As we approach the Christmas season, the propriety of depicting Jesus has come up again–in special reference to John MacArthur. I’m going to comment on one particular aspect of this debate.
What makes a picture a picture of Jesus? After all, one of the common objections to depicting Jesus is that we don’t know what he looked like. But that objection is somewhat paradoxical, is it not? If ostensible pictures of Jesus don’t resemble Jesus, then in what sense are they picturing Jesus?
Compare it to a photograph of myself. What makes that a depiction of me? I can think of two things:
i) It was actually taken of me. I really am the person in the photograph. I sat for that portrait (as it were).
ii) On a related note, it corresponds to what I look like (at the time the photo was taken). It’s a representational depiction of my actual appearance. There’s a direct correlation between me and the photographic image.
Indeed, that’s one reason our society requires photo I.D. for various transactions. To prove your true identity.
Yet that’s the polar opposite of why some Christians object to depicting Jesus. So in which sense is an ostensible picture of Jesus picturing Jesus?
In that case it’s not objective but subjective. Symbolic. Psychological. And that has two aspects:
i) Artistic intent. The artist intends to depict Jesus.
ii) The viewer understands the picture to be a representation of Christ.
But that’s complicated.
Suppose a Renaissance painter uses an Italian male model to pose for his “picture of Jesus.” Is that a picture of Jesus? Or is that a picture of the man who posed for the painting? The depiction is literally a portrait of some Italian dude from the 16C. A picture of someone who isn’t Jesus, that’s meant to signify Jesus.
Likewise, artistic recognition is culturally conditioned. You need to know the code. If you grow up in an Eastern Orthodox country, you recognize iconographic depictions of Jesus. But if you were an artistically illiterate tourist, you might not realize who it stands for.
Or take the Warner Sallman’s “Head of Christ.” Is that a picture of Jesus? In a society where lots of folks are unchurched, you could do one of those man-on-the-street interviews, showing the picture to random pedestrians, and I expect many of them would shrug their shoulders or name some pop musician. Is that Jesus–or is that Mark Wahlberg in Rock Star?
Is it still a picture of Jesus if you don’t know who it’s meant to represent? And, remember that this is different from a photograph of someone you don’t know.
To be a picture of Jesus for the viewer, the viewer must mentally transfer or reassign the image to Jesus. A psychological projection. A fictitious predication.