Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Redeemer's Masterpiece

Despite the fact Christmas is a religious season where faithfuls are supposed to feed their souls with the word as they commemorate the birth of the messiah, hedonistic indulgence takes precedence as people dine and wine their way to bankruptcy. From food, to clothing and gifts the Christmas season, branded “x-mas” by those from other religions wishing to have a piece of the merrymaking, seems to have the magic of turning the stingiest of spenders into givers of gifts and thrifts.

But apparently, besides being the founder of one of the world’s major festivities, and faiths, Jesus Christ has inspired a huge branch of religious art. The obsession with the concept of Christ among artists and those in the creative industry stretches from the present all the way back to the dawn of Christianity 2000 years ago. The outcome of this has been the accumulation of a huge volume of paintings, sculptures and recently films.

From masterpieces depicting his birth in a manger in the now famous city of Nazareth to his death by crucifixion in the outskirts of Jerusalem, major museums across the world are littered with millions of artistic objects whose theme is Christ.

Besides the image of Jesus himself occasions in his life associated with popular church functions, seasons and culture like Easter and Christmas have attracted the largest volume of paintings, sculptures and other forms of creative expression. Fascinated by the vivid descriptions of the life and works of Christ in the gospels artists not only dramatized, through the brush and chisel, his miraculous birth but also his crucifixion, death and resurrection.

One of the most popular Jesus masterpieces from medieval Europe is The Last Supper by the renowned Italian genius Leonardo da Vinci. Commissioned by Duke Ludovico Sforza and his wife Beatrice d’Este for their family mausoleum in Milan, the controversial mural represents the last supper as told in John 13:21. The images of the apostles, identified by name from one of the artist’s notebook discovered in the nineteenth century, are seen consulting in groups of three after Christ revealed that one of them will betray him. Many reviewers say that by clustering the apostles in triads the artist wanted to depict the concept of the Holy Trinity.

Besides being an object of high artistic value The Last Supper has been associated with various conspiracy theories most of which claims that a closer look reveals a woman, probably Mary Magdalene, holding a baby. This theory is propagated by a section of scholars who purports that Jesus and Mary had an intimate relationship. Giovanni Pala, an Italian musician, has indicated that the positions of hands and loaves of bread in the painting can also be interpreted as notes on a keyboard which if read from right to left, as was characteristic of Leonardo’s writings, form a musical composition.

Sabrina Galitzia, a Vatican researcher, added another twist to the complicated tale of The Last Supper by alleging that he has deciphered a “mathematical and astrological” puzzle in the painting. She claims that through this puzzle the Italian artist foresaw the end of the world in a universal flood that would happen in the year 4006.

Although he never created a major Jesus-themed work in paint, Leonardo da Vinci’s archrival and giant of medieval art world Michelangelo also churned out several religious masterpieces the most famous of which being the paintings of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. The Last Supper that dons the Sistine alter wall and scenes from Genesis on the chapel’s ceiling marks the sculptor’s biggest achievements in paint. Despite the fact Michelangelo did not do any Jesus frescos, his peers who worked in the Sistine project indulged heavily in the Christ theme by dedicating the entire northern wall of this famous chapel to Stories of Jesus. Some of the most famous frescos here include Baptism of Christ by Pietro Perugino, Temptation of Christ by Sandro Botticelli and Sermon on the Mount by Cosimo Rosselli.

Another artist of the same era who shot to fame by depicting a famous scriptural scene was Caravaggio. His famous painting Supper at Emmaus done in 1601 now lies at the National Gallery in London. The most intriguing aspect of this masterpiece which is based on the writings of Mark 16:12 where the apostle says Christ appeared to the disciples “in another form” after resurrection is the fact that the images are life size and the sense of detail intriguing.

“On the surfaces of the glasses, crockery, bread and fruit, poultry and vine leaves, he unfurls all the sensual magic of textural portrayal in a matter hitherto unprecedented in Italian painting”, one of the painter’s biographers noted. “The realism with which Caravaggio treated even religious subjects-apostles who look like labourers, the plump and slightly feminine figure of Christ-met with the vehement disapproval of the clergy”.

Another subject that seem to interest many artists in the life of Christ according to the gospels is his descendant into the dungeons of hell after crucifixion where he is said to have released the patriarchs and the just from eternal bondage to light. Advocates of this doctrine, commonly known as Harrowing of Hell, claims that St. Paul confirms its truth in Ephesians 4: 9, when he says “what does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly region?”

Although the lack of vivid or explicit description of Christ mission in the underworld have been a subject of controversy throughout the history of Christianity, many artists have used their imagination to depict the scenes of what might have transpired in the dark halls of Hades. Among the most famous pieces on this topic is Christ Descent into Limbo by Andrea Mantegna in 1470 and Christ Leads the Patriarchs from Hell to Paradise by Bartolomeo Bartejo in 1480.

In modern times, the bad boy of religious art has been Salvador Dali who died in 1989. Being a surrealist, a 20th century movement in art and literature that sought to release the creative potential of the unconscious mind by irrational juxtaposition of images, the depiction of Christ in Dali’s paintings borders outrageous.

The Spanish master claimed that most of his unconventional paintings, some of which set him at loggerheads with family and friends, were inspired by dreams and visions. In the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ, Dali shows a male figure holding a cross over his heart with the inscriptions “sometimes I spit on my mother’s portal for fun”. The provocative statement ended up severing the artist’s relationships with his father.

Christ of Saint John of the Cross, done in 1951, is another of Dali’s controversial creations where he depicts the crucifixion of Jesus without nails, blood and the crown of thorns floating in a darkened sky over a body of water with a boat and a fisherman. The artist claimed that he avoided the vivid details common in other crucifixion paintings since “he was convinced by a dream that these features would mar his depiction of Christ”.

Based on a sixteenth century drawing by a Spanish friar, the composition of Christ in the painting takes the form of a triangle, formed by the arms, and circle, formed by the head. The triangular formation is said to be inspired by the Trinity while the circle stands for Platonic thought. The Spanish government is said to have offered $127 million to Glasgow Corporation, the official custodians of the Christ of Saint John of the Cross, but the offer was rejected.

Crucifixion is yet another controversial masterpieces by Dali where he depicts the crucified Jesus without nails or blood and hanged across a giant cross like-cube against a dark and gloomy background. Where many earlier artists would have put the image of Mary Magdalene or one of the other holy women mourning at the foot of the cross, Dali puts the robed figure of his wife Gala. Other controversial paintings of Christ by the Spanish artist includes The Second Coming of Christ, where he illustrates Revelation 19:11 using surreal images of a human body connected to a horse head by a long winding chord, Madonna with a Mystical Rose and The Sacrament of the Last Supper.

Paul Chimera of the Salvador Dali foundation summarized the unconventional nature of the artist thus: What your paintings say to me/No poet can convey/What words could ever match the grace/Of your landscapes by bay.

Apart from paintings and drawings, one of the most well known figures of Christ in modern day architecture is Christ the Redeemer in Brazil. It’s considered the largest art deco statue and the fifth largest statue of Jesus in the world and towers a dizzying 130 feet over the city of Rio de Janeiro.

Made of 635 tonnes of reinforced concrete and soapstone and mounted on the peak of Mt Corcovado overlooking the panoramic Brazilian capital at the shores of the Atlantic, Christ the Redeemer was classified as one of The New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007. Although the idea of a Jesus statue was hatched way back in the 1800s when Brazil was still a Portuguese colony, it was never realized until the 1920s when the local Catholic church successfully collected signatures and funds for the statues commissioning.

The design of Christ with open arms was chosen to symbolize his message of peace to humanity. Construction took nine years from 1922 to 1931 and is said to have cost an equivalent of $3 million. A chapel where Catholic faithfuls can hold weddings and baptisms was consecrated under the statue by the Archbishop of Rio in 2006.

But despite the holy aura that radiates around Christ the Redeemer the popular monument has had its fare share of misfortunes in the recent past. One stormy Sunday in 2008 the statue was struck by lightning bolt and incurred damage on the outstretched fingers, head and eyebrows. Restoration efforts by the Rio state government and the local catholic archdiocese ensured the symbolic The Redeemer was back to its best.

However, tragedy struck again two years later when spray-wielding vandals smeared obscene graffiti on the statue’s head and right arm. As expected, the city’s faithfuls went berserk with the mayor declaring the act “a crime against the nation” and offered $10,000 for any information that may lead to an arrest. Paulo Souza dos Santos was identified as the main suspect by the Brazilian military police. The Redeemer’s fictional destruction has also been recreated in the doomsday movie 2012 where a scene shows the statue’s arms and knees collapsing before the gigantic monument collide with the side of the mountain.

This vivid cinematography caused an uproar from a section of Brazilian religious conservatives.

Apart from art d├ęcor and paintings, the story of Jesus has been a popular subject in the movie industry for many decades. Although several films have been done on this topic Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ remains one of the most popular, and controversial. Although the movie depicted Christ largely according to the gospels of mark, Mathew, Luke and John with flashback of his childhood and other occasions like the Last Supper and the Sermon on the Mount, the 2004 blockbuster drew controversy for adaptation of non-biblical writings in its script.

The dramatic movie is laden with vivid scenes of Christ, played by Jim Cavtezel, being whipped to a bloody pulp before being dragged through the streets of Jerusalem to the dramatic crucifixion at Golgotha. Some critics say that the extreme violence obscured the message of peace that the Messiah stood for. But Gibson defended his creation passionately.

“This is a movie about love, hope, faith and forgiveness. He (Jesus) died for all mankind, suffered for all of us,” he explains. “Its time to get back to that basic message. The world has gone nuts. We could all use a little more love, faith, hope and forgiveness”.


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