Painted representations of Jesus Christ have been a primary subject of Western art, morphing in style and content according to individual artistic style but also the role of commissioning patrons: Roman Catholic imagery can contrast heavily with the art of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, each having a distinctive cultural and historical flavor. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has its own artistic canon, albeit less historic and less defined. Because of its nascent state the LDS canon is open to many popular contemporary trends, ones often wanting in the profundity and sublimity expected of depictions of the Messiah, the savior of the world and redeemer of all mankind. One result of this is the unfortunate amount of contemporary LDS art, ubiquitous in places like Deseret Books, that uses generalized, blue-eyed, blond, youthful muscular types with winning smiles – what some I know have dubbed “Cool Uncle Jesus” art – placed in generic or empty settings. On the other hand, in places like the Brigham Young University Museum of Art, there are thankfully some from the same faith promoting a visual canon with a deeper sensibility, through the use of historical “old master” paintings of Jesus Christ. These timeless masterpieces speak universally through suggestions of heightened spirituality, relying more on narrative moments than superficial physical charms.
The LDS community has always borrowed from outside its own body to create an artistic canon, featuring works in exhibitions and reproducing images as illustrations in its many publications. The Brigham Young University Museum of Art has had much to do with the popularity of old master paintings to portray qualities of Jesus Christ. Their current exhibit, In the Master’s Hand, features paintings by Danish artist Carl Heinrich Bloch, whose works the Museum has purchased and the LDS Church has widely reproduced. Since June the Museum has also been showing the religious work of Bloch’s contemporary, James Tissot, deepening the community’s appreciation for the narrative power of these historical paintings.
Carl Bloch was a 19th-century master of the Dutch academic tradition. Like so many northern artists, Bloch was greatly affected by the school of Rembrandt van Rijn. In one of the first installments in The Master’s Hand we see Bloch’s “Descent from the Cross,” an echo of Rembrandt’s uncanny naturalism. As with the works of many great Baroque artists, to stand before this picture is to enter a space and with it a time and a moment. Bloch’s technical expertise allows him to render whichever narrative elements are the most important to him. In this painting viewers may find themselves at one with this scene, a solemn moment of the death of Christ, made accessible. The local light hovering upon Christ contrasts with the larger areas of dark to set a melancholy mood. Although the flesh of Christ is very much dead, a warm tonality that enshrouds the body emphasizes that his purpose is not yet fulfilled.
Perhaps the grandest and most Baroque of Bloch’s works is “Christ Healing the Sick at Bethesda,” painted in 1883. The painting is broad — in its subject, in its explorative use of color, and in its chiaroscuro effects — and succeeds with that Rembrandt-like quality of finding the most effective narrative moment. Christ wanders among the poor souls who suffer the pains of mortal reality, but Bloch does not portray a grandiose moment, like the return of sight to a blind man; instead we witness a candid intimacy as Christ pulls back the blanket that serves as a crippled man’s shelter. The power of the encounter, with the promise of the man’s future salvation is all suggested in that quiet, revealing moment.
Bloch’s “Christus Consolator” might be a more iconic image of Jesus Christ as a universal figure. This is a simpler, harmonious, tempered altarpiece where Bloch uses white and the significance of light as his primary tools. It is understated and Christ is unquestionably the consolator. We see piercing yet placid eyes that are blue and tranquil like water. He is gazing at us and beyond us. He is beautiful and radiant, yet he is calm and at peace. At his feet we see those whom he consoles, faces of many in agony and ecstasy. These few represent untold numbers of whom this man standing above is the savior. This is an image that compels belief.
In contrast to Bloch’s large altarpieces, James Tissot’s collection of watercolors now on display at BYU’s MOA are small enough to be reproduced life-size in book form; but they share with Bloch’s work a mastery of technique and interest in narrative. The 124 paintings, powerful in their emotive qualities and portraying a wide range of scenes from the Gospels, were part of a 10-year mission Tissot embarked upon after a moving experience in the Church of Saint-Sulpice. His vision there of “Christ comforting the poor” unifies this entire ouevre.
A Frenchman, Tissot was influenced by the experiments of the early French avant-garde. Although they are not abstracted, we find within Tissot’s work a dominant modernist element that lends a near metaphysical quality. Avant-garde artists were discovering that color, light and visual motif can have an almost “organic” quality to communicate directly with the viewer by the free use of these elements, without word, instruction, or prior understanding; the viewer is affected by this expression and Tissot used these techniques to his and the viewer’s great advantage.
Tissot’s “Annunciation” tells the Gospel account of the moment Mary understands that she is to be the mother of the Messiah. This is neither a proud Netherlandish virgin nor some ideal of beauty according to Fra Angelico. Tissot’s is a very human Mary, physically and emotionally weighted and burdened as she is addressed by a contrastingly divine angel in a sphere of countless centralized rays of light. More than in any Renaissance or historical Annunciation, in Tissot’s painting the viewer feels the heavenly divinity of the light and the earthly weight of Mary.
In Tissot’s “Our Lord Jesus Christ” the lone figure grasps his chest, and his heart beneath, with both hands in an acute moment of expressive pathos, offering himself as an ultimate sacrifice for each of us individually and for humanity collectively. This is an intuitive, emotive expression of the fullness of the being that is contained in the person of Jesus Christ. The viewer may respond to the gravitas of this bold yet reduced image of the man who is to bring salvation to the world and believe him capable of this.
Both of these old masters add to the integrity of the canon of religious art The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints uses to represents its doctrine. While Bloch moves the spirit through a grand Classical naturalism and moments of heightened emotion, Tissot affects the viewer intimately with episodes from the life of Christ rare in religious art, with moods attained by the use of expressive color and iconography. Traditional works of the old masters have proven consistently to be in visual and spiritual unity with the aims of the church and its utilitarian purposes for the art that promotes it. There are equanimity and reason in these historic and timeless representations. These images are in harmony with the weighty doctrine of the LDS Church and more adequately signify the profundity of the central theological figure of Jesus Christ that is too often superficially rendered.
Ehren Clark studied art history at both the University of Utah and the University of Reading in the UK. For a decade he lived in Salt Lake City and worked as a professional writer until his untimely death in 2017.