There has been a lot of talk about the fact that in the scene of contemporary art the figure of the Saviour has stepped down and is no longer, as in the previous centuries, the focal point of the interest of artists and patrons.
Undoubtedly in the past the sacred themes, in their many-sidedness, played an absolutely predominant role, even getting to the point of monopolising the subject matter and the very development of the history of modern art.
This was determined by several reasons. The first one undoubtedly was an educational need. Since most people could not read or write, for the Church the duty of communicating with the faithful in order to spread information about the figures of Christ and the Virgin Mary, and about the lives of the saints, was of paramount importance.
But apart from the themes, whether sacred or profane, the subjects of the representations of the past could not be unrelated to the specific aim of a formal identification. In the absence of other means of communication, pictures were painted. They were painted in order to remind people, to identify, to show, and to leave a mark.
A simple client who, for sentimental reasons or in order to acquire renown, wished to preserve the memory of his wife, his father or his son who had been killed in a war had no other choice but to have a portrait made.
In the artist’s aesthetic research, the same portrait was developed and improved, and became the face of a saint, of Our Lady of the Assumption, or maybe of Christ.
To put it in an even more explicit form, on the day in which a Cardinal or a Prince commissioned a painting, for instance a “St. Paul” or a “Beheading of St. John the Baptist”, the painter’s first need was to find a model who was suitable for giving rise to a strong identification.
Since the structure of formal representation is based on identification prerequisites, it is obvious that the figure of Christ cannot but hold a role of paramount significance.
If one paints a man – all the more so a man who is suffering – eventually one will be forced to confront the enigma of Christ the man.
If one paints a woman, and wishes her to embody positive values of abnegation and self-sacrifice, it is obvious that eventually one will end up by confronting the image of the Virgin Mary. And so on…
Much later, the population increase and technological, economic and social development of the late nineteenth century, and the emergence of the first instruments of mass communication (photography, the spread of printed matter and subsequently of the cinema), opened new horizons to the eyes and imagination of artists and patrons.
The modern approach has gradually introduced a new form of research, which is undeniably less comprehensible, but important in its meaning. If artists had run out of descriptive prerequisites, the had certainly not used up the expressive ones!
In the twentieth century, we have witnessed a real disruption of the formal values on which classic and modern art was based. What was described and refined in the past is destroyed and represented in the present age.
An attempt was made to move away from a descriptive formal structure in order to acquire a representative one.
When we look at a modern painting, we say, “It is this… it describes this.” When we look at a contemporary painting, we say, “It represents such-and-such a thing… this is its way of representing it.”
Obviously not all attempts have been successful, and probably painting is the form of art that has paid the highest penalty for this.
In any case the common goal should be that of involving the gazer in the moods and conditions pertaining to the original subject matter. While in the past what was identified was human beings and their dynamics, in the contemporary age an effort has been made to place the observer in the perceived conditions from which the moods stemmed; once they had been described, now they were being represented. So it is not a matter of the characters’ emotions, but of the conditions that give rise to them.
It is obvious that starting from these assumptions the theme of the figure of Christ is very difficult to penetrate: we all know his story and the tragic events that led to the scandal of the Cross.
Leading the observers to experience these events, even only partly, by representing them in a new, contemporary manner is, to say the least, unthinkable. Indeed this is the purpose of the Eucharistic Liturgy.
Nonetheless some artists have embarked in this undertaking, with excellent results. I am thinking, for instance, of Salvador Dalí’s Christ of Saint John of the Cross(1), his Crucifixion(2), and his Madonna of Port Lligat(3); of Pericle Fazzini’s Resurrection(4) in the Nervi Room in the Vatican; and of Rouault’s Passion(5). Among these works I feel I can include, and in a good position, the statue of Christ the Redeemer of Maratea, an admirable work by Bruno Innocenti. In the final analysis, the theme of Christ is, and will always be, the most complex and difficult subject matter for any artistic representation.
For two thousand years, Christ’s face has been a riddle that nobody was able to solve completely – and nobody ever will. The Turin Shroud(6) is the only reliable document on this matter.
In actual fact, however, the Shroud, in spite of the fact that it is an extremely impressive image, certainly cannot be taken as an example of a formal model. I personally feel that it is absolutely worthy of being believed in, but in my opinion it cannot be used as an inspiration for a pictorial representation, unless one quotes it in a stylised form or somehow manages to sublimate it. But an attempt of this sort would actually result in a representation of the face of the Shroud, and not of the face of a man.
The reason for this is that the Shroud does not preserve the array of formal references that can supply a faithful representation. It is, in itself, a sublimated image, and what’s more in negative form.
Needless to say, in the past many attempts have been made to reconstruct Christ’s face, and none of them used the Turin Shroud as a model.
Apart from the Shroud, there have been some extraordinary cases in which men and women, whether religious or not, asserted that they had seen Christ’s face. The features of a young man with light-coloured eyes, a sparse beard and blond-reddish hair are the ones that have most imprinted themselves on the public’s mind over the centuries.
The Polish mystic Faustina Kowalska, who was canonised by John Paul II, and to whom the famous Low Sunday (the first after Easter) was dedicated as the Feast of Mercy, ordered a painter to portray the features of Jesus, with whom she had conversations almost every day.
This life-size painting, called the image of Divine Mercy(7), is beautiful, and radiates an outstanding grace and generosity. It is venerated all over the world, and we can safely assert that it is an utterly worthy representation of the Saviour’s love and compassion for mankind.
Unfortunately the nun, at least at the beginning, declared that she was not satisfied with this image, and that it did not correspond perfectly to the features of the mystic figure: the transcendental being she saw repeatedly was – she said – incomparably more lovely than the painted one.
The painter who had made the picture was much criticised, and maybe also rebuked by the Saint.
We should have asked Padre Pio da Pietrelcina to tell us about Jesus’s looks.
But I don’t think he would have accepted to do it. In his writings, he described Jesus in very different ways, and often simply mentioned an extraordinary, all-white, resplendent figure. This actually tallies with other descriptions.
There have been several cases in which camera films were imprinted or random images appeared in the sky. But painters who had to tackle with the problem of portraying Jesus’s face have never taken account of these unusual cases, and we cannot tell whether they were right or whether they were wrong.
What artists aim at is to depict a face that is not necessarily identical to the one of the original vision, but that embodies a new, personal representation, if possible enriching the previous references and broadening, rather than deepening, the horizon of collective imagination with reference to Christ’s figure.
So the goal is not to describe the holy visage, but to arouse emotion, and consequently a strong impression, in the gazer. From this point of view, the attempt fits in very well with the trends of contemporary art: not to describe, but to represent; not to identify, but to induce, in order to evoke emotion and a presence.
I do not know how far the choice of starting from an actual transcendental vision, or even from the face of the Shroud, may be effective for attaining this goal. Undoubtedly it can be taken into consideration, but on the whole, this approach has not been adopted by many painters so far.
The figure of Christ in Michelangelo’s Last Judgement(8) is undeniably characterised by an extraordinary power and strength, despite the fact that it does not correspond at all to the absolutely virtuous, and probably more accurate, models of the mystic tradition.
Dalí’s Christ, on the contrary, professedly derives from a depiction of the mystic vision of St. John of the Cross. In my opinion this is an unusual case, because the great Spanish mystic, besides being a Doctor of the Church, was an outstandingly talented painter, so the original painting is a really remarkable work of art. Dalí was intensely inspired by it and did not change it at all. But we cannot expect all mystics to be so proficient in painting! This task should be entrusted to painters…
In more simplified terms, it would be possible to assert that Christ does not have a specific face, but many different appearances; or even that he simply has the face of every man.
In the history of the representation of Jesus’s face, a major, absolutely central, and visually fascinating chapter is that of Russian and Byzantine icons.
This is quite an arduous subject matter. To begin with, an icon is not a normal representation; that is to say, it is not simply an aesthetic representation. It is (and has been for centuries) venerated as “the image of the presence”. Rather as we adore the Holy Sacrament, in the Orthodox church the faithful venerate the Icons(9). This issue led to real diplomatic clashes, reaching a peak in the iconoclastic period.
An icon was painted by a monk who had to follow very strict rules both for his life in the monastery, his moral behaviour, etc., and for the painting technique, which was defined by a predetermined, detailed protocol. Basically, the iconographic monks were engaged in praying the whole day long. There also was a specific prayer for icon painters. In any case, they prayed for their painting and before they started painting; and right afterwards they prayed again in order to thank God for what they had painted.
An important detail is the fact that the colours began with the dark ones and proceeded towards the light ones. In western painting this solution was not adopted until Caravaggio(10).
The result was, to say the least, breath-taking. The holy figures and Christ’s face, whether he was depicted as a child or as an adult, are somehow removed from space and time: they look as if they were the work of present-day painters.
One might linger for hours and hours, for entire days, gazing at these enigmatic faces, which are so rich in meaning. Even days later, we find that their meaning does not change, but shifts according to our frame of mind; it goes on communicating and reflecting, as in a mirror, the transcendence with which the paintings are imbued.
Tradition has it that the very first icon was the image of Christ’s face that he miraculously impressed on a linen cloth: the “Madillion”. It is believed that this image was preserved for several centuries in Constantinople, and subsequently lost. But several copies of it were made. The first icon of the Virgin Mary was a portrait painted by St. Luke the Evangelist.
The ancient icons of the past are believed to have healing properties. They say that it is possible to feel in them the “place of the presence” of the Word made flesh.
The second Council of Nicea (787 A.D.) clearly specifies the position to be adopted with regard to these holy images:
“We settle… that the representations of the precious, life-giving Cross… the images of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, of the Immaculate Virgin Mother of God, of the holy Angels and of all the Saints must be placed in God’s sacred churches, on the implements and sacred robes, on the walls and pictures, in the houses and streets.
By looking frequently at these representations, the gazers will be reminded of their original models, will turn to them, will witness, by kissing them, their respectful veneration (‘proskynesis’, adoratio), which is not a real adoration (‘latréia’, latria), since only God is entitled to the latter, according to our faith.
…They shall offer incense and lights in their honour, according to the pious custom of the ancients. Because (St. Basil, De Spiritu Sancto) ‘The honour rendered to an image ascends to its original model’. Whoever venerates an image, venerates the reality that is represented by it.”
(From the Final Declaration of the Second Council of Nicea, 787 A.D.).
Like all things in the universe, the human face possesses a definite equilibrium and symmetry. Eyes, nose, cheekbones, nostrils, chin, cheeks, ears, and neck form a harmonious, well-balanced whole that is quite difficult to reorganise.
The attempts to represent a face and to achieve a portrait that have been made over the centuries have all left an unmistakable mark, which ultimately defined the degree and level of the civilisation of a people and of its history.
The ancient Egyptians, as everybody knows, were in the habit of depicting noses in profile and eyes in front view(11). This combination may strike us as bizarre, but after thousands of years it is still extremely elegant, and not lacking in significance. We must point out that this perspectival solution was adopted only in frescoes and never in sculptures(12): the latter were always three-dimensional and wonderfully crafted.
The ancient Greeks undoubtedly attained the peak of perfection, from the aesthetic point of view. I believe that we can safely assert that the symmetry and balance of the classical age’s depiction of human faces(13) did not reappear until the Italian Renaissance.
Balance, however, is not the only goal and parameter for an evaluation; the face of a person actually embodies a broad range of meanings and aspects that are quite distant from the purity of lines and forms of a perfectly symmetrical morphology.
In the images of the advertisements of cosmetics or famous couturiers, nowadays we can see some examples of an absolutely perfect morphology of features; but a painter would not be interested in depicting them.
In actual fact, behind a face there is something more. And a perfect face is, by definition, an inexpressive face, undoubtedly an immature, inane face, so to speak.
After the Middle Ages, with Giotto(14), Masaccio, the birth of perspective and, with it, of modern art, artists began to address this problem, in several directions.
Piero della Francesca’s portrait of Federico da Montefeltro(15) is a starting point: here, actually, beyond the typically formal solution, a frame of mind can be perceived.
The definition of the attitude of the portrayed character became the main object.
Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa(16) is a sublime, typical example of how unexpected aspects can be revealed through painting.
Raffaello(17) and Michelangelo, in turn, followed this path in different directions and conditions, depending, obviously, on their specific poetics and personality.
We must emphatically point out a fact: this type of research cannot be carried out in the same way in sculpture. Representation on a two-dimensional surface offers a much greater freedom in expressing a posture, a peculiarity, a moment.
In sculpture, the same representation would be worse, and would lead to an overblown, baroque result that would strike us as caricatural. It is no coincidence that when someone is standing quite still we compare him to a statue: three-dimensionality implies that the object can be looked at from several points of view, and in the representation of the expression of a face, its shape determines both the fact that a specific emotion is being expressed and the fact that from a different point of view (in relation to its three-dimensionality) this expression becomes completely meaningless. So in sculpture there is quite a different range for freedom of action: because, as we shall see, there are other problems.
The painting Ortensio Felix, by El Greco(18), is the first instance of a psychological portrait. In his religious works(19), the Spanish painter highlighted the spirituality of the subjects, as was to be expected; so the faces represented the souls and were pale, wan, elongated, stretched upwards, as if they were about to fly to heaven.
We are now about to reach our target. The problem with Christ is that Christ does not have a face.
The shape of a face actually corresponds to the bone structure that is covered by it. Years ago, in order to learn how to draw an arm, pupils had to study its bone structure, and to draw first the humerus, the radius, etc. For a leg, they had to draw the tibia, and all the rest. Then they drew the muscles… and so on. Lacking a model, as in the case of the Saviour, the undertaking becomes even more difficult…
As regards our time, it seems to me that Gauguin’s self-portrait(20) is an extremely significant example, although it is little-known. The psychological traits of the man and of the artist are described with great clearness.
Precisely with the intention of solving this problem and simplifying this task, Cézanne(21) gradually attempted to subsume the matter into geometric terms. It is evident that anything can actually be represented by means of the simple, diagrammatic lines of a triangle, square or circle.
The door to Cubism was being opened. But it is not only a matter of geometry: there is something else, because the problem of perspectival balance must be kept into account. When one is destroying something, one can do this only through a subsequent reconstruction of the perspectival balance.
Pablo Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein(22) is an admirable example of what we have just said.
The fact I wish to underscore (with the warning that this is a profane picture, and portrays a comparatively normal, non-sacred human being) is that this aesthetic solution comes extraordinarily close to that of Russian icons.
Although the subjects are completely different, they are characterised by the same depth, the same questions and answers, the same interpretations and facets. We are beginning to come into the realm of contemporary art. The artist’s target is no longer the subject who is being described, but the representation of a psychic state. The purpose of this representation is to allow the interlocutor, i.e. he who is watching, to look at it from different angles, in order to experience and study an emotion that at this point is being perceived by him.
Over the centuries, and in the case of Christ, the Passion is the aspect that has been most emphasised. There are several reasons for this.
I would like to point out, as an example, a wonderful Crucifixion by Velázquez(23).
The first reason for which the Passion has been emphasised more than any other aspect is the scandal raised by the fact that a man of such a moral and spiritual stature was treated this way.
Second: his similarity with God. The saying that ultimately caused him to be accused was precisely the one about his closeness to God. He had replied clearly to the High Priest who was interrogating him: “My Father, before you were born…”. This led to his death on the Cross.
Moreover there is the fact that by representing death on the Cross, painters represent all the sufferings of mankind: there is no pain greater than death on the Cross, so any other suffering is contained in it.
Last but not least: for painters there is a much simpler reason. A man who is suffering is easier to depict. The problem, in the case of the Saviour, consists in the fact that it would be necessary to represent the “Resurrection”, i.e. Christ resurrected. In other words, Christ after his death, when the women met him, when he returned gloriously and stayed fifty days with the apostles and disciples. Indeed this is extremely difficult to paint and sculpt.
The first resurrected Christ that occurs to me is Masaccio’s Trinity(24).
In this marvellous fresco in the Basilica of S. Maria Novella in Florence, the Resurrection is depicted. It is not easy to contrive. Christ is suffering, but that’s not all. He is nailed to the Cross, probably in agonising pain and exhausted. But we perceive clearly that this is not the whole story. Death is not depicted; it is overcome by a divine plan.
Dalí’s Resurrection(25) shows the moment in which Christ gives his life for mankind; but in any case it is a moment in which he is undergoing unspeakable suffering. His face cannot be seen.
Pericle Fazzini’s Resurrection(26) in the audience room in the Vatican is a wonderful sculpture. It does not relate death, but the transition to eternal Glory. The comparison to Moses’s burning bush, in which God revealed himself, and the explosion of transcendental power and strength in which Christ resurrected, are expressed very clearly. I feel that this sculpture, though it is not famous and practically unknown to the uninitiated, is worthy of interest and with time will certainly be given the status it deserves.
I also greatly admire a drawing by Fazzini that simply shows the Cross with a cloth, a little shroud: Christ is not there. We can perceive a mood of calm, resolution, quiet: the tragedy has taken place, has come to its end, and by now belongs to the past.
Bruno Innocenti’s Christ the Redeemer in Maratea is a resurrected Christ. A glorious Christ who is coming, who is returning, and is giving peace and hope to all mankind.
Apart from the technical difficulties of working the material, whether it be marble, plaster, wood, wax or terracotta, the essential problem of sculpture consists in its three-dimensionality.
The life-size representation of the head of a subject is an effect that stems from the representation of several profiles that are combined in sequence so as to obtain a credible likeness. Starting with four or more images – the front and back ones, the left profile and the right one (plus, in some cases, the intermediate ones) – the sculptor achieves a three-dimensional representation whose size and shape potentially match those of the subject.
This type of representation may not involve any action of formal re-organisation by the artist. The reason for this is that the observer’s point of view will remain in any case on the line of his eyes, of his horizon.
Obviously, if the statue is near the observer, he will perceive it as life-size; if he moves away from it, it will gradually seem smaller and eventually disappear. In these terms, the perspective from the observer’s point of view will basically remain unchanged, and so will the shape and structure of the sculpture. Exactly as if we met a person in the street and saw him slowly walk away.
Should the statue be placed on a plane other than that of the observer’s eyes, for instance 2 metres higher, in addition to the problem of distance (more or less limited, allowing for visibility), another problem would arise: that of the point of view. The observer will no longer see the sculpted face (whether large or small) on his horizon line. He will simply see the statue’s chin, nose, receding forehead, and maybe its ears and neck, in an image that does not correspond at all to the original shape of the face.
At this point the power, talent and perspectival strategy of the artist come into play.
For an equestrian memorial statue, or, for instance, the statue of a victorious general after a battle, maybe placed on a pedestal in the middle of a square, the problem of the three-dimensional representation will be addressed starting from the observer’s point of view, and all the dimensions will follow.
So the bust will be large, the face even larger, and if possible there will be a hat. The legs will be slender and short, and the arms will be placed in a position where they do not disturb the gazer’s vision, for instance with a hand on the hilt of a sword.
These criteria will be followed for any subject that is sculpted.
Mantegna’s Christ(27), for instance, though it is a two-dimensional work, tackles these problems and solves them in a sublime way. Christ’s feet, which from the actual gazer’s point of view should seem enormous, are quite small, and the stigmata stand out prominently. Christ’s legs should be much longer: they are quite short. This effect is helped out by the drapery, which is close and intense, so as to avert the observer’s attention from the disproportion. The hands are excessively bent, in order to highlight the marks of the nails.
A dead body would never have been able to keep its wrists (28) and the lower part of its limbs in that position. Its bust is gigantic; its abdomen and chest are completely open and spread out, as if they were in the breathing-in stage, and give a feeling of death, perhaps actually by drowning. Likewise the face is gigantic and slightly tilted; its size is absolutely not in relation with that of the feet. The faces of the Mother and of the other women are racked with grief (29). Notice the disproportion between the Mother’s face and Christ’s. This is right, because He is the Son of God, the Sacrificial Lamb, and She is his Mother and the fruit of the Immaculate Conception.
All this, however, is not immediately perceived by the observer. What he does perceive clearly is an atmosphere of devastating pain and grief.
From the point of view of its perspective, this is a really unusual work. Its ethical and aesthetic value is supreme, and its impact on the gazer is absolutely overwhelming. This painting is outstanding in its power and significance. I feel it could not have been made with greater skill.
If we were to attempt to transfer all this into three dimensions, i.e. in a sculpture, with the same perspectival ratios, the resulting representation would be utterly unacceptable.
As we have stated, the Christ of Maratea can be seen from two opposite perspectives, one from the inland – from the road in front of the Basilica – and the other from the sea. It had been decided that to those who saw the statue from the sea it would look as if it faced them; but those who saw it from the inland were supposed to have the same feeling, because the statue could not have its back turned to the church.
The solution skilfully devised by the artist was based on the tunic and the lifted arms. The statue stands on the summit of Mount San Biagio, so from the sea the face and the corresponding side would be seen from a distance in any case. From the other side, on the contrary, observers would be quite near and would be able to see the statue quite clearly and appreciate its size.
This solution involved the risk of creating an ungainly figure, with the front and back alike, a sort of rounded, stocky lump. But this did not happen. The tunic and the movement of the advancing foot give the figure momentum and a special, dynamic grace. The fact that the statue’s arms are raised and slightly bent, in prayer to the Father, with a short drapery (which is a part of the tunic) on its shoulders, creates a continuously flowing movement, masterfully achieved by the sculptor, and ensures that from a distance the direction of the face is not revealed by anything.
A pedestal would have been superfluous, because the statue, seen from the sea, was already high up on the top of the mountain; for close-up gazers on the ground, a pedestal would only have made the statue more distant from them.
The iconography of the figure is perfect, exactly that of the holy figure of mystic visions: a young man wearing only a white tunic. The whiteness of this tunic is so intense that it cannot be described.
The sculptor Innocenti, after a painstaking study and research, adopted a particular mixture of white cement and marble powder mixed with fragments of marble from the mines of Versilia, in Tuscany. So by night, when the moon shines, the statue reflects its light and gives out a white, phosphorescent glow.
For the observer from the ground, the best viewing position is about 30 metres from the statue on the road at its feet. Its eyes, and the slight inclination of its head, are directed towards this point. The face and bodily expression of the Redeemer exude an profound feeling of serenity and quiet.
If it weren’t for the sky, the bushes on the roadside, the boundless sea on the horizon and the mountains behind us, we would feel as if we were in a church. The level of concentration is distinctly perceptible, also in comparison with that inside the nearby Basilica.
Jesus’s face is really beautiful.
The mood it expresses to an extraordinary, unbelievable degree is an absolute detachment from the world, despite the fact that He has dominated it. He is an immanent, timeless Christ; He is young, but also eternal. If we could be so bold as to make a comparison, we might say He is quite similar to the Father. He is loving, and at the same time untouchable. He is another dimension, but this dimension pervades us.
Once I wrote a line of poetry: “Having atoned the sin of death, in your eternal life we rise…”. Perhaps this is how we could understand this Christ. He is a Christ who has overcome death, once and for all.
He is a Christ for whom the original sin has no meaning. “He has crossed the great river”, as Afro-Americans sing in their spirituals; and by doing this He has shown us the way.
From there he is waiting for us and guiding us, showing us the ineluctable hope and consciousness that in the future we too will follow him on this immortal path, because this is our destiny.
He is Christ the Redeemer who has vanquished death.
“Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: that at the time of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Philippians 2:9-12 KJV). To the everlasting glory of God and of his Only-Begotten Son.
Luigi Filippo Parravicini
Maratea, 10 May 2013