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Monday, August 22, 2011

Rembrandt (from The Star)

The current Rembrandt’s The Face of Jesus exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is something every Philadelphia should see.

The exhibit allows Philadelphians an opportunity to view “human friendly” images of Jesus. Prior to Rembrandt, artists ignored their imaginations when it came to portraying Jesus but followed standard images based largely on Veronica’s Veil, (the imprint of the face of Jesus taken when Veronica offered Jesus a cloth to wipe his face on the way to Calvary) or the Holy Mandylion, a legendary imprint of the face of Christ in the Orthodox world that originated well before the crucifixion.

The Rembrandt exhibit comes pretty close to capturing what Jesus may have actually looked like. For starters, Rembrandt used mostly Jewish models. But a Jewish Jesus in Rembrandt’s day was a revolutionary thing.

History tells us that immediately after the crucifixion Jesus was pictured as a clean shaven, Apollo-like deity. In the 4th century, most Jesus images had the close-cropped hair we see today on most Byzantine icons. (These images seem to jive with St. Paul’s famous admonition against men having long hair.) By the 6th century the tide had turned and Jesus was being painted as someone with long hair and a beard. What helped this new view was the discovery of the Shroud of Turin in the city of Edessa (Mesopotamia) in 544.

What Jesus might have looked like has always a subject for speculation.

In my Irish-German Catholic childhood home, for instance, the Jesus images had an Irish troubadour look. Rembrandt actually comes pretty close to this ideal only his models are not Irish. Going back to the 2nd century, you can read how Church Fathers, Justin Martyr and Origen thought that Jesus was unattractive. Both men held fast to the Isaiah 53 quote: “He has no form nor glory, nor beauty when we beheld him, but his appearance was without honor and inferior to that of the sons of men.”

Then there was St. Augustine, who said, “The physical face of the Lord is pictured with infinite variety by countless imaginations, though whatever it was like He certainly had only one.”

In the 20th century, psychic Edgar Cayce wrote that Christ had long red hair and steely blue eyes. Cayce goes on to explain that among Jews the birth of a red haired son was always a special event.

The famous Lentulus letter, allegedly written by a predecessor of Pontius Pilate, spells out Christ’s appearance: “…Hair is the color of ripe hazelnut, parted on top and falling straight to the ears yet curling further below. His beard is large and full but not long and parted in the middle. His glance shows simplicity adorned with maturity, his eyes are clear and commanding. Never apt to laugh but sooner inclined to cry.”

The exhibition is a sort of gamble for PMA. Will going to see it be perceived as paying homage to Jesus? Or will people use the excuse that it’s only Rembrandt that attracts them?

On Facebook, I noticed that someone was offering his two PMA members tickets to the exhibition because he was not into honoring “demi-gods.” For some (perhaps many), Jesus is controversial like that. Some people hate him because they associate him with right wing religions, witch hunts, the Inquisition, and other bad things that Jesus’ followers have concocted. It’s understandable but lamentable, because this exhibit will make you want to come back, again and again and look into this “man’s” eyes.

This is another way of saying that the images are haunting.
For PMA President Gail Harrity, organizing The Faces of Jesus became an opportunity to reach out to Philadelphia’s faith community.

` “Over the last several months we’ve made a robust effort to reach out to a broad cross section of our community, as broad as possible,” Harrity told journalists at the exhibition’s press preview. “In May 2011, for instance, we held a mass discussion for 50 or 60 leaders of different faith communities with the hope that many members of these faith communities would join us for a community opening on July 28th.”

Many in the faith communities did, in fact, stream into PMA for a special two hour community reception. There were Protestant pastors and their wives; innumerable Rosemont College alums; secular dress “invisible” nuns as well as nuns who looked like nuns; clergymen in collars who appeared Catholic although they could have been Anglican or Lutheran. There were no breaded Orthodox priests although Cardinal Rigali made a brief appearance.

Rembrandt should also appeal to Philadelphians because of his prickly individuality. Rembrandt was not a fussy-wussy academic type who did things to further his career but in fact he often did the opposite. He was criticized for hanging out with people of low estate (the wrong people) and for not paying enough attention to the rich and powerful. Rembrandt did not play the game but went his own way. He was no court portrait painter who painted king, queens and cardinals but stuck to the low and non-mighty, like beggars and lepers.