Seeing the Face of God

Artistic depictions of gods and divinities are interwoven throughout history and across civilizations. Ancient Egyptian notions about gods and goddesses and the afterlife were illustrated in images on sarcophagi and tomb-wall decorations. Similarly, temples, streets and homes in Mesopotamian, Grecian and Roman cultures were filled with visual reminders of their deities.

This is not the case when we come to the God of the Bible, who asserts that He is the Almighty, beyond the knowledge or ability of any artist to depict. Indeed, His Second Commandment expressly forbids and condemns the worship of images.

Archaeology confirms the absence of images portraying the God of Israel in the centuries before Christ, whereas images of the pagan gods Baal and Astarte abound. In the first century, Jews and early followers of Jesus still carefully observed the instruction against creating and worshiping images of God. Yet from the third century, we find biblical scenes and divine beings illustrated in Christian art. Scroll several hundred years further forward to the start of the second millennium, and depictions of God (and especially of Jesus Christ and the heavenly host) are commonplace.

How and why did the approach to art change? It may seem a wrongheaded question. Surely the West’s religious heritage would be the poorer without the vast legacy of stained glass windows, great sculptures, frescoes, triptychs and oil paintings. Or would it?

From Covert to Overt

It took until the ninth century, after many fierce disputes, for Western Christianity to overcome its inherent suspicion of any representation of the divine. There is no evidence that the church in the first and second centuries employed pictorial or three-dimensional religious imagery at all.

That fact alone should give pause for thought. Even when the cross came into use as a symbol, it was with great caution. One of the earliest depictions—in the third- or fourth-century catacomb of Priscilla in Rome—is concealed in the sign of an anchor. The similarly shaped Greek chi-rho monogram, in pre-Christian times a two-letter abbreviation for the word khrestos, meaning “auspicious,” began to be used around this time to symbolize the name of Christ, which in Greek happened to begin with the same two letters. But in Roman times, to use the crucifix as a religious symbol would have been viewed as bizarre and ghoulish—equivalent today to using a guillotine, a gallows or an electric chair to represent humanity’s Savior.

Not until the third century is there an example of an individual apparently being depicted as an aid to Christian worship. But even when such images did appear in that period, they were symbolic and allegorical. Among the first was the “Good Shepherd,” found on funerary slabs and Christian sculptures in the Roman catacombs. These were almost certainly borrowed from the classical world’s depictions of the god Hermes: shepherdlike figures (symbols of goodness) carrying animals on their shoulders as votive offerings. Other early allegorical representations of Christ showed Him in the role of philosopher, surrounded by His students, the disciples. But none of these images was intended as a likeness of Christ.

This anonymity continued even when Christ was more directly referred to, as in portrayals of His miracles found in the catacombs and on sarcophagi. Not surprisingly, given the early church’s hope of a resurrection from the grave rather than belief in the soul going to heaven, one of the earliest known depictions of a miracle portrays the resurrection of Lazarus, though Jesus’ role is implied rather than shown.

From the late fourth century, the representations began to change. Now, a glorified “Christ” emerges, either enthroned or surrounded by the apostles. These approaches apparently served the purpose of underscoring the divinity of Christ in light of the Arian heresy, which held that Christ was merely a creation of the Father. But still there were no attempts to capture a “true” likeness.

Religious art in the fourth century had come under a second influence, however. In championing a particular branch of Christianity, the emperor Constantine lent it the artistic resources of the state. Artisans who had been previously employed to design and create pagan objects now provided their skills in support of the new state religion. Greater confidence and boldness became apparent. From the end of the fourth century, overt images appeared. Narrative scenes of the life of Christ were executed in frescoes and mosaics. But because there was continuing ambivalence as to what Christ may have looked like, He was portrayed by some as bearded and by others beardless.

Depicting the Divine

Great arguments about religious imagery had erupted in the church by this time, usually centering on the theology of Christ’s incarnation. Church fathers critical of the use of depictions of Christ included Tertullian, Minucius Felix, Clement of Alexandria, Lactantius and Eusebius.

The Greeks suppose the gods to be like men in their passions as well as in their forms. . . . In the words of Xenophanes, Ethiopians make their gods black and snub-nosed, Thracians red-haired and with blue eyes; so also they conceive the spirits of the gods to be like themselves.”

Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 7.4

Disputes followed one of two principal lines. First was concern about the level of influence that pagan art would have on the church. Would the church represent a mere continuation of the pagan past rather than a new creation? Second, how should the church apply Old Testament restrictions on imagery?

The nature of the debate is best illustrated by Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea. In his Ecclesiastical History, he recorded the practice of pagans who in their homes had previously used paintings and statues of their savior-gods as a means of worship. The bishop also recorded an interchange with Empress Constantia, sister of Constantine, who had requested of Eusebius an “image of Christ.” Despite his reverence for and devotion to the emperor, Eusebius spoke plainly. Having asked her whether the image she desired was of the divine or the human Christ, he pointed out that to represent the divine was to follow the pagans, whereas to represent the human was against the biblical injunction. He ended his letter by stating that to fulfill the empress’s request would mean that “we appear[,] like idol worshippers, to carry our God around in an image.”

The church succeeded in attracting many pagans to Christianity by various means, but it was not as successful in getting them to change their practices. Rather, it was the reverse. Augustine, writing toward the end of the fourth century, recognized that many Christians were “superstitious,” leading them to still be “worshippers of tombs and pictures” (On the Morals of the Catholic Church 34.75).

Literal depictions of Christ became generally acceptable only after some centuries, and the move was clearly influenced by entrenched pagan religious traditions and practices.

Gradual Acceptance

By the end of the seventh century, the church adopted a position that was the reverse of the early church’s. This important decision in the history of art and the church took place in 692 at the Council of Trullo. In its 82nd canon, the Council “decree[d] that the figure in human form of the Lamb who taketh away the sin of the world, Christ our God, be henceforth exhibited in images, instead of the ancient lamb” (Philip Labbe and Gabriel Cossart, Sacrosancta Concilia 6.1124).

From this point on, Christian art began its slow journey from the formulaic if expensive art of Byzantium, with its narrow choice of representations and styles and with general lack of artistic imagination and creativity. Eventually the full-blown realism of the Renaissance would arrive, with Mantegna, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli, Correggio, Raphael and later masters such as Rubens, Titian and Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

First, however, came the eighth-century Eastern Roman Empire’s iconoclastic (image-breaking) period, during which the progress of literal depiction understandably met with considerable resistance. Ordering the destruction of religious images in both churches and homes, the Byzantine Emperor Leo III (717–741)—in every respect an orthodox Christian—sought to preempt the advancing forces of Islam, in whose view some Christian art was blasphemous.

Leo’s actions brought him into conflict with the primates of the Western church, Gregory II and Gregory III. In 787, in a resolution ending the first iconoclastic period, the ecumenical Second Council of Nicea differentiated between the image and the person represented by the image. It was a fine distinction and one that not all would accept, then or now.

A second, lesser iconoclastic period in the early ninth century ended with a reaffirmation of the Second Council of Nicea’s ruling. Thereafter the first Sunday of Great Lent celebrated the “Triumph of Orthodoxy” in the West, and the Eastern church established its “Feast of Orthodoxy.” Now the iconoclasts were the heretics.

A True Likeness?

Various themes began to occur once iconography had the sanction of both branches of the church. Authoritative icons of “Christ Pantokrator,” or “Master of all things” in the mode of ruler and judge, appeared from the 10th century and throughout the rest of Byzantine times.

How do we know that an image of Christ looks like Christ? Neither the Iconoclasts nor the Orthodox appear to have asked this fundamental question.” 

Cyril Mango, The Art of the Byzantine Empire

Meanwhile notions of what Christ looked like became more confident, thanks to the emergence of certain “miraculous true likenesses.” By the Middle Ages, few were in doubt that Christ’s appearance was known at last. Pilgrims flocked to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome to view His image on the “Veronica” or sudarium. According to legend, a woman named Veronica had offered Christ a cloth so He could wipe His sweating face on His way to being crucified. His “true image” (from the Latin vera icon, and possibly a word play from which the notion of “St. Veronica” stemmed) was said to have been miraculously transferred to the cloth. Veronica is a character in the Latin version of the “Acts of Pilate,” a second-century writing about the death of Christ. In the Greek version she is identified as Bernice and is claimed to have been the woman Christ healed of an issue of blood (Mark 5:25–34), though the Bible itself does not identify the woman.

Dante wrote not many years after the Holy Year of Jubilee in 1300, a time when pilgrims would have come to see the Veronica: “And did’st thou look / E’en thus, O Jesus, my true Lord and God? / And was this semblance thine?” (Paradiso, Canto 31).

Veronica appears in The Procession to Calvary, a 1505 oil painting by Ridolfo Ghirlandaio, depicting Christ carrying the cross. She receives from Him the cloth with His facial image clearly depicted. The Veronica cloth was also represented by artists such as Albrecht Dürer and Francisco de Zurbarán, as well as a whole group of lesser 15th-century artists who, together with merchants, made a living solely by selling related images to pilgrims.

The golden age of Western religious art lasted, broadly, from the 10th to the 18th centuries, with countless statues, murals, frescoes, oil paintings and illuminated books being commissioned or created as labors of piety. The favorite subjects were, of course, based on the festivals of Christmas and Easter: the nativity and the crucifixion.

The Modern Face of Iconoclasm

Whatever one’s view on iconography, there is no doubt that some of the greatest art, in terms of sheer skill and quality, was produced around religious themes depicting God (in particular, Christ) and His dealings with humanity. Most artists, living in times when religious belief was unchallenged, produced religious works—some almost exclusively. One can hardly think of a master like Michelangelo without considering his breathtaking and panoramic Sistine Chapel ceiling or his poignant marble pietas.

The Protestant Reformation was one of the factors that broke the spell of iconography for much of the Western world. The British had their own iconoclastic period during the 17th-century protectorate of Oliver Cromwell, again based on the Second Commandment. Puritan zealots burned, smashed or mutilated many icons and religious edifices.

Beginning in the early 20th century, art was as likely to be used to challenge and ridicule notions of God as to exalt them. Today we find increased banality, triviality, irreverence and blasphemy on the part of some artists. And in a cynical age, whether the most powerful iconoclastic implement is brute force or mocking skepticism is a moot question.

The visitor to London’s National Gallery finds one of the most extensive collections of Christian-themed paintings in the world. In contrast to the National and its ponderous masterpieces, a traveling exhibition titled “100 Artists See God” at the Institute of Contemporary Art in early 2005 contained numerous oblique or frivolous references to God, but few graphic ones. Among them were a painting of a urinal dubbed Untitled (God) and a naked, levitating female figure above a worshipping priest and a wooden, crucified frog. English artist Damien Hirst’s medicine cabinet full of drugs begged the question of whether God sees, understands or cares about human suffering. Whereas religious art is often clichéd and stultifying, this exhibition could be viewed as empty of any appeal—religious, artistic or intellectual. As one commentator summarized it, “artists seem no longer able to look God in the face.”

Yet the question of the validity of artistic depiction as a means of drawing us closer to spiritual truth isn’t unique to the last hundred years. It has been debated for longer than Christianity has existed: Trevor Hart notes in his essay in Beholding the Glory, “The artist . . . begins by looking to the world around him, and then on the basis of his powers of observation, offers some perceptual account of it for our appreciation. But, Plato observes, what art does thereby is to take us yet one step further away from truth, since a copy of a copy is bound to be paler and less adequate than the original copy.”

Worship or Idolatry?

Christianity is the only one of the three major monotheistic religions to embrace representations of God. Both Judaism and Islam consider such depictions blasphemous. What are we to make of Christianity’s practice of something that the Bible so clearly condemns?

The answer is the same as for so many other issues: the imposition of Christendom on a pagan world was at the expense of truths held as self-evident by the church that immediately succeeded the apostles of Christ.

That the early church was resolutely against images of God resonates the Ten Commandments given to Moses and Israel at Sinai. Such resolution stands in direct contrast to the capitulation to icons and images by a very different later church.

Just before Moses reiterated the Ten Commandments as a new generation of Israelites prepared to enter the Holy Land, he emphasized: “And the Lord spoke to you out of the midst of the fire. You heard the sound of the words, but saw no form; you only heard a voice” (Deuteronomy 4:12).

God did not desire images of Himself, nor did He want His image seared into people’s minds through their eyes. Rather He wanted His words to remain ringing in their ears and their hearts. Centuries later, Christ’s words showed that the same God desired the same kind of worship. He said, “The hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:23–24).

Pictures and statues purporting to be of the Father, Christ or Mary are a distraction leading to a religious cul-de-sac. Much religious art and imagery has supported false concepts that have held people captive to teachings and dogmas far removed from the religion of Moses and Christ. If we would view God’s will and purpose through His words rather than through the candle-smoke haze of centuries of clichéd religious imagery, we might indeed begin to truly see God—in His image, not our own.