Jesus with a Whip
This Easter season, I have found myself looking through a book given to me years ago. It is entitled His Face.
Painted by world-renowned artists whose technical skills were and are inimitable, the depictions of the head of Christ range from iconic images painted by anonymous artists to Anthony Van Dyck’s “The Mocking of Christ,” a masterpiece located at Princeton University, where mockery of Christ is, ironically, now standard fare.
Georges Rouault’s “Ecce Homo,” in which Rouault depicts in spare, stark and bold strokes the humiliation of Christ, is also included, proving that even the minimalism characterizing much of modern art cannot suppress the powerful effect of the portrayal of the Man of God. A copy of Rouault’s Christ is available on a postcard costing only a few pieces of silver -- about .88 cents.
The last portrait in the book is that of the risen Christ, taken from Matthias Grunewald’s famous triptych done for the hospital of Eisenheim. Grunewald probably drew on the description of Christ’s post-resurrection appearance described in Revelation by St. John. The artist portrays the resurrected and glorified Christ as radiantly otherworldly -- almost translucent, lit from within, but still recognizable.
The pages of His Face are filled almost entirely with depictions of the peaceful and contemplative face of Jesus or his patient, agonized visage when enduring the crucifixion. The gentle, patient, longsuffering, and inoffensive Jesus predominates.
I found myself thinking a number of Christians would be offended if a fuller depiction of the character of Christ presented in portraiture were better known. I thought particularly of the little known canvas by Rembrandt entitled “Christ Driving the Money changers from the Temple.” Rembrandt paints Christ’s face contorted with rage. The whip is a blur as he thrashes the terrified and craven money changers who are defiling his Father’s temple.
Here is a Jesus angry about unrighteousness.
Here is Christ with a whip.
What are contemporary Christians to think of an angry Christ with a whip? What are they to think of the Christ who judges evil with finality, such as the Christ of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment? The artist depicts the stern, immovable countenance of Christ raising his arm in judgment, as the terrified condemned are ferried away by Charon, who with gleeful malice escorts the shocked sinners across the river Styx to their eternal doom.
What should Christians think of the fact that many Christian theologians see Christ as one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, riding in judgment along with the horsemen of war, famine and death? Who has depicted the fierce and horrifying horsemen better than Albrecht Durer, who forsaking the static images of the Middle Ages, shows the horsemen riding at breakneck speed, trampling hapless humans into the dust?
Maybe Christians could start with thinking about just what fighting evil entails. Perhaps they could think about how often they have given up the battle against evil, substituting a vacuous concept of peace characterized by almost total pacifism. Perhaps they could ponder the near death of righteous indignation against the sins of humanity. The wholesale killing of the unborn, The persecution and torture of fellow Christians around the world, the suppression and degradation of women and children in the sex trade, the increased corruption in all three branches of our government and much, much else demand the anger; and, yes, the judgment of Christians. It was not so long ago that the faithful railed against evil wherever, Medusalike, it reared its ugly and multifarious heads. It was not too long ago that Christians in the political arena believed such matters are judged by Christ and therefore should be judged by his followers.
Perhaps followers of Christ should rethink their iconography, starting with the image of the sweet-faced Christ as depicted and popularized by Sallman’s “Head of Christ,” and William Holman Hunt’s “Behold, I stand at the Door and Knock.”
Those and similar images of the gentle, inoffensive Shepherd of Sunday school classes are the pictures of Christ prevailing among American Christians today, who too often believe withdrawal from the evils of the world and a pacifist response to the aggression and sins of the world are the best ways to be Christlike. The concept of actively making a judgment and taking action against evil has rapidly eroded and is in danger of becoming almost completely lost among today’s churches. In fact, it is not too much to say it has been lost among today’s Main Line denominations.
Perhaps Christians should also begin to understand how the Left has used the contemporary Christian view of the ever gentle, nonjudgmental Christ against Christians themselves. The Left thinks about Christ along the lines of the Sallamn image. When and if Christians fight back, they are accused of being unchristian. They are chastised for getting riled up and shouting -- or even speaking severely. Liberals use guilt to force Christians back into the meek and mild mode of what Tim Chaddick, young pastor of Reality, LA describes as the “tie-dyed Jesus.”
There are many other consequences to accepting an image of Christ as delicate and weak. Accepting a view of Christ that does not include his judgment against evil means people will look to find strength in human leaders. It means propagandistic iconography will shape the public consciousness. False Christs will rise to take the place of Jesus.
And rise they have.
Particularly from the French Revolution on, many depictions of political leaders borrowed heavily from imagery of the Christian tradition. With the displacement of religious figures and biblical scenes, political iconography has prevailed.
Thus we see the Christ-like figure of Napoleon visiting the plague-stricken at Jaffa, the leader’s divine touch instantly healing the sickened soldiers. Britain was not far behind France in political iconography. The “Apotheosis of Lord Nelson,” whose ascent into heaven ensconced on snowy white, shroudlike cloth resembles in reverse the many paintings of Christ’s descent from the cross, one of the most famous of which is Rubens’ portrayal of the event.
In the twentieth century, we find portraits of Hitler as a Teutonic knight in shining armor; North Korea’s Dear Leader portrayed as a messianic figure surrounded by children; Stalin, Man of Steel, dressed in pure white and portrayed as a tender-hearted shepherd of kids; Mao tse Tung portrayed as the moon-faced god whose sheer ubiquity imitated the divine characteristic of omnipresence; and last, but not least, portraits of a messianic Obama, one of which depicts his head adorned with a rainbow halo. (Interestingly, one portrait of Mao has radiant sun rays surrounding his head -- just like the iconic image of Obama.)
In sum, portraits of Jesus have had an enormous influence on political theory and action as it affects Christians, depicting as they do the character of a Christ his followers are called to imitate.
Throughout the ages, the ultimate question for every Christian is “Who is the Christ I follow?” The second and related question is, “What has he called me to do?”
The first answer is that Christ is Prophet, Priest, and King over the entire universe, including this earth. The second answer is that he has called Christians to battle against evil. As he taught his followers to pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.” Christ extends the righteous rule of heaven to earth, to our time and space, calling his followers to war against evil and to seek to establish the peaceable kingdom.
The twin efforts to war against evil and to establish peace have resulted in some of the most admirable efforts of Christendom, including the establishment of hospitals and educational institutions, the elimination of slavery, the civil rights movement; and much more. The list is long, one of the most remarkable achievements being Christians’ role in creating a constitutional government that has gained the admiration of the entire world.
I recently discovered a painting titled, “Jesus is Calling his People to Rise and come forth! Walk in the Power of his Resurrection.” The artist, who paints from the perspective of being inside the tomb, depicts Jesus running out of the tomb, with the grave cloths flying off him, binding him no more. Light is shining through the wounds on his hands and feet. He is free. He is running toward the light. He has conquered sin and death.
Christians throughout time immemorial believe the resurrectory power of Christ Jesus, victor over death and sin, is available in the here and now.
Maybe the faithful can begin to develop an iconography illustrating the characteristics of Christ that are presently seriously neglected: Christ the Judge; Christ the Warrior; Christ the Conqueror; Christ, the powerful foe of evil.
This Easter, may the faithful believe in the power of Christ, the resurrected Son of God.
Fay Voshell holds a Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, which awarded her a prize for excellence in systematic theology. She is a frequent contributor to American Thinker, and has contributed to other online publications such as National Review and RealClearReligion. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org