I was listening to a recent podcast on the power of visual imagery and its place in the Christian Church. One speaker noted how controversy has always existed in the Western Church over the use of icons or other devotional images. In fact, at the beginning of the Reformation, the Protestant movement initiated what was called the iconoclastic fury as a push-back against the Roman Catholic papacy and its mores.
Of course, it was not long before the conversation turned to images in general and the recent toppling of statues of the Confederacy as well as those of Christopher Columbus. While there were arguments for and against the recent events of image destruction, every participant in the discussion agreed on the way that images can evoke all kinds of emotions, driving both hearts and minds. The discussion centered around how much meaning is made around any particular image that is held in high esteem and elevated above the common, mortal, everyday person.
Then, we came to the portrait of Swedish Jesus. Few people know that the often observed, most notable picture of Jesus in the Church in America was painted by the artist, Warner Salliman in 1940. The portrait is of a Nordic-type Jesus with blue eyes and light-colored hair. It turns out that the original sketch, pre-1940, actually had brown eyes but apparently there was a quibble about it, so now you might see either blue or brown eyes on portraits of Swedish Jesus. The painting has been duplicated millions of times and has spread around the world as a popular devotional image. I am sure you have seen it or even have one in your own home.
Even though I grew up with Swedish Jesus…every Christian home in the deep South had one, I never could get next to him. Because my mother was an artist who painted portraits, she made sure that we kids understood the “artistic license” of the artist. She reminded us often that the painting represented the artist’s conception of Jesus and in no way really represented neither Jesus nor God in real life. Boy, was I glad; he looked too much like the police officers in my hometown. He certainly was not someone I could or would pray to— much less worship!
The next day after hearing this podcast, I returned from vacation to discover a lovely gift in my office. I was presented by an extraordinary artist with a most extraordinary gift: La Virgen de Guadalupe, Madre de Las Americas (The Virgen of Guadalupe, Mother of the Americas…South and North). This beautiful mural was doubly special because she looked like me!
I have held a personal devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe for many years now, but my new mural is extra special because she not only looks like me, but she is in solidarity with me. She knows and cares about the things of my heart and even prays with me herself. Until we know God-with-us in whatever way assists us in that knowing, we remain bereft, frightened, and alone. Spiritual images do that for us. They are fingers pointing to the moon of the DIVINE PRESENCE.
As an embodied spiritual being, you may use other items that assist you in knowing Emmanuel—a garden, a rock, a tree, or your grandchild. The incarnation of God made the potential for the holy in every created thing. What we see, especially plays a strong role in how we easily or not so easily relate to God. The American Church is coming to terms with the way it has limited God; making God much too small for all the human beings whom God has made. It is realizing that its images are primary examples of this limited, bounded GOD. Like the world outside of the Church, it is time to re-assess this deficiency just like the re-assessment of the Confederate statues placed during Jim Crow days of American history.
The times we are in are changing rapidly and they are all good changes to the faithful. They are neither comfortable nor convenient, but they simply are. Our trust and our hope remain in the ONE who has already overcome the world, Jesus the Christ. Consider religious visual images for your own devotions. Maybe visual images are your thing. Check it out and see.
By the way, I am happy to show off my mural, so come by and see it. Call first though—and do not forget your mask!
Lots of Love,