To: Fr. Jayapalan
CCBI secretary for Catechetics
CCBI Centre, Hutchins Road,
2nd Cross. PB No 8490
Thomas Town, Bangalore—560084
Dear Fr. Jayapalan,
I have just received from your office the magazine Faith Links.
I note that once again, both on the cover of your magazine, and also at the back, the image of Christ is of a European. He has fair hair, and very white flesh, clothed in a kind of garment which I am not sure where it comes from, but is what has become traditional in a kind of Bible art, which again comes from the West, particularly America. The front picture, which I think is Dutch, is better. The back picture is the typical rather sentimental image of Jesus which in aesthetic circles is not even appreciated now in the West, as it is known by the German term ‘Kitsch’. The style belongs to a certain nineteenth century art, which is known for a kind of pseudo historical approach, which in actual fact has nothing to do with what anybody who has a scholarly interest in these matters, would recognize as representing what the historical Jesus might possibly have looked like, or the clothes he might have worn. Not that this is important—for many centuries, until in fact the nineteenth century, artists have always imagined Jesus in the clothes and setting distinctive of their own culture. The artists of the Renaissance represented Jesus as Italian, and later artists in Holland or Germany represented him as a North European. They very definitely avoided showing him as anything to do with the Jews, whom they on the whole despised and persecuted. And yet, of course, Jesus historically was certainly a Jew.
I bring this up, because I believe that catechetics is about not only the word, but also the image. By representing Jesus in this way, we confirm the idea that Jesus was from the West, was fair skinned (like the Aryan obsession with fair skin), was from the dominant group. Till not very long ago, it was assumed that an important person in the Church like a Bishop, should also look fair skinned, and in some way represent the Jesus of Europe. Colour has had a very important cultural and political role to play. Thus efforts were made in Africa to show Jesus with black skin, and looking like a negro. In China, and Japan, efforts were made to show Jesus as having their Far Eastern cultural features and dress. The same can be observed in the art of South America. In India, Hindu artists represented Jesus as an Indian. This was part of a movement in reformed Hinduism, to say that Jesus of the Gospels was closer to the Asian prototype of a Guru, than the Western figure of some kind of warrior, or like a Roman law giver or senator. In the 19th Century a Hindu called P.C. Mazoomdar wrote a book called “The Oriental Christ” which influenced a number of Indian artists. This was not appreciated by Western Missionaries, who insisted that Jesus was actually European. They generally suspected this Indian Jesus to be a Hinduized Jesus, and possibly threatening to a western Theology of Jesus. If you look at the images of Jesus in Goa, you will find that Jesus and his apostles all have the appearance, and expression of the Portuguese officials, who one can see portrayed in the secular art of the time.
It has been argued by theologians like Prof. Masao Takenaka, who wrote a book on Asian Christian art, that the way that the Jesus story will be understood in Asia, will be by portraying Jesus as an Asian. This is also part of a process of translation. If Jesus is supposed to talk in an Indian language like Hindi, then it is odd to show this Hindi speaking Guru looking like a European tourist in fancy dress!!!!
An effort was made in the sixties and seventies, after the Eucharistic congress that was held in Bombay, to show Jesus in an Indian cultural setting. Mary was shown wearing a Sari, for example. This caused quite a stir, I know. When Angelo da Fonseca made a picture of Mary in a Sari, there were those who pointed out that his own mother in Goa would never have worn a Sari !!! She would have been dressed in a frock. But then Mary is not shown in a frock either, except in some of the interesting Catechetical art which comes from South America. But there Jesus is represented in trousers.
The colour prejudice is a peculiar hang up in India. I have noted that Christian artists like Frank Wesley, who (despite his name) was a fully Indian person from near Lucknow, shows Mary having dark features, but her baby Jesus is startlingly white. Where has she got this baby from one wonders? Is she some kind of a local Ayah for the foreign Christ child? I never managed to tackle Frank Wesley on this, though he personally taught me a lot, and I loved his sense of colour. In other ways he presented the Jesus narrative in an Indian context. Even Angelo da Fonseca often shows Mary and Jesus belonging to the upper middle class of Maharashtra. Once again returning to the way that Jesus is imagined by many important Hindu, or at least non-Christian artists, such as Kishen Khanna (Panjabi) or KCS Panikkar (Malayali living in Madras) or M.F. Hussain, we may note their stress on the every-day “aam aadmi” Jesus --a Jesus belonging to the tradition of the wandering folk story teller. Kishen Khanna shows Jesus as a Sufi mystic from Nizamuddin area in Delhi, where Kishen Khanna himself has lived. He depicts Jesus as meeting other street people in some local ‘Dhaba’. But on the whole I think few of our recognized Indian Christian artists, like for example Alfred Thomas (another North Indian) would have dared to represent Jesus in this local idiom. To do so might well upset the image of Jesus which most Indian Christians have. Christians in India have on the whole wanted Jesus to look like some important dignitary, certainly not like one of our carpenters, peasant worker, or even humble Dalit, or Adivasi.
The reason of course is that such images shock, and are not thought to be “Beautiful”. Beauty is not only in the eyes of the beholder, it is a culturally constructed category, as we see when we study beauty contests, and what are deemed fitting looks for “beauty queens”. (Those in the women’s movement, are often particularly sensitive to the injustice of these constructed ideals, often determined by those who sell cosmetics!!!).
When “Art India” was established in Pune, and very successfully run by the Jesuit Matthew Lederle, until he went to Goa as Provincial, and died in 1986, there was a pamphlet I remember seeing which listed something like 40 different Indian artists who had painted Jesus, and whose works had been reproduced by Art India. The fame of this effort of Art India to bring the images of Indians thinking about Jesus to the public, spread far and wide, and was recognized by Missio. But it never caught on in India. The joke that I heard once was that of a foreign tourist going to a Christian shop selling holy books and pictures, and asking for an Indian image of Jesus, to the mystification of the person at the shop counter. Finally when this shop assistant realized what the Foreigner wanted, he said “Oh we do not sell those pictures—you can find them in a tourist shop !!!” Well, that is more or less the Truth. Many Foreigners I meet ask me why it is that Indian representations of Jesus which they have heard about in Europe, are not to be found generally speaking, in Indian Churches.
Well, the usual argument is that it is not in the ‘popular taste’. This term ‘popular taste’, is a difficult one to define or assess. Hamburgers, cheese, modern bread, magi noodles, pizzas, are all becoming more popular. But still people do eat chapathis, idlies, rice and so forth. The same is true of clothes. Westernization is becoming more and more popular, as part of a process of globalization. My wife, who runs a school in the village where we live, and is interested in the text books which are used in Govt. Schools, has noted how the images illustrating these books have a strong slant to globalization, as also do films and so forth. This is a huge issue, but all I want to do is to point out that it is an issue. It is an issue to do with teaching values, and Catechetics. Images carry very strong messages. Do we reflect on what these images are saying, and what values they are inculcating not only in the young, but in the whole community ?
Increasingly the image of Jesus that is being projected is not only Western, but Western in a particular sense—rather like a Hollywood film actor. The message of a film like that of the Passion of Jesus recently done in the West by Mel Gibson, shows Jesus tortured in a way that no religious artist ever represented Christ in the past. Not that we are denying that Jesus was tortured. But we believe that the Christ whom we worship, was also the Risen Lord. Suffering in itself is not of value. Jesus shows the way beyond mere human suffering. The Biblical scholar Crossan was invited by Mel Gibson to see the film, and he was horrified. You can see his critique on the Web. And yet it is this Crossan who also studied, and wrote about the Jesus of history as a Palestinian Peasant. The tortured Jesus of the Mel Gibson film is hugely popular, and has profoundly affected the way that even in the village here where I live, the Passion is now thought of. During the last Passion Week a young man from the village was dressed up as Jesus, and was beaten viciously, to the great delight of the audience. ‘Kitsch’ is not only pretty, it can be sadistic. It can appeal to the lowest denominator in the dreams and anxieties of a community. The question we might ask is whether this is really a healthy approach to the mystery of the Lord’s life and death. Here on your cover you have the other extreme—a Risen Christ who seems to have little to do with the sufferings and poverty of ordinary Indian Christians.
Increasingly people are talking about ‘visual language’, and what ideas, and ideologies, images represent in our Media. Films are very popular, and have their own take on what is understood as the Gospel story. I would earnestly ask your department of Catechetics to take this whole issue of the visual language of our images of Jesus more seriously. What Gospel values are the images we use portraying ? Jesus was very much a counter cultural person. The best Christian art through the centuries has come from that counter- cultural view point. The Gospels and the images of Christ, interrogate cultures, question worldly values. They do not play into the stereotyping which is often manipulated by those who are in power. When we say an art is bad, as Thomas Merton himself points out (in essays entitled “Disputed Questions”), what we are referring to is not just whether the art is skilful, or “looks real”, or “attractive”, but what message does it convey? Bad art is not just bad aesthetically, but also spiritually and morally. As you know, I teach art, and it is my life’s work to try and think about the significance of art in worship, and in the way that we imagine Jesus, and Gospel narratives. The image, I have argued represents a visual Theology. I believe that art is linked to what we are trying to articulate through a local, inculturated Theology, and also to ethical questions which we all face in the society in which we live. It is for this reason I am pained very often at the superficiality, and even un-theological nature of what is being put out as “Church art”, especially in India. ( I may point out that in Europe, where there has been much more thought given to this subject, the kind of sentimental Kitsch art which is so popular in India, is seen less and less in churches)
Forgive me if I am being so outspoken. But I am giving you my reaction as one who has worked for the Indian Church over the last forty five years now. And I speak therefore with some feeling on this matter.