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Immortal made visible: 19th-century depictions of Jesus

07 June 2019

Caroline Levisse considers 19th-century painters’ quests for the ‘real’ Jesus


Dead Christ with Angels (1864), Edouard Manet

Dead Christ with Angels (1864), Edouard Manet

ON 10 June, we celebrate the 200th anniversary of Gustave Courbet’s birth. A leading figure of the Realist movement, Courbet became famous with works such as A Burial at Ornans (1849-50), which shows the people of his home town gathered for a funeral. Instead of painting them on the small format expected for such a commonplace subject, Courbet chose a monumental scale reserved for the depiction of noble subjects such as coronations, battles, and biblical scenes.

This was a bold statement, and a challenge to the artistic establishment. When it was first exhibited at the Salon in Paris, in 1851, most viewers were appalled to see ordinary people given such a prominent treatment. They also reacted strongly against the lack of idealisation, and found the townspeople “ugly”.

In his 1861 “Letter to Young Artists”, Courbet explained his belief that an artist should focus on “the ideas and themes of the times in which he lives”. He wrote: “Art can be nothing other than the representation of objects visible and tangible to each artist.”

Thus, past historical events were eliminated, as were works of fiction and religious subjects. When critics told Courbet that his painting was too down-to-earth, the painter is said to have answered: “Show me an angel and I will paint it.”

PUBLIC DOMAINA Burial at Ornans (1849-50), Gustave Courbet


SOME painters in the second half of the 19th century tried to bring together the realist paradigm and the representation of biblical narratives. Considering these works will tell us about the challenges that they encountered, such as the viewers’ resistance to their works, or the issue of Christ’s appearance.

Honoré Daumier (1808-79), a brilliant cartoonist, was among the earliest Realist painters. His usual subjects were workers, and his art often had a political edge. In about 1851, he painted Ecce Homo, a rare religious subject in his oeuvre. It probably originated as a commission from the French state, but was never completed.

PUBLIC DOMAINEcce homo (1851), Honoré Daumier

The moment depicted is recounted in St John’s Gospel: “So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, ‘Here is the man’” (John 19.5). In Daumier’s representation, Christ’s stillness is in stark contrast to the agitated crowd tormenting him. As in other works, Daumier framed the subject to engage viewers. The people in the foreground are cropped so as to enhance their proximity with us; we find ourselves in the crowd compelled to take a stance. Are we also tormenting this man? Or are we revolted by the injustice?

Daumier might have chosen this subject for its resonance with his own political stand against corruption. In certain milieux at the time, Jesus had, indeed, become a symbol for oppressed groups who were trying to challenge the status quo. From the 1789 Revolution to the February 1848 riots, revolutionaries had claimed Jesus as a symbol of their fight. They presented him as a revolutionary, insisting on his radical acts of rebellion and defence of the oppressed.

When the French journalist Camille Desmoulins had to state his age in front of a tribunal in 1794, he replied: “I am the same age as the sans-culotte Jesus: that is, 33 years old, a deadly age for revolutionaries!” He was executed by guillotine a few days later. His crime was to have spoken against the reign of terror established by Robespierre.


ANOTHER artist who changed the face of art in the second half of the 19th century is Édouard Manet (1832-83), who embraced modern Parisian life as a subject for his art. In 1865, he shocked the Salon’s visitors with his Olympia: a reclining nude that alluded to the countless depictions of Venus in contemporary academic art. In the hands of this realist, the idealised goddess became a contemporary prostitute exposing a body that most viewers considered ugly and too real.

The controversy caused the year before by his Dead Christ with Angels (1864) is less well-known. At the bottom of this canvas, an inscription indicates the biblical source as John 20.12: “And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet.” But Manet is not showing us an empty tomb. Christ is still here and is anything but resurrected. As a matter of fact, the body’s colour and positioning would have reminded viewers of the way in which bodies were displayed in the public morgue in Paris. The picture fails to tell its viewers that the miracle of the resurrection has happened or will happen.

PUBLIC DOMAINDead Christ with Angels (1864), Edouard Manet

For several reviewers, the focus on Jesus’s human nature revealed the influence of Ernest Renan’s The Life of Jesus. Published just one year before, in 1863, to instant fame, this book subjected the life of Jesus to historical inquiry. Renan questioned the veracity of the resurrection and other miracles, and concluded: “For the historian, the life of Jesus finishes with his last sigh.”

He wrote: “Had his body been taken away, or did enthusiasm, always credulous, create afterwards the group of narratives by which it was sought to establish faith in the resurrection? In the absence of opposing documents, this can never be ascertained. Let us say, however, that the strong imagination of Mary Magdalene played an important part in this circumstance. Divine power of love! Sacred moments in which the passion of one possessed gave the world a resuscitated God!”

Renan’s approach is emblematic of the emphasis in the 19th century on positivism: i.e. only what can be scientifically verified can be a source of knowledge. Then a burgeoning scientific discipline, biblical archaeology was a great source of information for the French historian, and for painters who chose a historicist approach.

In his introduction, Renan wrote about “the striking agreement of the texts with the places” that he had discovered during visits to Palestine: “The marvellous harmony of the Gospel ideal with the country which served it as a framework, [was] like a revelation to me, I had before my eyes a fifth Gospel, torn, but still legible, and henceforward, through the recitals of Matthew and Mark, in place of an abstract being, whose existence might have been doubted, I saw living and moving an admirable human figure.”


IN THE 1860s, and later, many realistic depictions of Jesus seem to have been influenced by Renan’s approach. Among the most notable examples are Léon Bonnat’s Christ on the Cross (1874), Aimé Morot’s The Martyrdom of Jesus of Nazareth (1883), and Mihály Munkácsy’s Christ Before Pilate (1881).

Another is Thomas Eakins’s The Crucifixion (1880), in which the American Realist painter left out any indication of Jesus’s divine nature or suggestion that he would be resurrected. The bowed head in the shadow refers to John 19.30: “When Jesus had received the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” PUBLIC DOMAINThe Crucifixion (1880), Thomas Eakins

There are echoes of Spanish realist painting — such as Velázquez’s Christ Crucified (1632) — as well as Rubens and Delacroix. These predecessors had used symbols to point to the divine nature of Christ, such as a luminous halo around Christ’s head. In Eakins’s work, these symbols have disappeared, and we are left with “the objective study of a human being in his last moments”, as a contemporary reviewer noted.

When The Crucifixion was first shown in 1882, in New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia, people were confused by, and critical of, the realism. They deemed it inappropriate — blasphemous, even. For most viewers, the cold and detached observation of this tortured body was not conductive of religious sentiment.


IN ABOUT the middle of the 19th century, the Pre-Raphaelites attempted to combine realism and symbolism, historical truth and spiritual revelation. Ruskin’s influence had been crucial in bringing these two dimensions together. Like him, pre-Raphaelite painters believed that being truthful to nature was a way to follow “the finger of God”. Like him, they also used typological symbolism.

With the help of realistic details, objects and people became types prefiguring Christ’s revelation. John Everett Millais’s Christ in the House of his Parents (1849-50) shows Christ as a boy in a carpenter’s shop with his family. He has just wounded his hand, and is embraced by his kneeling and weeping mother.

Millais had sketched in an actual carpenter’s shop to study the materials and people’s gestures, and the scene is replete with incredibly convincing details: the faces of the people represented, the arm and hands of Joseph, their clothes, and the wood shavings. The details serve a symbolic purpose: the boy’s wound foreshadows Christ’s stigmata, and thus his Passion. The dove and the ladder, as well as the flock of sheep, confirm this interpretation.

PUBLIC DOMAINThe Finding of the Saviour in the Temple, 1854-60, Holman Hunt,

When the painting was first shown at a Royal Academy exhibition in 1850, many were shocked. The fact that sacred figures were represented as commonplace people was perceived as offensive. It was an abrupt departure from the usual idealised representations of the Holy Family.

William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), a co-founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, took a step further in this quest for intense realism and accuracy. In 1854, he travelled to the Holy Land to find the locations of biblical stories, in a search for authentic settings for his religious paintings.

In Jerusalem, he started to work on The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple (1854-60), a painting depicting Mary and Joseph rushing into the Temple to find their missing son debating scripture with a rabbi (Luke 2.41). Here, too, the painting is filled with carefully studied details: the clothes, the architecture, and the rabbi’s physiognomy.

Hunt found it difficult to find Jewish people willing to pose, which complicated the making of this work. Thus he turned to another project, The Scapegoat (1854-55), for which he spent a couple of weeks on the shore of the Dead Sea, the backdrop for his depiction of an image that typified Christ’s sacrifice (Leviticus 16.8).


HUNT, who returned twice to the Holy Land after this initial trip, was not the only artist exploring the ground that Jesus had walked on. Thomas Seddon (1821-56) was with him in 1854, and brought back vistas such as Jerusalem and the Valley of Jehoshaphat (1854-55).

James Tissot (1836-1902) also visited the Middle East to seek the traces of Christ. In 1885, he had had a mystical experience that revived his faith and led him to give up mundane subjects to focus on sacred ones. In Jerusalem and the surrounding area, he made sketches of the places and people, taking photographs and notes about clothes and customs. Back in Paris, he created a series of more than 350 opaque watercolours illustrating the New Testament, which he published as The Life of Our Lord Jesus Christ in French in 1896-97 (and in English in 1897-98).

ALAMYJesus Sits by the Seashore and Preaches, James Tissot (1886-1896)

These illustrations are decisively different from the way in which the Old Masters had represented the New Testament. Jesus and the people around him are dressed in clothes worn by the inhabitants of Jerusalem. In Jesus Sits by the Seashore and Preaches, Tissot used a large rock he had seen and drawn by the Sea of Tiberias. For the painter, walking where Jesus had walked centuries ago, and establishing connections between contemporary and biblical places, induced a sort of mystical encounter with Christ.

In the introduction to his book, the artist claimed that his heightened sensitivity and the geographical closeness to biblical events resulted in visions: “It is in the Holy Land itself . . . that the mind is best attuned alike to receive and grasp the significance of every impression. . . . I felt that a certain receptivity was induced in my mind which so intensified my powers of intuition, that the scenes of the past rose up before my mental vision in a peculiar and striking manner. . .

“I meditated on any special incident in its own particular sanctuary, and was thus brought into touch with the actual setting of every scene; the facts I was anxious to evoke were revealed to me.”


SINCE THERE is no description in the Gospels of what Jesus looked like, and just a rare mention about what he used to wear, painters have had to imagine his features (Features, 29 March 2018). In 1899, when asked what he thought of the way in which Jesus had been represented throughout the centuries, Rabbi Gustav Gottheil, of New York City, remarked that an image of Jesus “must of necessity be the portrait of a Jew with his racial characteristics deeply sunk in his face; and would not this be a shock to Christian sensibilities”.

In his pictures, Tissot gave Semitic traits to the people represented, but he often refrained to do so for Jesus. Here, the demand for historical exactitude was countered by people’s reluctance to see him as a Jewish man. In the end, as stated by the American scholar David Morgan, in an article on Tissot’s illustrations, “what believers seek when they look at Jesus is not a man rooted in a time and place far away, but someone who resembles them, reflecting the image of a Saviour whose ethnicity and race devout viewers share, whose strength, moral ideals, and beauty define the connection with him that appeals to them.”

In another text, David Morgan explains: “By tailoring the racial and ethnic features of the face to one’s own group, believers fashion an intimate and immediate connection with Jesus.”

A remarkable example of this desire to see oneself into the face of Christ can be observed in the numerous photographs of the Passion created by Fred Holland Day (1864-1933) in 1898, for which he posed as Christ. In an attempt at being accurate, he lost a lot of weight, grew a beard, and had clothes sent from Syria.

Even though these photographs caused controversy, some argued that they were successful. “Few paintings contain as much that is spiritual and sacred in them as do the ‘Seven Words’ of Mr Day’,” Edward Steichen wrote. Day had managed to show that the photographic medium associated with the objective record of factual reality could also be a way to reveal the intangible.

CREATIVE COMMONSFrom The Seven Words (1898), Fred Holland Day

THE quest for accuracy in illustrations of biblical scenes reflects the 19th-century insistence on scientific inquiry as the best way to interpret phenomena. But, for viewers, realistic depictions of biblical narratives could prove challenging, especially when they questioned Christ’s divine nature, and explored the ugliness of his suffering, or when his depiction departed too much from traditional representations, rendering him unfamiliar and foreign.

Interestingly, the paintings mentioned here never found their way into churches, thus reflecting the gap that exists between historical accuracy and religious devotion. Today, many still object to graphic representations of his tortured body (as shown in the response to Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ, 2004). A degree of idealisation is expected, so that, in his representation, Jesus can, simultaneously, be the Christ and “the Word made flesh”.


Dr Caroline Levisse teaches art history at the Workers’ Educational Association, and is a Visiting Re­­search Fellow at the Centre for Arts and the Sacred at King’s College, London.

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