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The Life of Jesus as Discovered in the Eyes of Artists

SEEING SALVATION, Images of Christ in Art, By Neil MacGregor, with Erika LangmuirBBD Worldwide and Yale University Press, $35, 240 pages


Think of Jesus.

What do you see?

Is he a Christ child in a manger wrapped with swaddling clothes? Is he a wretched, suffering man, arms outstretched, body bloodied, nailed to a crucifix? Or is he a risen Lord, dramatic and glorious?

The answer, of course, is that Christ can be all these things. Or none. The true face of Christ lies in the mind of the artist, the piercing eyes of the spectator, the soul of the believer or the circumstance of the nonbeliever.

In the new book "Seeing Salvation: Images of Christ in Art," authors Neil MacGregor, director of the National Gallery in London, and Erika Langmuir provide an insightful journey through Jesus' life, as seen in the catacombs, cathedrals and museum masterpieces of Western European art.

By combining lyrical biblical passages with stunning color illustrations and artistic interpretation, the book strikes an exceptional balance between art history and religious study. Those with the slightest interest in either discipline will find much that will fascinate.

In the introduction, the authors state their case: "The greatest artists, in representing the life of Christ . . . explored the fundamental experiences of every human life. Pictures about Jesus' childhood, teachings, sufferings and death are--regardless of our beliefs--in a very real sense pictures about us."

Using that as a springboard, the book is divided into four parts delving into each major passage of Christ's life, analyzing how the great masters such as Michelangelo, Francisco de Zurbaran and Leonardo da Vinci have portrayed the son of God from Nativity to the Passion, to Crucifixion and Resurrection.

By now, Christians and non-Christians alike are familiar with scenes depicting the birth of Christ. There are the obligatory shepherds, three kings or wise men, a star in the East, and the holy family of Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus. But the authors explain that if we turn from artistic traditions to biblical texts, there are surprises.

Angels, shepherds and a stable appear only in the Gospel of Luke, who seems to be describing a different event from Matthew, who writes of wise men in the East. And the New Testament nowhere mentions ox or ass, nor does it ever describe the adoring visitors as kings.

Some theologians believe the animals present in artistic renditions originate in a verse in the Book of Isaiah that prophesied the coming of the Messiah (1:3): "The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's crib; but Israel does not know, my people does not consider."

More provocative is how the authors trace the evolution of the baby Jesus as portrayed in art. In Italian mosaics from 556, the infant Christ sits like a tiny ruler, dressed in the toga of a Roman aristocrat. He is royalty. Almost a century later, the Franciscans, with their emphasis on the poor, shifted the concept of Christ from child king to helpless baby depicted in one 14th century fresco nursing at Mary's exposed breast. In this way, the Franciscans restored Christ to the poor.

The authors are impressive and thorough in their research and knowledge of art, as well as religious history. In Part 2, we learn of the difficulties of portraying Jesus as simultaneously human and divine.

Using rays of light has become a standard device. But the authors explain that the technique was not done convincingly until the development of oil painting in the 15th century, when artists could reveal form gradually emerging from shadow and indicate the precise source of brightness. An example is featured on the book's cover in a striking portrait of "The Newborn Child" by Georges de La Tour.

One intriguing chapter focuses on the quest for the true likeness of Christ with historical information and analysis of the Turin shroud and da Vinci's legendary "Last Supper."

From those models, artists gathered impressions of the adult Jesus: the long, thin face and beard, stains suggesting that the person was tortured by having a crown or helmet of thorns on his head. For many, the shroud provided an image that brought believers face to face with a suffering Christ.

While much of the book concentrates on historical artifacts and subjective art interpretation, one segment is striking in explaining how these works of art, even now, speak to those who see them. In 1997, when the Guarini chapel that holds the Turin shroud burned, the shroud was saved by Turinese fireman Mario Trematore, the grandson of a Communist who never practiced Christianity.

Asked how the shroud could affect one's life and one's faith, Trematore described it as "the face of suffering."

"The extraordinary gift which the shroud can give you," he said, is "the ability to understand . . . the universal nature of pain in the face of others . . . that I was no longer capable of harming anyone."

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