Imagining Jesus

Views 55 | Time to read: 3 minutes | Uploaded: 3 - 8 - 2019 | By: Lisa Deboer and Caryn Reeder

Lisa DeBoer
Professor of Art

Caryn Reeder
Associate Professor of New Testament Religious Studies
Co-coordinator of Gender Studies Program

“The Word became flesh and camped out with us” (John 1:14, Reeder’s translation). In the incarnation, God takes on human life, language, culture, dust and grit between the toes, and the need to eat and drink to survive (cf. Heb. 2:10-17). The incarnation is particular. The Word became Jewish flesh in first century Roman-occupied Galilee. But there is also scope for imaginative richness in the idea of incarnation. In the New Testament, Jesus is a mother hen, the great high priest, a crucified slave, a slain lamb, God’s wisdom, a powerful prophet. Jesus apparently cannot be limited to any one image.

No biblical text tells us what the incarnate Jesus looked like, but that has not stopped Christians from all eras and places from imagining the incarnate Jesus. That in itself is not a problem. In fact, it celebrates the intersection of two core tenets of the Christian faith: the incarnation and the unified diversity of the body of Christ, the church (Gal. 3:27-28, Col. 3:9-11, Rev. 7:9-10). Putting a face on the incarnate Jesus only becomes problematic when certain images of Jesus are universalized, particularly in spaces, places, and for rites that are meant to be truly universal.

The Voskuyl Chapel window shows the idea of the incarnation via a particular set of pictorial customs and practices rooted in the 19th century French academy. The style and imagery grow out of what Catholic liturgical scholars have dubbed “European devotionalism.” Through the mechanisms of both colonialism and technology (in this case the technologies of mass reproduction), European devotionalism was effectively universalized—exported all over the globe, and presented as “the art of everyone.” That is, what started as a “local” image of Jesus gets presented as the universal Jesus, and issues a demand that it be accepted as everyone’s image of Jesus. It often extirpated local visual vocabularies and smothered local artistic traditions that could have been fruitfully integrated into contextualized, inculturated Christian worship.

We have in the chapel a kind of “universalized-yet-local Jesus.” The iconography of the image is fairly thin. There is a long Christian tradition of representing Christ as the cosmic ruler of all creation—possibly the intent of the problematically partial globe at Christ’s feet (though other common attributes of this iconography are missing). Jesus’s open hands seem to be a vague gesture of welcome more often associated with devotional images of Mary. (What Mary does with her hands, unless she’s holding the infant Christ, is less consequential than what Jesus does with his hands.)

One thing is certain: The history of Christian imagery offers much richer and “thicker” images for devotional purposes than the image in the chapel window. The art of the church, reflecting the diverse images in the New Testament, challenges us to complexify our understanding of Jesus and seek to see Jesus in unexpected faces.


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