image simply remains.”

As an ancient example Williams mentions the Good Shepherd, a common motif in the Christian catacombs of Rome. To those Romans who were not Christian, this figure would have looked like an anonymous youth with a lamb slung over his shoulders. “Here is an ordinary representation that clearly has extraordinary significance, but a significance that does not show itself as an element in the actual physical composition,” Williams writes.

This can be generalized, I think, to all religious art: none of it is self-interpreting. If you walk into a worship space set up by someone outside your own religion, I think you’ll see what I mean. The iconography of Hindu deities, for example, is just as cryptic to me as Christian iconography might be to a Hindu. I cannot discern the meaning of all the symbols or all the plot points of the narrative just from looking at the pictures; such information and its significance can be gleaned only from talking with the artists who made those images or with the people who use them in their worship.

“The [religious] image will not tell you its own importance.” This is a provocative statement, and after sitting with it for some time, I have to agree.  Religious images grow out of a very particular context, and if you’re not familiar with that context, the image will not communicate its full meaning to you. However, when you begin to learn what that image means to the community that produced it, it takes on greater power.

In today’s post-Christian culture (in the West), people are less aware of who Jesus is than ever before. In an art book I was reading recently (I can’t remember which one), the author remarked overhearing a museum visitor ask one of the docents who that man was hanging on that wooden crossbream. (I’m a little incredulous of that, but such was the claim.) Another visitor supposedly commented that it’s really nice there are so many paintings of mothers with their child, but why is the child always a boy?—where are the daughters?

To the first visitor, the Crucifixion image probably just looked like a man being executed. Maybe he even recognized in it a profound expression of human suffering, or could infer that it was a picture of self-sacrifice. But any of these readings are incomplete; they’re too shallow.

For the second visitor, the images of the Madonna and Child were endearing portraits of motherhood, highlighting a special bond, promoting family values. But this too falls short of the images’ intended meaning.

It was in community that these two subjects—the Crucifixion and the Madonna and Child—developed visually and acquired meaning, and it is still in community that they, like the Word that inspired them, are best interpreted.

The radical presence of Christ

The key to effectively representing Jesus in art, Williams claims, is to focus not on his self-contained presence but on the effects of his presence. How does Jesus’s presence alter things? In what ways does an environment or a community change because Jesus was there? “Divinity . . . is speakable or tangible only as perceived in the changes it effects. . . . The challenge is to create a frame of visual reference that prompts the question of how and why a whole landscape is altered by the presence of the single provoking figure.”

I’m not sure whether this is a helpful guideline. It’s easy enough to depict the alterations brought about by Jesus’s physical miracles—people are healed, people are fed, waves are stilled, et cetera—but how does one depict the spiritual changes that Jesus’s presence effects? Soul conversions aren’t always accompanied by emotional expressiveness, and though they do lead to certain actions, that’s still only externals. And what about portraiture—can that not be just as effective a communicator of Christ’s person as narrative painting?

And we’re back to that catch-22 that has beset the history of Christian art: “the tension between recognising that the change associated with Jesus is incapable of representation and recognising that for the change to be communicable it must in some way be represented.”

The nature of art, whether secular or religious, is to convey visibly something of the invisible. There are many tools an artist keeps in his tool chest to accomplish such a task. I’m so glad that God has gifted so many of his children to bring us these visions, to help us see and know Christ in new ways. Artists, thank you for taking the risk to show us what the divine looks like—or what life looks like when he is present.


I want to hear from you. In your opinion, what are some examples of effective contemporary depictions of Christ?

If you’re an artist who works on religious themes, how have you navigated the complex task of picturing divinity?

If you were able to see the “Presence” exhibition that toured six British cathedrals, what were your impressions?

Williams writes that “presumably, any contemporary artist trying to represent Christ is unlikely to be seeking either to portray a figure from 2,000 years ago or to produce a devotional image.” I wouldn’t presume the second is true, but how does function affect how the artist chooses to depict Christ?

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