Monday, August 15, 2011

Was a Famous Artist's Controversial Depiction of Jesus Intentional?

Would you believe me if I said the guy in the painting below is Jesus? 

Well, it is, or it’s supposed to be, as envisioned by the great 17th century Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn.

The painting was created sometime between 1648-1656, was one in a series of “Head of Christ” paintings, and was found in the artist’s home after he died. And now it, along with other paintings, prints and drawings, can be seen in the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s “Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus” exhibit.

You may wonder what’s so special about the drawing above. Well, take a look at another one in the series of “Head of Christ” paintings.

You may be saying, “That’s not Jesus! That looks like an average bloke.”

And therein lies Rembrandt’s genius…

You see, most of us are used to iconic images of Christ. Something like this:

Or this:

And perhaps one of the most popular depictions of Jesus:

Now take another look at Rembrandt’s Head of Christ:

See anything missing? How about the halo, the crown of thorns, the flowing robe, the throngs of followers… In the above picture, Jesus looks like an average dude because, well, he was an average dude. (At least at first.)

And that’s what’s brilliant about Rembrandt. By depicting Jesus as an average man with a human face, Rembrandt turned the entire history of Christian art—one accustomed to rigid prototypical depictions of Jesus--on its head. No other artist up until this point had broken this tradition. Rembrandt was the first. 

Kinda ballsy, right?

It’s hard to imagine this being such a controversial thing, but in 17th century Europe, it was quite a bold move for the iconoclastic Rembrandt to take. He lived during the Renaissance, a movement devoted to Christianity, especially in art. The Church patronized the arts, the result of which was roughly three hundred years of “traditional” depictions of biblical themes.

So now here was this Dutch dude, looking to break with tradition and depict the most famous of icons…as an average man?

That’s some radical stuff! That would kinda be like Stephen Hawking announcing that Earth was indeed the center of the solar system. Can you imagine the backlash such a claim would create?

But was Rembrandt’s break with traditional intentional, or just the natural progression of an artist? Did he mean to be controversial—or just realistic?

First, let’s not forget that Jesus was Jewish. We know that Rembrandt lived among a growing Jewish community in his native Amsterdam, and that he was highly influenced by their life and culture. And we know that Jewish people were often the subject of many a drawing and sketch, and that such artwork by Rembrandt grew and evolved over time as he educated himself about Jewish history. Knowing this, we can draw the conclusion that eventually the Jewish population provided more than just subject matter; it provided patrons…and people who would pose for him so that he may more realistically depict their life and culture.

There’s no doubt that Rembrandt used a live (Jewish) model in which to depict his "Head of Christ" series of paintings.

So was there a little piece of Rembrandt that wanted to shake things up, upend tradition and get people talking by depicting Jesus in a non-traditional way? Certainly. But more than likely, the “Head of Christ” paintings are a product of an artist’s surroundings, an attempt to show a realistic portrait of the most influential man that western civilization has ever known.

The “Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus” exhibit runs through October 30, 2011. Go see it because it’s the first Rembrandt exhibit to set foot in Philadelphia since 1932. Go see it because it’s exceedingly rare (Rembrandt never intended for most of the collection to see the light of day). Go see it because seven of the paintings in the exhibit are being reunited for the first time since they were found in 1656. And go see it because it is artistically, historically and culturally significant.

For information see the Philadelphia Museum of Art’swebsite.