Wednesday, November 10, 2010

What Looking at a Painting Can Do

Many years ago, shortly after becoming a Christian, I came across a remarkable painting by Michelangelo Caravaggio entitled The Supper at Emmaus. I was at my school's library in downtown Chicago—Grant Park was right outside the window from where I sat. I was flipping through a bunch of books that I had grabbed off the shelves. I was just wasting time, waiting for a class to begin. That day when I caught sight of this painting, it began for me a new way of seeing Jesus. Immediately, the painting caught my eye, because it wasn’t your typical “religious” work. In fact, it was almost too non-descript, and at first, I didn’t realize that it was a painting depicting anything sacred or religious— it just looked like a painting of a few guys eating together. I’ve only seen this painting in art books, and one day, I hope to venture to the National Gallery in London and see it up close. I am sure it will then be even more significant then when I see it up-close.

Something was special about this painting, made up of nothing more than some oils placed with some thought on the canvas. As I stood staring at it, I realized why it held my attention and I recognized its uniqueness. It was how the characters looked. You know what caught my eye? Jesus looks real. Gone is the blond hair and blue eyes. He looks like a real Hebrew guy, olive skin and all. You see, the painter Caravaggio did something earth shattering in his time as an artist—he painted Jesus like a real person; amazingly, he looked human and real-to-life. In fact, very uncommon for his time, most of Caravaggio’s models were peasants from local villages. Instead of painting the noble and the wealthy as his models for John the Baptist or Jesus or any other biblical character, he was painting the cobblers, fishermen and maidens of his day, and therefore his paintings took on a look that was authentic. 

With this, in this painting of Caravaggio’s, Jesus looks like a person; someone you could know, the guy next door. He seems approachable. This is the operative word—Jesus in this painting comes off as a person. Before this, in the art world—for the artist, Jesus was never a person—He was just “God.” Most of the artists in this period were painting the “majestic Christ”—the unapproachable Jesus, the one on the throne, the one you needed to schedule by appointment. But this is only half the story because Jesus really is a person, a friend, a confidant. In contrast, with Caravaggio’s painting, you see this “friend” aspect come out onto the canvas. Jesus is just hanging out, eating a meal and shootin’ the breeze. When I saw this painting, this was in my early years in being a Christian and this was the Jesus I wanted to get to know. You could get close to him. This is what I wanted. Unlike other religious art I had seen up to that point, it captured Jesus as someone you would want to get to know. As a contrast, go look at some of the art work from this period and you will notice that the characters are oblong and uncomfortable. Let me illustrate some examples; you might have seen some art depicting Jesus like this:

•    Painting No. 1: Baby Jesus is white and his face looks like he’s 59 years old—wrinkled and balding. He wears a smirk, a baptismal gown and a bratty look.
•    Painting No. 2: Jesus has his kingly pose, no smile, wearied look and it looks as if he might want to think about getting a prescription for some Prozac.

Again, these portrayals of Jesus’ just don’t seem real. They don’t really tell the story. These painting are depicting Jesus as he is not. Caravaggio was getting into it, painting as if he was there, sitting at the very table, and showing you something sacred and important. 

For us, this is important, because how we see Jesus can be an important step in actually knowing him. If you imagine Jesus to be unapproachable or dour or aloof, this will obviously impact how you relate to him. The Bible calls this idolatry; when we attribute to God something that he is not. This is precisely why reading the Bible can be so important, because in essence, the Bible is over and over attempting to show us who God really is. Because of our culture, our upbringing, and what others tell us (be that our friends or the media), these aspects offer an "image" of God and this often does not line up to what the Scriptures say about him. The more and more we can imagine (i.e., to simply form a mental picture) the real Jesus, the better we can know him and how he relates to us in our daily lives. When that occurs, things can open up for us in knowing who God really is.

Here are a couple of verses from the Bible that you can read that perhaps can help you "re-imagine" who God really is:

He reached down from on high and took hold of me; he drew me out of deep waters.
He rescued me from my powerful enemy, from my foes, who were too strong for me.
They confronted me in the day of my disaster, but the LORD was my support.
He brought me out into a spacious place;  he rescued me because he delighted in me.

Psalm 18:16-19

I'll make a list of God's gracious dealings, all the things God has done that need praising, All the generous bounties of God, his great goodness to the family of Israel— Compassion lavished, love extravagant.
He said, "Without question these are my people, children who would never betray me."So he became their Savior. In all their troubles, he was troubled, too. He didn't send someone else to help them. He did it himself, in person. Out of his own love and pity he redeemed them. He rescued them and carried them along for a long, long time.

Isaiah 63: 7-9 (The Message)

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