HOW THE LIGHT OF JESUS SHINES THROUGH ART AND ARCHITECTURE.
St. John of Damascus, in his “Defence of the Holy Images” which he gave at the second Council of Nicea (AD 787), proposes that the Incarnation meant that we could see and touch Divinity in the Person of Jesus. Before the birth of Jesus, no human being had “seen” the Father. But now, as the Gospels affirm, those who have seen Jesus, have also seen the Father in Jesus.(John 14.8-9)
However, Jesus lived in historical time. He died, and though he rose from the dead, he was taken up into heaven at the Ascension, and his disciples no longer saw him in the flesh. (Acts 1.9) Certainly some saints and mystics have seen Jesus in their visionary experience, but this grace has only been given very rarely. For most of believing Christians, the Presence of the Incarnate Lord is only to be found in images and in the built Church, which is also a symbol of the incarnation. This is because, as St Peter puts it in his epistle, we are all members of that Living Church of which the built structure is the visible sacrament.(I Peter 2.4)
Church art is essentially Liturgical art. That is to say, it is art in the service of the Liturgical expression of the community gathered together to celebrate the sacred mysteries. Liturgical art makes present the incarnate Lord in the same way that the Lord is also present in the bread and the wine of the Holy Sacrament. This was the basic assumption that lay behind what we call Icon art. Icon art is not art for art’s sake. It is not intended to be something that we admire and appreciate because of the skill of the artist. Rather it is the visible Presence of Christ in and among the believing community.
Liturgical art is an art that relates to a particular culture, which is the visible, and lived aspect of a community. The reason why Jesus is represented as being an Indian, or an African or Chinese person, is not because we believe that the Jesus of History was Indian, African or Chinese. Jesus of history was a Jew, living at a particular time, in a Jewish culture. But the Incarnation is not limited to Jewish culture. Jesus was incarnated for all human beings, and for all times. Jesus has to be incarnated in every place, and this incarnation takes place in relation to local cultures, and local communities. Paul said “I live, but not I, Christ lives in me.” (Gal. 2.20) The Christian Faith makes us believe that Christ is present in every human being. The reason why every person is considered holy, and “made in the image of God” is that the Christian feels all human beings are “Christ-like.” This quality of being Christ like, is not limited only to those who profess to be followers of Christ. Rather, it is a basic quality of every human being made in the image of God, because Jesus himself was the “Son of Man”, and his humanity links him to all human beings.
It is for this reason that the Church has suggested that every Liturgy should be rooted in the cultural life of the people. The Gospel narrative, as also the whole Bible, has been translated into every tongue. When the pilgrims who had come to Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost, heard the first disciples praising God after they had received the Holy Spirit, it seemed to every individual, that the disciples were speaking in their own native language. That is the Word of God is not just spoken in Hebrew, but is heard by all the peoples and nations of the world, in their own language. When we read during the Liturgy, about Jesus, and His teaching, we hear him speak in a language which we understand. This naturally leads to the assumption that as Jesus spoke in an Indian language, he must also have been an Indian, and have appeared in the form of an Indian. It is in this way that liturgical art has always represented Jesus looking like one of the local believers. In Holland Jesus was represented as a Dutch person, while in Italy Jesus was imagined as an Italian. The problem came when missionaries from Europe came to Asia and brought with them their own culture. That meant that when French missionaries came, they built churches, and represented Jesus in a way that was familiar to them. The same is true of the Spanish or Portuguese. They all brought their own style of architecture, and art, and this was presented as “Christian art”. We have for example an image of the child Jesus looking like a prince from Austria, who is known as the “Infant Jesus of Prague”. Unfortunately, images like this leads to the assumption that Jesus was a foreigner, and was like the colonialists, who came to conquer India. Christians, as a result, were perceived by other Indians to be those who were subservient to the West, who did not really belong in India. They too were understood as being “foreigners”.
After the independence of India, many Indian Christians felt awkward about being seen as just foreign, with a foreign culture. So the idea came to represent Jesus and the Saints as Indian. When the Goan artist Angelo da Fonseca represented Mary wearing a Sari, and even standing on a lotus, many Indian Christians were scandalized. They said that this was not the Mary they had been praying to. This figure of Mary seemed alien to them, even though she looked like another Indian. The same happened when Jesus was shown as an Indian Sanyasi, or Guru. Many Indian Christians felt that this was not how Jesus should look. This was because they were used to seeing a Western, or European image of Jesus in the Church. Even representing Jesus and the saints as we find them shown in the Icon arts of the East, for example in Greece, or in Russia, was not appealing to some Indian Christians. They wanted to see Jesus in a form that was typical of the art of the Renaissance, in Italy, or later still the Baroque art of Spain and Portugal.
The first people to represent Jesus as an Indian were not Indian Christians. Rather they were Hindus. This was part of the nationalist movement. The famous Indian artist Jamini Roy painted many pictures of Jesus looking like a Santhali, in the style of the bazaar art of Bengal. When he was asked why he represented Jesus like that, he said that how he understood Jesus was that he suffered, and was identified with the poor. Had he not said : “In so far as you do this (charitable act) to the least of my brethren, you do it to me” ? (Matt. 25.40) For Jamini Roy, who was not a Christian, the message of Jesus was a message to the suffering poor of India. That is how he represented Jesus as belonging to a tribal, and marginalized community. One of the great followers of Jamini Roy, called K.C.S. Panikkar, who became the principal of the Madras School of Art, also represented Jesus as belonging to the Indian peasant, or even Dalit communities. (cf: Jesus in Indian Painting. R. Taylor)
Once my attention was drawn to the work of the modern Indian artist Kishen Khanna, who comes from Panjab. In fact he belongs almost to the generation of my own Father, and like him studied in the Forman Christian College in Lahore. He is one of the founder members of the contemporary Indian Artist group, who radically changed modern Indian art when they came together in Bombay, just after the Independence. Kishen Khanna had put up an exhibition in Delhi, and to the surprise of some Jesuits, every picture was on a Christian theme. He was particularly concerned with the image of St Thomas placing his hand in the side of Jesus after the Resurrection, when the Risen Lord addressed him and asked him to put his finger into his wounds and believe.(John 20.22) I went to meet Kishen Khanna, and asked him why he painted so many pictures of Jesus. He began by pointing out to me that he was not a Christian. But still, he felt that Jesus was important for Modern India. He said that Jesus stood in between the narrow religiosity of the Jews, and the Colonial interests of the Romans. He was open to everyone, and did not distinguish between the high and the low, the oppressors and the victims. He was willing to go and eat with tax collectors, who were hated because they served the interests of the colonial powers, and he was happy to go to the home of a Roman official to heal his daughter. But on the other hand he was also concerned about the suffering of the Jewish people. We as Indians are in the same position, Kishen Khanna told me. We have the narrow religiosity of fundamentalist forces on the one hand, and we have the neo-colonial powers that are controlling our economy on the other hand. Jesus shows us a way of being human, even in this very contradictory situation.
When I asked him about his interest in St. Thomas, he told me that he identified with Thomas, because Thomas found it impossible to believe unless he had himself touched the wounds of the Suffering Lord.
Indian artists have often represented the suffering of Jesus. This is because in Indian religious art, we do not find an image of a God who suffers. In a way, from the point of view of Indian Religions this is shocking. In fact it is laid down in the Shilpa Shastras, that we must never show a Divine being distorted or ugly in any way. But here was a profoundly spiritual figure, who was a suffering servant. One of my own teachers of art, who belonged to the Bengal school of Art, was once asked by his teacher, who was a Hindu, to paint Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. This teacher, who is called Bireshwar Sen, remarked that it is amazing that a Guru washes the feet of his disciple. In India we have many images of the Guru. But the disciple is always shown touching the feet of the Guru, never the other way around. So what was interesting to many modern Indian artists was the counter-cultural stand of Jesus. Jesus was often shocking the sensibilities of his own Jewish community. He allowed his feet to be kissed and wiped with the hair of Mary Magdalene, who was reputed to be a sinful woman. And yet Jesus told his disciples who were among those who protested, that this act of her devotion would be remembered throughout the ages to come.( John.12.3-5)
One could give many other examples of how Hindus, and also Buddhists, have represented Jesus from their point of view. Another theme which Indian artists have sometimes represented is the story of the Woman at the Well, with whom Jesus had a profound conversation. For a Teacher to talk to a woman was also shocking to many of his contemporaries, even his own disciples. Strangely, a very similar story is narrated concerning the main disciple of Buddha, called Ananda, who also had a conversation from an untouchable woman, from whom he asked to receive water to drink. She was shocked that a high born Sanyasi should be asking her for water to drink. Then Ananda explained to her that caste differences did not matter. Later she went to find the Buddha who taught her the importance of Compassion.
Stories like these impressed thinking Indians, and so in the 19th Century a Hindu Bengali P.C. Mazoomdar, wrote a book called “The Oriental Christ”.(Boston, 1898) In this book he stressed the fact that Jesus was closer to an oriental ethos, than he was to the kind of culture and society that had developed in the European West. Later important Hindu leaders like Rabindranath Tagore, and Mahatma Gandhi, all expressed their appreciation of the Gospel of Jesus. Gandhi said that the Sermon on the Mount had impressed him as much as the Bhagvad Gita, and for him Jesus was the model Satyagrahi, who was willing to die for the Truth.
It was in the Christian Ashrams which were inspired by the new understanding of Ashram life which Rabindranath Tagore, and Gandhiji introduced into the life of India, that a new approach both to art and architecture in the liturgy was developed. In these Christian Ashrams there were experiments to give an Indian cultural ethos to forms of Christian worship. Indian Bhajans and Kirthans were introduced. In Bombay Gyan Ashram was started by an Austrian priest called Fr. Proksch, and there a group of dancers were trained to present biblical narratives in dance form, using ancient Indian dance techniques. In India dance is supposed to be the Mother of the arts. The great second century manual on Indian aesthetics which is supposed to have been composed by on Bharata, is called the ‘Natya Shastra’. In this work, which is the oldest treatise on dance in the world, the idea of Rasa or aesthetic essence was outlined. All the arts are supposed to express the nine ‘Rasas’ (‘Navrasa’), which are the different moods that we find in art, as well as in drama and poetry. Later, in the ninth Century, the Kashmiri philosopher Ananda Vardhana developed the notion of Rasa, by coining the concept of ‘Dhvani’, which means resonance. He felt that ‘Dhvani’ held the inner meaning of every work of art or literature. ‘Dhvani’ became a way of interpreting the true significance of any form of artistic expression. In the seventies some Biblical scholars like George Suaris sj and Ananda Amalados sj began using the concept of ‘Dhvani’ to interpret the Bible. In this way a uniquely Indian approach to reading and understanding the Biblical text was introduced.(cf: Bible Bhashan: “Dhvani Interpretation of the Bible” Dec. 1979)
A Japanese theologian called Masao Takenaka, who taught in the Doshisha University in Japan, proposed that Asian thinkers find it easier to express their deepest insights through images rather than through rational and dogmatic statements. He wrote a book on Asian Christian Art, which included the work of Indian artists, but also artists from Sri Lanka, Thailand, Indonesia, Japan and so forth, and showed how making images was not just for decoration but was itself a way of interpreting the Bible through visible signs. He showed how all the great Eastern forms of spirituality, as we find in Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism and also Taoism, have used images to express their most profound insights into insights into spiritual Truth. The catechism of the East is not just a set of dogmatic statements that people have to learn off by heart, but is communicated through powerful images, which help people who are often illiterate, to think about their Faith. Arising out of this understanding of art and architecture as visible sermons expressed in tangible forms, an Asian Christian Art Association was formed in 1978 at a meeting of some forty artists that took place in a Christian Ashram in Bali, Indonesia. Many of those present at this meeting were not themselves members of any Church. But still they wanted to express the Truth of the Gospel through art forms. It is important to remember that the Bible as a whole, and the Gospels in particular, are not just meaningful for Christians. Some of the deepest insights into the true message of the Gospel have been articulated by people who are not part of the institutional Church.
I began this brief introduction to the way that the Light of Christ has influenced art forms by relating the visible and tangible image to the Sacramental life of the Church. I proposed, in the light of the Defence of the Holy Images which St. John of Damascus outlined for the Second Council of Nicea, that images and architectural forms express the Incarnation of Christ: His presence in our physical world, which we continue to see and touch. But I also believe that these images can help us to reach out to people of different Faiths. Art is like a bridge: a common ground, where people who belong to different religious affiliations can meet and dialogue, without fear of being judged or categorized. Art is truly ecumenical, in the very broadest sense. As an Indian Christian artist, coming from a mixed religious background, I feel that art forms help communicate the Faith we have in Jesus to all people of good Faith. The language of art is universal. It speaks to the heart, and celebrates not only the Divine Truth, but also the Divine Beauty.
Art Ashram. Silvepura.
Christian Art in Asia: Masao Takenaka. CCA 1975
Jesus in Indian Painting: Richard Taylor. CISRS 1975
Christian Art in India: Herbert Hoefer. Gurukul Theological College. Madras 1982
Christian Painting in India: Mathew Lederle sj. Heras Institute. 1984
Christian Art in India: John F. Butler. CLS 1986
Stepping Stones: Reflections on the Theology of Indian Christian Culture: Jyoti Sahi. ATC. 1986
Holy Ground: A New approach to the Mission of the Church in India: Jyoti Sahi. PACE. 1998