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Portraying Jesus and Mary: Picturing The Bible's Ethereal And Human Prophets

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This is the season when tourists flock to museums abroad in search of inspiration or edification. Most are satisfied with registering impressions. A few submit themselves to the tutorial provided by cassette and headphone. The art student dwells on form and technique. Only over time do we stumble across the puzzles, the stories and the inner meanings that elude both casual viewing and scholasticism.

The realization that something is there that needs explication crystallizes unpredictably. One such encounter occurred while strolling through the Renaissance galleries of the Uffizi. It suddenly struck me that Jesus is invariably portrayed with the same visage and expression. His face is placid, the expression disengaged, the look that of a mild -tempered man who feels for others. Stylization to this degree is understandable in Buddhist representations of Gautama. Still they convey an inner force, a commanding silence. And, the Buddha has achieved Nirvana. Jesus, though, was of this world - whatever his emanation and spiritual essence. He acted and reacted with others. Yet little if any emotion is evident, even when involved in acts of great drama. The Jesus casting the money changers out of the Temple, the Jesus walking on the waters of the Galilee, and the Jesus taking the Last Supper in awareness of what awaited him appear no different from Jesus the pacific soul in more prosaic settings that painters have drawn for us. Of course, the Calvary is a different story - but the puzzle of why such uniformity in other scenes remains.

Prophets are men of passion. They radiate great force. They fire the spirits of their followers. They are charismatic in the true sense. There is no blaze in the eyes of the Jesus shown to us. There is no physical expression whatsoever of whom he is. The Jesus who has come down to us doesn't even stand out among his disciples. If he weren't seated in the center at the Last Supper and crowned with a halo, we'd have to look carefully in order to identify him - in many renderings, anyway. I know of only one painting that deviates from this norm. The Renaissance painter Melozzo da Forli did a stunning Christ portrait that hangs in the Palazza Ducale of Urbino. His Jesus has intense eyes that burn like ice. They bore into you. His Jesus could stir the soul. I suspect that Melozzo had a keen insight into the psychology of prophecy that eluded his fellow artists. He painted the son of God - not a pious saint.

Pictorial representations of Mary observe the same pattern of stylization and emotional neutrality. There is one occasion in the biblical story that allows for deviation from that aesthetic norm - the Annunciation. The young woman (always so portrayed) hearing the stunning message from the heraldic archangel Gabriel reacts with emotions ranging from apprehension through wonderment to awe. This medley of emotions is brilliantly conveyed in the gilded sculpture of Donatello that serves as the centerpiece for the Tabernacle of the Annunziate in the church of Santa Croce, in Florence. Although scenes of the Annunciation leave some room for individual artistic expression, there are still implicit rules that artists have followed. Mary is innocent, she is tender, she is ethereal.

Here, too, I know only one exception. Antonello da Messina, a 15th century painter from Sicily, gave us quite a different Mary. She is an exquisite young lady with a face of refined sensuality. The artist captures her at the first moment she hears the flutter of angel wings at the door. Her expression suggests that she has surmised the message, finds the portending offer less than irresistible, and is prepared to tell Gabriel that the woman he is looking for lives across the street. There is no record of Antonello having run afoul of the ecclesiastical authorities as a consequence of his profane realism. However, a later portrayal of the same lady wearing the same bright blue shawl at the moment of Annunciation suggests that he either suffered a pang of religious conscience or had it pricked for him by the powers that be.

By the way, why are Mary's eyebrows always plucked? And why does she often sport mascara?