"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Monday, October 10, 2016

Jesus the Hunky Hipster

In an informal contest I have been running for nearly 20 years now, nothing has yet surpassed a picture of Jesus I found in the bookshop of the Montreal Oratory in the 1990s. It must surely be counted the crowning glory of the very stiff competition run for decades in the peasant Catholicism of Quebec, which is so rich in so many splendid examples of kitsch. (In what other part of the world do you find, in the snacks section of your local gas station or grocery store, hosties?)

My particular award-winner featured a blue-eyed Jesus whose flaxen locks were vigorously flapping about in the breeze as he lunged to catch a football tossed in His direction by some primly dressed children (with starched collars, blue eyes, and the proverbial white picket fence in evidence) in what was made out to be 1950s North America. It was one of those pictures that changed as you rotated the angle at which you held it--I'm sure there must be some kind of technical name for those? At one angle, it was Jesus the football player; at another angle, Jesus was at bat in the ole ballpark. In either case it was screamingly absurd, and reeked of the age-old temptation to recreate the Lord in that generation's image.

But such images and temptations have long been with us, whether good or bad, and for good or ill, as a book, released this year in a Kindle version of a book first published in 2014 in hardcover, documents: Michele Bacci, The Many Faces of Christ: Portraying the Holy in the East and West, 300 to 1300.

As the blurb tells us, the idea of a blonde Jesus is not new:
It is common to think of Jesus of Nazareth’s main physical characteristics as including long, wavy, blondish hair and a short beard. Yet the Holy Scriptures are silent about Christ’s features, and his representations are hardly consistent in early Christian and medieval arts. The wearing of long hair, moreover, is explicitly condemned by St Paul as shameful and effeminate: therefore it is surprising that, notwithstanding the Apostle’s authoritative judgement, the long-haired archetype came to be accepted, as late as the ninth century, as the standard iconography of the Son of God.
In The Many Faces of Christ Michele Bacci examines the complex historical and cultural dynamics underlying the making and final successful establishment of Christ’s image between late antiquity and the early Renaissance. Unlike earlier studies, the process is described against the background of ancient and biblical conceptions of beauty and the physical look as indicators of moral, ascetic or messianic qualities. It takes into account a broad spectrum of both iconographic and textual sources, and also looks at analogous processes in the Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Jain and Taoist traditions.
This book will be of interest not only to specialists of late antique, Byzantine and medieval studies, but to anybody interested in the historical figure of Jesus and its shifting, controversial conceptions over the course of history.

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