JESUS IN THE FINE ARTS
Agus Dermawan T, art critic
"A prophet is assigned to oppose a king. And even greater
than that, a prophet is born to contradict history."
Martin Burber, 1878-1965
The theological approach to the existence of the Prophet must
be interpreted as zest. And zest, in the end, connotes a spirit
which stimulates passionate living, encourages people to think
about the essence of life and urges people to face the truth of
life. Therefore when a prophet is born and his birth is proclaimed
throughout the world, the thought of him actually is not about
his looks, neither his body, nor his physical appearance, but
about his spirit. Indeed a prophet is born with the purpose to
bring a new light while at the same time to extinguish the old
(history) and false light, as quoted above by Martin Buber, an
Israeli philosopher originally from Austria.
We therefore can understand why Muhammad in Islamic belief that
it is not required to appear in person. This prophet presents
himself as a ray of light or a flame that pours out the spirit.
In this particular context there is no difference between Sidharta
Gautama, neither Kong Hu Chu, nor Jesus Christ. Practically speaking,
these three individuals warrant being the subject of artwork.
Sidharta Gautama and Kong Hu Chu are often depicted in sculpture
or in two-dimensional forms. And so is Jesus. In fact the story
about the end of Jesus' life has been depicted aesthetically and
even artistically by many artists around the world. Jesus has
become a continual source of inspiration for the fine arts. The
result is that many artists interpreted the figure of Jesus according
to their cultural perceptions, religion, ethnicity and through
their artistic area of specialty.
Transforming the figure and spirit of Jesus in art is a form
of ad majorem dei gloriam, or an act of more deeply glorifying
God. From various artistic works we observe how the artist, with
freedom, can express their perceptions and devotions regarding
the life and deity of Jesus. All are created based on subjectivity
of thought and feeling. And from the gathering of these, we see
a body of parables.
Salvador Dali's Saint John of the Cross reminds us of the suffering
of Jesus. This work is the crucifixion as if seen through God's
eyes. It depicts a humiliated man on the cross viewed from the
sky above. Spread out underneath is the world, beautiful and peaceful,
along with clear lakes and an elegant ark.
Saint John of the Cross is an example of Dali's Christian surrealistic
imagination. It is composed through an artistic sublimation that
is capable of receiving divine revelation, mens divina, from the
world afar. Dali's sense of belief began to change when this great
artist came to a point of "questioning life". The devoted
heart of Dali also produced the lithography Temptation of Anthony.
This painting describes a horse and three noisy long-legged elephants
bearing a castle on their backs. Ahead of these staggering animals
(of moeritherium descent), destitute and hopeless humanity holds
out the cross. A symbolic work that suggests satire to the viewer
and a caricaturizing of humanity, faith and its God.
Thousands of classic works of art that originated in Europe show
the figure of Jesus interpreted anthropologically. (Refer to Bernini's
sculptural work or Caravaggio paintings of the 17th century).
Here Jesus is depicted in a Jew profile, which is the case in
some paintings of El Greco. This artist, in fact, depicts Jesus
as a powerful Jew with a Rambo-like physique. In Greco's mind,
Jesus is a perfect man and is glorified as "the beloved man
of all humanity", or deliciae generis humani. This is like
the vision Michelangelo had when he was describing the figure
of God in the Sistine Chapel in Rome.
If we believe in the depiction of Jesus from El Greco's work,
we may be shocked to see Paul Gauguin's Jesus. This artist, who
was a close friend of Vincent van Gogh, in 1889 painted The Yellow
Christ. His version of Jesus is not that of a typical Jew with
long hair; to the contrary, Jesus has a neat haircut more like
an office staff person. The bold vision of Gauguin is further
clarified in another of his paintings in which he places Jesus
and Mary in Tahitian costumes and background. Generally, the viewer
does not notice the occurrence of the nimbus (light that encircles
a holy person) in Gauguin's depictions.
Isa, or Jesus Christ, is a spirit. The body is an apparent medium
which sometimes stands for the incarnation and phenomenon and
functions as a form of communication between humanity and God.
In Javanese terms, this is known as an act of "manunggaling
kawula lan Gusti".
In this framework we can understand why American painters paint
Jesus without a moustache or beard and not infrequently as a black
man. Further we can understand why, for example, the character
of Jesus in the film Jesus of Jesus of Nazareth played by Robert
Powell is different than Ted Nelly's portrayal of Jesus in Jesus
Christ Superstar. In Yesus Sang Penebus, Remy Silado's Jesus is
a Malay (with a Javanese face) and travels in a becak. Remy has
a reason for this spiritualistic interpretation: "After the
resurrection and ascension, Jesus Christ must be viewed theologically,
As far as this is concerned, in the scope of the fine arts, Jesus
is considered a divine inspiration. Divine inspiration in due
course must be understood according to the level of comprehension,
background and creative capacity of each artist. Therefore Jesus
is portrayed through a variety of perceptions and points of view.
Velazquez paints Jesus having passed away and in peace on the
cross as if he experienced no suffering. Albrecht Burer, on the
other hand, describes Jesus in unbearable pain.
The surrealist artist Gustave Courbet in Burial at Ornans features
Jesus' crucifixion not at Golgotha, but in Ornans, a place near
the border between Switzerland and France. The painter (and illustrator)
Hildebrandt painted the torture and crucifixion of Jesus in the
middle of a main road in the 20th century with technological waste,
plastic trash and wheel rims of Mercedes scattered everywhere.
The spirit of Jesus in the fine arts is apparent in the works
which appear in the exhibition Variations on the Theme of Independence.
Initially this exhibition was to celebrate the fifty eighth year
of the independence of the Republic of Indonesia. However, artwork
has been exhibited from Christian themes. (I personally think
this exhibition is rather unique because it confronts the tradition
that allows only patriotic themes to be exhibited.)
Here we can see paintings from I Ketut Lasia, a senior Balinese
traditional Christian artist. Lasia is known by his Biblical works
using traditional forms and styles. Some of Lasia's paintings,
which are done in black and white, utilize idioms from the Ubud
style of painting. Back in the first quarter of the twentieth
century, Ida Bagus Made Poleng and colleagues, under the supervision
of Rudolf Bonnet and Walter Spies, developed this style. Bonnet
and Spies taught that paintings need not feature only Hindu religious
mythological themes which feature wayang puppet narratives or
the gods. The result was that the art of Ubud was broadened to
include depictions of everyday life, including farmers in the
rice fields and women selling at the market.
Lasia, who often participates in exhibitions abroad, has returned
the use of religious themes to Balinese traditional painting.
But the only difference here is that 'religious' is not Hindu,
but Christian. His paintings include many episodes of the life
of God's children and of the majesty of Jesus. In one painting
Jesus preaches to the masses from a hilltop. In another Jesus
is in a boat fishing with his disciples. He also paints Jesus'
crucifixion and his washing the feet of his disciples.
In another instance we are drawn to the work of I Nyoman Darsane,
another popular Balinese Christian artist. Darsane began with
a traditional orientation. However, he then began working in more
modern styles. As this developed much was written about the presence
of traditional elements in his art. Darsane's work came to be
described as 'contemporary.' Darsane utilizes a principle of realism
in his paintings to create mythological figures or wayang that
are usually seen in the Hindu world. However, these mythological
figures he makes as characters from stories whose inspiration
and substance is taken from the Gospel. And so emerge symbolic
realist paintings like Sang pembebas (The deliverer), Sepuluh
Anak Dara (the ten virgins) or the narrative of Mary and Martha.
The same spirit of realism is seen in the paintings of Ni Ketut
Ayu Sri Wardani. The difference, however, is that while Darsane's
work may be classified as decorative, Wardani's paintings are
essentially expressionistic. Every figure moves with deep feeling
and is transformed as a record of the event. The despairing face
in Jeritan Ibu (A Mother's Scream)
grasps the viewer. In a similar fashion Eloi Eloi Lamasabakhtani
shows the face of Jesus at his death. Wardani often references
the passion narrative Jesus'. One of the most interesting to observe
If Darsane and Wardani move from obedience to realism, then Komang
Wahyu, Gede Sukana Kariana, I Gede Yosef C. Darsane and Tina Bailey
are walking towards efforts to dissolve forms. Accordingly their
paintings serve impressions only, the beauty of colours dominate
the whole canvas such as in Josef's painting, Kebimbangan Maria
(Mary's Hesitation) and Kebangkitan
(Resurrection). Beautiful ornamentation leads the paintings
of Komang Wahyu: Yesus Memberkati Anak-Anak (Jesus Blesses the
Children), Baptisan di Sungai Yordan (Baptism in the River Jordan).
Abstract elements dominate Gede Sukana's Pengharapan (Hope) and
Tina Bailey's Tidak
Dapat Hidup dalam Kesendirian (We do not live in Isolation).
In the artists' work, Jesus often appears indistinctly as light.
Jesus is not to understood in physical terms; rather he has become
ultimate reality and knowing no barriers of space or time. Having
reflected on these images, we see that Jesus has been made visible
through symbols placed in aesthetic frames.
Karl Rahner, a principle German theologian, commented that by
being sensitive to the symbols of religion one can comprehend
life teachings better which are crystallized in the Holy Bible,
the Vedas, the Koran and other teachings. Human efforts to be
sensitive to aesthetic symbols are an interesting way to go deeper
into religion. Therefore, to appreciate and understand aesthetic
works that describe religious symbols at once encompass two ways
to come to God.
(this article is presented at the second exhibition of BCAA,
on August 16 to September 16, 2003)