Essay / Art

The Life of Jesus in Paintings at the Getty

Getty Center The Getty Center in Los Angeles is not really the best place to go if you want to see Christian art. Except for the remarkable collection of illuminated manuscripts, the Getty’s collection just isn’t built around the themes and images of the Christian visual tradition –it started as a collection of French furniture and antiquities, and snowballed from there. Go to the Getty for the architecture, the setting, the breadth of the collection, the manuscripts, the photography exhibits, but not for Jesus.

Nevertheless, Christian ideas dominated the world of painting for so many centuries, and produced so many masterpieces, that any good collection of Western painting –which the Getty’s surely is– will have images of Jesus. Here is a quick tour of the best images of the life of Jesus on display at the Getty, and the theological insights to be gleaned from them.

veronese baptism
The Baptism of Christ, by Paolo Veronese.

The public ministry of Jesus begins at his baptism in the Jordan River by John the Baptist. Following an ancient tradition, the sixteenth-century Italian painter Veronese organizes his painting with a strong vertical axis: Jesus below, the dove representing the Holy Spirit above him, and a burst of light above that. The arrangement, when it works, provides a perfect portrayal of the Trinity, from the Father above (“This is my beloved Son”), through the descending Spirit, to the incarnate Son submitting to John’s baptism “to fulfill all righteousness.” What could be better than an image of the saving work of the Trinity terminating on Jesus Christ?

Jesus is incarnate, and the Spirit is, for once in salvation history, able to be represented visually. But how do you signify the Father? Generally a burst of light is enough. Unfortunately, in this case Veronese has attempted to show the otherworldliness of that break in the clouds by interposing little winged angel heads. These might be excusable as decorative elements, but in this painting they are supposed to help the viewer turn his thoughts toward heaven. If you can look at floating winged baby heads and think of the Almighty, you’re a better viewer of Renaissance art than I am. Better to look down at the human figures with their mannered gestures. Veronese has frozen them in motion, as if they are ballet dancers. Christ bends low, John interposes his hand into the path of the dove’s descent.

Beuckelaer fishes
The Miraculous Draught of Fishes, Joachim Beuckelaer.

What if the New Testament had taken place in Antwerp in 1563? The miracles of Jesus would have been throned with Belgian peasants, busy with their daily activities. That’s what we get in the foreground of this 7-foot wide panel painting. Common people, merchants, cooks, families, busy at the task of dividing up the miraculous catch. In the background, in a muted color, is the Bible story, reading in a series of vignettes from left to right. Now here is inculturation of a Bible story into a contemporary situation! The Bible gone to the Belgian bourgeoisie? It seems like an especially appropriate way of handling one of the miracles in which Jesus interacted with crowds or with commercial interests. He was right in there amid the hustle and bustle of daily life. The idea of painting a scene with researched historical accuracy, down to authentic first century costuming and props, would come along much later in the history of painting. In the meantime, this was the way to show that Jesus was somewhere in particular: by putting him into the painter’s most familiar “somewhere.”
boulogne adultress
Christ and the Adultress, Valentin de Boulogne.
With a name like Valentine Baloney, you do what you can. And this 17th-century painter does a lot. The darkness of this painting is striking, and it invites you to start staring hard at details right away. Resist that urge a little, and instead notice the big picture: Squint hard at the canvas and you’ll see that only a few bright spots stand out of the darkness. The main bright spots are the glowing skin tones shared only by Jesus and the woman caught in adultery. The other big thing to notice in this painting is the way the arms and bodies set up linear forces. You can see this more easilyboulogne adultress flipped if you look at the image upside down. Mostly, the soldiers and the Jewish leaders are standing up fairly straight, which makes the exceptions stand out more. The greatest exception is Jesus, whose bright, diagonally-extended arm is a stark contrast to the less extreme angles in the rest of the picture. His hand is reached out, its index finger reaching all the way to the bottom edge of the canvas. What is he writing? John’s Gospel doesn’t tell us, it just says he wrote in the sand. The painter makes that same point quite nicely, but using his own visual grammar: Jesus’ finger writes something “off camera.” The participants can see it, but we can’t. After getting the big picture (light & dark, compositional lines), go ahead and spend time with the details, which are exquisite.
mei temple cleansing
Christ Cleansing the Temple, Bernardino Mei.

Some paintings have so much going on in them that you can’t tell where to focus. But sometimes, the painter will help you out by showing you exactly where to look, either by blurring the less important elements, or casting them into shadow, or, as in this case, muting their color. In a canvas that is mostly muted and pale yellow, Jesus stands out like he’s wearing a Superman costume of red and blue. mei temple det handsHe is aggressively confronting an elderly woman: his right hand seems threatening, as if it is raised to strike with the whip. But it is his left hand that is doing all the work, and that work is restraining rather than punishing. His red-clad arm thrusts strongly down along a diagonal that divides the picture plan in half, shoving the doves to the bottom left corner. There is also a tangle of hands in that corner, and if you start looking around from there you see the other hands: counting money, protecting their wares, etc. mei temple det faces When his disciples saw him doing this, they remembered the Scripture, “Zeal for thy house has consumed me,” and this picture is certainly charged with zeal: Jesus has burst into the monochrone scene and set all the other figures twisting in turmoil. A painting this complex can be studied well in sub-sections. There are about a dozen interesting mini-compositions to be found hiding here and there throughout the painting. Consider, for instance, the drama of the face-to-face confrontation between Jesus and the woman: these are two carefully-observed faces, not idealized at all, but lumping and wrinkling faces of real people, staring hard at each other. When you isolate that, you also capture, in the tension between them, a figure from the background. It’s a microcosm of the whole painting.

honthorst crowning
Christ Crowned with Thorns, Gerrit van Honthorst.

This Dutch artist, van Honthorst, is a skillful draftsman. His figures are solidly constructed, he’s great at drapery and gesture, and he composes a panel well. But for this depiction of Christ crowned with thorns, van Honthorst draws a veil of darkness across all of that. He hides most of his painting under the cover of darkness. It’s the main decision he makes in this striking painting, an exercise in stunt lighting. Most scenes depicting the mocking of Christ are not night scenes. By setting this scene in stark footlights, von Honthorst heightens the drama almost to a gimmicky extreme. But he achieves three things with this device: first, he draws the eye to the central nexus of events where Christ is mocked; second, he illuminates Christ, whose bare skin draws the most light from the torch; and third, he transforms the face of the main mocker a gruesome mask.

domenichino stumble
The Way to Calvary, Domenichino.

The late medieval devotional practice of walking “the stations of the cross” has helped impress on our minds the distinct moments in Jesus’ walk to his own crucifixion along the via dolorosa. In this image, he has just stumbled and collapsed under the weight of the cross, and a Roman soldier directs Simon of Cyrene to be the designated cross carrier. Simon stoops to obey. As for Jesus, he looks directly, disarmingly, out at the viewer. The implication is obvious: Simon stands for you, and Jesus asks wordlessly if you will carry the cross. The equation of the believer with Simon is a powerful stimulus for Christian art: Within a story where Jesus is taking our place and carrying our load, it is a kind of eddy where the current flows the other way: he carries Jesus’ burden along the way.

Domenico paints such clean surfaces and such even lighting that it’s hard to believe this is happening outdoors. At its worst, this kind of painting, like some later French academic painting, makes everything look as if it were molded out of rubber and plastic. But the advantage gained is the tremendous clarity. Everythign is so clear and distinct that it makes your eyeballs hurt.

doggiono cross carrying
Christ Carrying the Cross, Marco d’ Oggiono.

If you like this picture, I don’t want to be the one to ruin it for you. Consider skipping the few sentences I’m about to say. The old Catholic Encyclopedia notes that d’Oggiono was student of Leonardo, and suffers by comparison to the master. “He was a hard-working artist, but his paintings are wanting in vivacity of feeling and purity of drawing, while, in his composition, it has been well said “Intensity of color does duty for intensity of sentiment.” Ouch. It also says that his landscapes were his best work, but there’s no landscape here. It’s a close-up of Christ, abstracted from any background or context. There is something about bad religious paintings that makes you wish the whole genre of religious paintings would go away. I know I should have a reverent response to this subject matter, but that option is closed off to me because the person I see in this painting makes me think of an overwrought poetic soul about to play his guitar. The clothes are pressed, the cross is meticulously planed, and the halo is a perfect ring of light. The artist’s attempt to depict the face of suffering depicts pensiveness or depression. There are things to like about this painting, but the overall effect is so bad it makes me struggle to remember what a good painting of Jesus is.

correggio head of christ
Head of Christ, Correggio.

Correggio, a greater artist by any measure, produced this entrancing image. It is titled “Head of Christ,” and the delicate modeling of the features combines with the smoky handling of the shadows in a way that produces a powerful effect. It’s a bit melodramatic, of course, but at least you can say Correggio went all out. On closer inspection, some interesting details emerge: there are little frills at the bottom right, and an odd shadow that cuts into the white background on the right. This is not, it turns out, a portrait of Christ, like a Hollywood head shot or a passport photo. Instead, it is a painting of a mythological holy object, the napkin of Veronica. Veronica was supposed to have been a woman along the path to Golgotha, who wiped Jesus’ sweating face, and found that the likeness of Christ had imposed itself clearly and distinctly onto her towel. Whatever we make of the legend itself (I don’t make much of it, preferring to save my belief muscles for serious subjects), the message of the symbolism is clear enough: if you join in the sufferings of Christ, you will be surprised to find yourself receiving his image. It preaches itself! And this is what Correggio has painted: not a headshot as if Christ had sat and posed for a portrait, but the towel that Veronica wiped Christ’s face with. The realization makes the beard-shadow more believable, the crown of thorns less believable, and the total image is one step removed from the object on the gallery wall.

el greco cross
Christ on the Cross, El Greco.

There’s nobody like El Greco. This relatively small painting by him puts Christ up against the stormy sky, as an elongated and emaciated figure. Everything in the painting is unctuous, oily, and shining as if in a silvery moonlight. The background, from the bones at the foot of the cross to the most distant hills, is intentionally blurred out of focus so that the viewer cannot attend to them for long. Christ is int he shape of the cross itself, but twisting or undulating on it. There is a great simplicity to this direct portrayal of Christ on the cross, a kind of minimalism. Simple compositions like this suit El Greco well, because everything he touches becomes the weird bearer of some private revelation. It is good for those undulating forms and oily surfaces to be secured within a solid composition and a minimum of details. El Greco’s work, with its characteristic figurative distortions, may be a room-dividing artist: you either love what he’s doing or hate it. But we do know that he couldnt’ stop doing it.

gallego deposition Pieta, Fernando Gallego.

This Spanish image is an interesting compromise between a narrative scene and a contemplative scene. In religious art, narrative scenes are most like what we would call snapshots: if you were there, you could have taken the photo of what the artist portrays. They emphasize detailed backgrounds and put a premium on the hustle and bustle of contemporary life. Contemplative scenes, on the other hand, usually abstract from the action and present one isolated incident or person in front of you. This one, a pieta which follows the conventions of a very traditional “Mary mourning her dead son,” combines a historical-narrative setting with a kind of devotional image of Mary holding out Jesus to the viewer. Also, the way the implements of the crucifixion are displayed neatly against the cross tends more toward the side of contemplation.

rubens lamentThe Entombment, Peter Paul Rubens.

This painting may make an impression on you just from looking at a little jpg of it on a website, but if you have a chance to see it in person, you will see how much of its power comes from its perfect size and physicality. It is a bit overwhelming: the dead Christ, having been taken off the cross, is being carried by his friends and family, chiefly John the Evangelist and a few Marys. He is propped atop a stone with wheat laying on it. He is very very dead, from the cadaverous skin color to the side wound certifying his decease.

rubens lament blurrred There’s so much going on here –how does Rubens paint the veins under the skin?– that it’s worth taking extra steps to get big picture first. To do this, squint hard at it. The details drop away and the dominant impression is: three color stripes run diagonal down the picture, red, yellow, and blue. Mary, Jesus’ mother, holds him up, and her skin is as pale as his. Arists deploy Mary in their paintings in various ways. In this case, Rubens may be attaching to a tradition of using Mary to show what the human nature of Christ is undergoing. His flesh, after all, is taken from her, and his humanity is in common with her and therefore with us.

lastman resurrection The Resurrection, Pieter Lastmann.

Once again, a painting I wish I had not seen. The bottom half actually works fairly well, even though it requires me to agree with the artist that angels can look like that. Lastman does a fine job depicting the story of the guards being caught unawares, falling asleep, and falling down. But when he has to turn to the top register and epict the risen Christ, or even worse, the rising Christ — there he fails. The baby angels, the manneristic gestures, the flowing loincloth, the bursts of light: no good.

This is actually a deep problem for the Christian visual arts tradition. Christ’s resurrection is not depicted directly in the Bible: the gospel authors do not let us read an account of what it was like for Jesus to come out of the tomb. There is indirectness in the storytelling. Painters should exercise at least that much indirectness in attempting to paint the unthinkable, unpaintable event of the resurrection. Lastmann tried to paint it directly. Let that be a warning to you.

cavarozzi emmaus Supper at Emmaus, Bartolomeo Cavarozzi.

A remarkable Emmaus painting, this one captures, I think, the precise moment when Christ (beardless, dressed in a makeshift toga, vigorous) makes himself known to the disciples at Emmaus. They are suitably shocked: try putting yourself into the physical position of any of the disciples, and you will feel how much surprise they are expressing in their gestures. If this were a single still from a movie, you can imagine what action it would be excerpted from. The diagonal beam of light, the dark background, and the ornate tablecloth all combine to make for a pwoerful image of Christ’s self-disclosure.

bonaguida chiaritoThe Chiarrito Tabernacle, Pacino di Bonaguido.

The final image, the earliest one in this brief survey, is the one that steps away from earthly events the most, and shows us the risen Christ sending out his apostles. It is a little portable altarpiece, painted by Pacino di Bonaguida and commemorating a number of visions by a religious man named Chiarito. On the left panel is a series of events from the life of Christ, especially his passion. At the bottom are some memorials of visionary experiences Chiarito has had: a communion host sprouts wheat, a tiny image of Jesus comes to him from the communion host, etc. On the right is an image of the Trinity, with God the Father holding the crucified Christ. Below him, a Dominican preaches to a congregation. The blood of the eternal covenant runs down to them as the preacher speaks. But in the large center panel, a golden-colored field is dominated by Christ gesturing blessing as twelve beams of power shoot out from him to each of the apostles. The beams come from his core. Pacino is a brilliant iconographer, and is juxtaposing images and symbols in a masterful way. (Greg Peters has written about this image elsewhere on this blog). This is a painting about the ongoing presence of the risen Christ in his church, through the mission of the apostles, against the background of the eternal Trinity, and in a way that makes present the entire life of Christ. He is not absent or silent, but present to his followers now and forever.

This was originally published April 23, 2008.  It has been republished as part of our ten year anniversary. 

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