LONDON — One of the major roles of Western art over the centuries has been to represent Jesus Christ. And to convey orthodox Christian theology.
An exhibition at Britain's National Gallery, called "Seeing Salvation: The Image of Christ," investigates this role. To do this, the gallery borrows works from other institutions while making use of its own remarkable collection.
At one time, this theme would have been considered easily accessible to most visitors. Not today, it seems.
Director Neil MacGregor writes that "a third of [the National Gallery's] pictures are Christian," but "many of our visitors now are not. And it is clear that for most this is a difficult inheritance."
The exhibition is a noble and multifaceted explanatory display. Some of the gallery's most beautiful paintings of Christian subjects - Piero della Francesca's "Baptism," for example - remain on view in the main galleries. The show is not an attempt to gather together supreme masterpieces, though some are included.
The unfamiliarity to many viewers of the themes explored in this exhibition - the use of signs and symbols in early Christianity, for instance, or the concept of "The Saving Body" in much later art - highlights large questions. Non-Christian viewers might be forgiven for wondering, given the inventive ways of many artists, whether the story of Christ were not pure myth. Nobody actually knows what Jesus looked like, they might reason, so how can art accurately represent him?
A section of the exhibition is, nevertheless, devoted to images of the typically long-haired, lean, and bearded features that are even today immediately identifiable.
The introduction to this section of the exhibition, "The True Likeness," begins: "Everyone in medieval Europe would have been confident that they knew what Christ looked like. Images of his face were everywhere, many of them claiming to be copies or versions of a miraculous 'true likeness' of Christ housed in St. Peter's in Rome."
To modern skeptics, though, such venerated relics are likely to seem authentic only to the naive. And visitors might also wonder how a religion of ineffability can have so radically slipped into the worship of icons and images.
This question is one that, over centuries, has occupied and concerned the thoughts of Christians themselves. How, if at all, can the ineffable, nonmaterial nature of Christ, his essential divinity, possibly be depicted by painters and sculptors? How can a medium that is entirely visual do the remotest justice to a subject that at its essence is invisible?
And those who believe in Christianity today might wonder, if the crowds in art galleries and museums are indeed predominantly ignorant of Christianity, how accurate a message such viewers are going to take away?
The piety and intense humanness of many of the works cannot be doubted. Yet it is far easier for artists to represent the humanness of Jesus than the intangible, spiritual nature of the Messiah.
A tradition grew up that images of the tragedy of the crucifixion of Jesus itself, the supreme sacrifice of laying down his life for his friends - what the Jewish religion called "graven images" - themselves could be worshiped.
The tradition, much favored by art, also developed that compassion might be evoked, or provoked, by images of the Passion, of brutal suffering. Yet some artists did attempt to instill their images with a sense of the kingship of Christ Jesus, as well as his vulnerability.
This dual nature is even expressed in the most vulnerable image of all, the Nativity. This exhibition is particularly strong in the variety of its Nativity paintings. Some of them contrive to prefigure the crucifixion while depicting Jesus' birth.
Among the earliest depictions of the Christian narrative on view are four remarkable ivory reliefs of the Passion and Resurrection, loaned by the British Museum. They are Roman and date from about AD 420-430. They contrast vigorously with some of the later works.
They show, in order, Christ taking up his cross, the crucifixion, the empty tomb, and Christ's commission to the apostles.
They are not, perhaps, the work of a superbly sophisticated artist. Hardly a Michelangelo or a Donatello. But they have a bold directness that is far from incompetence. What they emphatically do not show is the human weakness and suffering depicted in so many later representations of the subject. Carrying his cross, and even on the cross, Jesus has an air of vigorous, confident victory.
Few works successfully convey the wonder of a tomb that is empty, or the subsequent purposeful idea of a triumphantly resurrected Christ telling his followers to go out into all the world and preach the gospel.
And these images do go some way toward suggesting that if the Word is made flesh, sometimes the Word may also be made art.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society