Repainting Christ: A Challenge To Preachers From Cecilia Gimenez

Paint Brush by Rdoke
Paint Brush by Rdoke
A lasting highlight of my degree in philosophy was a term spent studying aesthetics. The rambling discussions about the possibility of objectivity in art; the bearded undergrads talking way too earnestly about whether molecular gastronomy could be legitimately deemed an artform; the heated debates about Plato’s theory of forms, and whether or not artworks actually exist in any form other than as a conceptual possibility…

I know – geeky, but strangely fun.

One particular 90-minute chunk of my life (which I enjoyed immensely at the time, but I’m pretty certain Solomon would have scoffed at and declared “vanity!”) involved a discussion about how one would go about destroying Beethoven’s ninth. It’s not that we had anything against Beethoven per se, and there are certainly portions of his work I’d happily eradicate before turning my torch to his ninth symphony. But the question behind the question was this, “what is Beethoven’s ninth, ontologically speaking?”

Is it the originally written score? If so, would shredding that score destroy the work, since it has been reproduced, photocopied, performed and recorded countless times across the centuries? Is it the first performance? But why should it be? What if the first performance was sub-par? Perhaps the second, or seventh was better? Or perhaps the optimum version was not even performed within Beethoven’s lifetime? Perhaps it is yet to come? And how would one determine which was the best performance anyway? Beethoven’s favourite? Mine? Yours? Put it to a public vote? If the best performance were never recorded, how could I ever listen to the actual Beethoven’s ninth? What if the optimum performance only existed in the mind of the composer, and all human reconstructions were but a pale reflection of his ambition?

And so our philosophising continued, occasionally punctuated by moments of silence, during which each of us looked around the room and wondered how it was that such bright young individuals with keen minds were all single?!

But I enjoyed the discussions. There was something carefree and light about them. And they revisited me this week as I read (with a mixture of glee and nostalgia) about the elderly lady who defaced Jesus…

Cecilia Gimenez, an elderly parishioner at Mercy Church, Zaragoza, Spain was saddened by the deteriorating face of her Saviour on an ancient fresco, and so took matters into her own hands. An artistic vigilante, if you will. The fresco of Jesus, painted by Elias Garcia Martinez, was over a hundred years old and wasn’t exactly in the best of conditions:

Faded Ecce Homo

Arguably however, Jesus’ damp-eaten face was more aesthetically pleasing before Gimenez got out her paintbrush:

New Ecce Homo

Oh wow…

BBC Europe Correspondent Christian Fraser beautifully described Gimenez’s handiwork thus,

“The once-dignified portrait now resembles a crayon sketch of a very hairy monkey in an ill-fitting tunic”

And whilst work is underway to restore the painting, the city councillor reluctantly concluded:

“If we can’t fix it, we will probably cover the wall with a photo of the painting.”

My reactions to reading this article were fourfold:

First of all I chuckled at the absurdity of the situation and the unfortunate botch job. Let’s be honest… the picture is amusing, and somewhat reminiscent of Mr Bean’s attempt to restore ‘Whistler’s Mother’.

Secondly, I pondered the aesthetic-ontological questions of whether this lady had indeed destroyed a work of art, and what the philosophical implications were of covering an original work (albeit a pimped-up version) with a print.

Thirdly, I wondered if Gimenez’s version didn’t unintentionally capture something of Isaiah’s prophecy, ‘He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him’ (Isaiah 53:2).

Fourthly, I felt sobered by the whole thing. And here’s why:

It’s undeniable that the poor lady was just trying to help. There was nothing malicious about her work. In fact there was something beautifully reverent about it. Just… reverence misplaced and misguided.

And then I got to thinking this: How many times have I, in my preaching and theology, out of my desire to make Jesus accessible, palatable and beautiful to a sceptical audience, inadvertently botched my representation of him, blurring out his true form and depicting him as less than he is?

I was struck by the way the crown of thorns, a key feature of the original painting, was now lost under the mass of fuzzy hair. Are there elements of Jesus’ life, death and character that I simply gloss over and airbrush out?

Few of us, I’m sure, begin our lives as theologians or preachers with the expressed intent to misrepresent Christ. We start out like Gimenez, with good intentions. We love our Lord, we hate to see him faded and deteriorated in the public consciousness, and so we set out to restore his image… we’re just trying to help. But if we’re not careful our zealous attempts to help people see Jesus in a fresh light, coupled with varying levels of skill and the temptation towards pacifying people rather than portraying him as he truly is may lead us to compromises that blur his true likeness.

Preachers. Thinkers. Writers. Artists. Next time you have an opportunity to paint Christ, consider carefully the accuracy and beauty of your work, before it goes public!

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