Lower IV: In a time and place

Posted: 1st October 2020

Interpreting religious art.

Lower IV have been completing a unit entitled, ‘In a time and place’, looking at the historical, cultural, political and religious background of Jesus using resources supplied by RE today.  Here we have produced the analysis of the three paintings by three of the Lower IV pupils.

Ms Corkery tells us, ‘As part of this unit, the girls have been interpreting religious art and have produced many insightful commentaries, excelling in terms of pointing out the biblical links to the picture, commenting on the religious symbolism, as well as the artist’s style, colour, point of view and cultural context.’  She goes on to say:   

‘These analyses all have relevance to Black History Month, which began on 1st October.  For example, Sophie points out that the artist’s use of colour for Jesus does not engage in stereotypical images of Jesus as white European, thereby encouraging equality: “I think this because all the characters in the scene look ‘interesting’ and so perhaps He Qi was trying to encourage what Jesus was trying to encourage: that everyone is equal, and nobody should be treated differently just because of their religion, or even the colour of their skin.”

Ivy displays excellent analytical skills by critiquing the picture from the point of view of utilizing predominantly white people for the collage of Jesus’ face: “Something that I don’t like about the picture is that there are almost only white people, which makes Jesus whitewashed, like many other paintings. This excludes everyone that isn’t white, which isn’t fair, because everyone should be allowed to be a part of Jesus”

Tamara show great sensitivity to the notion that the artist is conveying an African perspective on the biblical text: 

“The image was made in the Democratic Republic of Congo and hence from an African viewpoint. In the painting, Jesus is conveyed as having a different skin tone which may show an African interpretation of The Last Supper.  Jesus is part of everyone no matter where you are from as Jesus is in us as we are in Him”

Sophie reported, ‘The picture I will be analysing is called ‘The Doubt Of St Thomas’, which is by the artist He Qi, and was completed in China in 2002. This image shows Jesus embracing St Thomas, who did not believe that Jesus had risen from the dead. This picture presents mixed emotions, it is a happy yet sad image. I believe that it is a sad image because of the fact that Thomas doubted Jesus, even though he knew that Jesus was divine, and could rise from the dead. However, I believe that it is also a happy image, as in this scene in the Bible, Jesus says: ‘Look at my hands’. Thomas then embraces him, now knowing that Jesus has risen from the dead, as he could see the red spots of blood from where Jesus had been nailed to the cross. 

As well as facial expressions and body language, He Qi has also used colour to represent the feelings of the image. He has used dark blues and blacks in the background, to perhaps represent the sad side of this image, but bright colours to represent the happy side. This may also link to how Jesus is the light of the world, shining out through the darkness. Another symbol of light displayed in the image is the candle, or lamp, that Jesus is holding. The light Jesus is holding also has another meaning: light, or a flame, is a symbol of the Holy Spirit. Another hidden meaning which is represented in this image is Jesus’ halo, which represents His holiness. 

The body language of Jesus is also quite significant in this picture, as the body language He uses is very relaxed. The open arms suggest that He is welcoming people, like Doubting Thomas, to come and ask questions, and He is perhaps welcoming those questions. The gentle gaze makes Him look like he is quite tired, and needs some rest. However, Jesus has people that doubt in Him, and so He needs to attend to them and show them that He really has risen from the dead, and is alive. The half smile may show that He is relieved that Thomas now believes He has risen from the dead, but perhaps still a bit disappointed that Thomas doubted Him. 

However, the hidden meaning behind this picture is very significant as well. It may not be what He Qi intended, but it is a very important message about faith and belief in this picture. I think He Qi is trying to say that nobody knows what Jesus looked like, and so he can represent Jesus in any way he likes: even if he gives Jesus green and yellow skin. It may also show that everyone is equal, which is something that Jesus encouraged through His actions. Like his attitude towards the Good Samaritan, who helped a wounded man, even though the Samaritan was an outsider to the Jews. I think this because all the characters in the scene look ‘interesting’ and so perhaps He Qi was trying to encourage what Jesus was trying to encourage: that everyone is equal, and nobody should be treated differently just because of their religion, or the colour of their skin.

To bereaved Christians, the story behind this image would probably mean a lot to them, and would be quite significant to them as well. It may mean a lot to a bereaved Christian because Thomas was bereaved, for Jesus, and so he therefore doubted Jesus when He said that He had come back to life. This may mean a lot to them because they are going through the same thing that Thomas went through when Jesus died on the Cross. Therefore, those grieving would have a close connection to the picture, as they can relate to it, but in a different context. It may picture them saying their last goodbyes, which is what this picture may depict for them. Therefore, it will mean a lot as they can connect to the meaning of this picture, and to Jesus.

Despite there being many known hidden meanings throughout the picture, there is still an element of mystery in The Doubt of St Thomas. There are some questions which remain unanswered, which I would like to ask the artist, He Qi.  I would ask the artist ‘Who are the three disciples behind Jesus meant to be?’ Not knowing this can lead to a mystery displayed in the picture. Two other questions I would want to ask are: ‘What was your intended meaning behind this picture? Why did you choose that meaning?’, and I would also ask: ‘Why did you decide to interpret Jesus in this way? In this question, I am talking about facial expressions and body language’. One more question which remains a mystery, would be: ‘Why did you decide to paint this picture, depicting this scene?’

There may be mysteries remaining about this picture, and there are many positives weaved throughout the image. Firstly, the facial expressions used in the painting are good, they describe in detail what the characters displayed are feeling in this situation. Secondly, the symbols within the painting, like the candle for the Holy Spirit, are all a great positive, as they give us different meanings to the picture, and allow different opinions to debate the meaning of this picture. Finally, the range of colours are a big positive about the painting, as the colours tell you a lot about the scene pictured here, like the feelings, and the symbolism displayed. I cannot find any negatives about the painting, I think it displays all that it needs to in the scene it is depicting, and nothing could be added to make it better.

Overall, this is a wonderful painting. It has symbolism, colour, hidden meanings, mysteries, facial expressions and body language. I think He Qi has been very successful with this image, and has represented the story very well. The Doubt of St Thomas is a beautiful painting, and I think it will always represent the story told very well.’

Ivy reports on her selected picture, ‘The piece of artwork I will be analysing is ‘Je Cherche Ton Visage’, which translates as ‘I search for your face’. The artist is anonymous, but it was the gift of Gerard Levy. It is a collage of Jesus’ face, cleverly made up of many other people’s faces. The colours are warm (white, yellow, orange and red), which is symbolic of welcoming and kindness. It shows Jesus as being omnibenevolent (all loving), because it shows him suffering, due to the crown of thorns on his head, but also calmly letting everyone be saved by him, because this picture could be interpreted as showing that Jesus has saved all the people that make him up.

Another way of interpreting this is that God can be found in everyone. This ties in with two texts in the Bible, the first one being The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25: 31- 40), where people are split up, like goats and sheep (the goats on the left, and the sheep on the right), and the King tells those on His right, “When I was hungry, you gave me something to eat, and when I was thirst, you gave me something to drink. When I was in jail, you visited me.” It is a parable about the Final Judgement, and how the people who helped others helped Jesus. The picture shows Jesus encompassing everyone, so that means that everyone should be allowed to live equally (so people should help each other). The second text (1 Corinthians 12: 27) describes everyone as being a part of Christ’s body, “Now you together are Christ’s body; but each of you is a different part of it.” This ties in with the picture, because all the faces are in different positions, but have equal importance. The picture also ties in with St. Teresa of Avila’s prayer ‘Christ has no body but yours’, because she says that we must all act how Jesus does, because we are all part of him.

The title I would choose for this image is, ‘The People’s Christ’, because it shows that everyone is in Jesus, and he loves everyone. The artist has called the picture ‘I look for your face’ because it is many people’s faces in Jesus’, and that links to the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, where Jesus says that to help others was to help him.  So perhaps it means that we should look for those in need, and then help them, because everyone is a part of Jesus. I think that the artist believes that God can be found in every person, which the picture shows, because everyone makes up Jesus, so everyone has a part of God. This means that people should treat each other with the respect they have for God, in Church. I also believe this would help people to be kinder to each other, and have more respect. 

Three things that I like about this image is that it brings people together (so people can see that we are all as important as each other), it shows the omnibenevolent side of Jesus, which makes him seem more like a friend, and slightly less like some other paintings of him, where he is shown as omnipotent (all powerful) and it shows how we are all like Jesus, and should be treated with the respect and kindness God is shown, because we are all part of him. Something that I don’t like about the picture is that there are almost only white people, which makes Jesus whitewashed, like many other paintings. This excludes everyone that isn’t white, which isn’t fair, because everyone should be allowed to be a part of Jesus.’

Tamara chose yet another picture to analyse:

‘The image I will be writing a commentary on is ‘The Last Supper’ by Joseph Mulamba-Mandangi. The painting was painted in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1997. We know that the Last Supper is an event in the Bible which is when Jesus announced to His disciples that He very soon was going to die on the cross. This is a very upsetting moment for his disciples as well as Jesus.  However, as Jesus is omnipotent He knows that this is a duty he must do in order to save His people from sin. 

The entire background is black which may show the sadness of the occasion and how everyone is very sombre about what Jesus must undergo. However, the light around Jesus shows that he will be the one saving the world and that this task is something He must do if He wants to save His people. Jesus is also the Light of the World which might be why as well as being surrounded by light, He has a halo over Him instead of the crown of the thorns. The crown of thorns event has not taken place yet however, I think a halo is used instead of the crown of thorns because Jesus is proving himself worthy of being the Son of God by dying on the cross. This shows that Jesus was strong even through his suffering which is why the artist thought that Jesus deserved the halo.

As well as the light around Jesus, scattered around is the light from the candles throughout the darkness of the painting which may show that Jesus will always be with the disciples even when he is gone which is once again a link to Him being the Light  of the World. This once again has an interesting link to the halo, as the halo and candle are both linked to light which may be showing that the Son of God cannot be absent. 

The decorations on the table give a very deep meaning as they are all many circles overlapping which I think means that if you believe in Jesus you will be blessed with eternal life as well as the fact that Jesus will come again. This is an important link to the Last Supper as Jesus needs to assure His disciples that they will not be alone and Jesus’ everlasting love will always be with them. Once again in another link to the candles, they are all placed on the border which may show that Jesus (represented by the candle) is powering (the light of the candle) the circle (the circle being blessed with everlasting life). Another interesting thing is that Christians believe that light powers their lives, which may show that even though bad events keep coming around (life, like a circle) Jesus is always with us so that the circle can go back to the good side of the circle again. 

Although Jesus is in the light no one else seems to be – apart from the disciple next to him – this may be because all the disciples are sitting in the dark and this may mean that they are not pure, and we know this because Peter denies that He knows Jesus three times and Judas betrays Him. The light can only shine on the one who is pure and that is Jesus. 

Other than the links to the shapes and light and dark in the image, there are many emotions and actions which are occurring in this painting. Some of the disciples are standing up which might show that they are shocked/terrified by this news and might even go to Jesus to stop Him from going ahead with this. This could also mean though that one of the men who is about to stand up, may well be Judas leaving the room and going to betray Jesus. Judas however can also be the man on the left hand side who has a cheeky smile on His face and has purposely sat there so he can make a smooth exit when it is time to betray Jesus.

The emotion in the painting really does come through as we get a mix of Jesus’ divine side but the reaction on His face does show His human side. The fact that Jesus is comforting one of His disciples shows His human side as he understands the feeling of ‘losing’ someone and wants to comfort them which is human.  However, His divine side is also shown here as He knows that He must do this as despite His suffering He must do it for those who believe in Him.

I also think that it is a thought through choice that Jesus looks like all of His disciples. This shows that He treats himself as nothing better than all His people but also references that we are all made in God’s likeness, with the Bible quote, “But we all with unveiled face, beholding and reflecting like a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, even as from the Lord Spirit.” As well as general appearance, this may also show our actions and our reasons for them. This quote may also be suggesting that because Jesus is in us, as we are in Him,  we are able to act like Him and love others which may be what ‘made in His likeness’ means. 

It is also interesting to look at where the painting was drawn, by whom it is from and how that links to the way the people look and the decorations in the image. The image was made in the Democratic Republic of Congo and hence from an African viewpoint. In the painting, Jesus is conveyed as having a different skin tone which shows an African interpretation of The Last Supper.  Jesus is part of everyone no matter where you are from as Jesus is in us as we are in Him. 

This is my interpretation of this painting of the ‘Last Supper’ and the many hidden meanings which are shown through the painting.’

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