March 19th, 2007 by Menachem Wecker
In a post titled “What is ‘Real’?” everyday theology questions how the Last Supper might have really looked, da Vinci aside:
I couldn’t help but think about how much of our Christianity we “baseline” in terms of some event, experience, or artwork. Don’t many of us think of Jesus as an anglo, and usually wearing a white robe with a blue sash? Does anyone really believe that is what Jesus looked like?
When you think of the Lord’s Supper, do you picture DaVinci’s painting? When you think of the Moses leading the people across the Red Sea, do you see Cecil B. DeMille’s version, which was produced in 1956? Do you think Moses actually looked anything like Charlton Heston?
What other aspects of our lives as Christians, as part of the church, as followers of Jesus, have we set up in terms of some extra-Biblical source?
I don’t intend to try to tackle this large question in one post. But this is a major question with which all textual religious art must grapple. To the extent that the bible represents characters in words, one could argue convincingly that an image might restrict the imagination of the reader.
But the counter-argument, with which I tend to sympathize, is that the words in the biblical text are just as limiting as are the lines and colors of a painting. When monks drew biblical figures in their bibles, their art was as much an act of biblical exegesis as it was artistic. They were not limiting the characters, so much as making the characters their own.
Many Jewish and Muslim artists might debate this point. But if we can get beyond the question of whether representation is prohibited, it seems a bit much to me to suggest that seeing an image of Moses will necessarily solidify that image in my mind as Moses. I think responsible adults can comfortably admire da Vinci’s painting without worrying about compromising their religious imagination.