Jesus from two different perspectives, #2
Millais and Malczewski
Christians are exposed to a plethora of representations of Jesus. Images of the savior abound, and there isn’t a single aspect of his earthly life or a moment in the gospel narratives which hasn’t been treated by visual artists. Most of these images consider Jesus from the perspective of some part of his ministerial capacity: there is the crucified Christ, suffering for the sins of the world; Christ the preacher, giving the sermon on the mount, or in some other way speaking the truth he was meant to deliver; and there is the risen savior, conquering death and with it, the power of sin over the lives of those who believe. But here I want to feature two images which show aspects of Jesus’ earthly life which are often overlooked; these two paintings show us Jesus as the son of his earthly parents, and as a total stranger.
Christ in the House of His Parents (John Everett Millais, 1850)
Believe it or not, this painting was extremely controversial when it was first exhibited in London. A reviewer in The Builder called it “studious vulgarity”; none other than Charles Dickens wrote that the painting represented “the lowest depths of what is mean, odious, repulsive, and revolting.” We moderns can easily forget that mid-nineteenth-century viewers were expecting an image of Jesus to have something of the divine about it; they were not ready to accept a picture showing Jesus as he would have been seen to his contemporaries.
This picture tries to show Jesus at a moment that could have stood for any number of times in his early life. Here he is at his father’s carpenter shop, having just torn his hand on a nail sticking out of a board. His grandmother pulls the offending nail out with a pliers while Jesus’ mother comforts him and his father inspects the wound. The picture is heavily symbolic—Christs’ wound, and the blood that has dripped from it onto his foot, prefigure the wounds he would receive on the cross. But this symbolism doesn’t take away from the realism of the scene—I can imagine there were many moments in Jesus’ childhood which seemed portentous, and which, as scripture tells us, gave Mary reason to “ponder these things in her heart.” I can even imagine the young Jesus making a cryptic comment about the wound in the same style as his comment about “going about my father’s business” from Luke 2:49.
Christ and the Samaritan Woman (Jacek Malczewski, 1912)
In this image, the traditional depictions of Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well are turned on their head. Here, we aren’t given an imposing, authoritative Jesus pontificating to the woman (such as this image, which bears an uncanny resemblance to the “mansplaining” statue in San Antonio). Instead, Malczewski’s Jesus is shoved into a corner, and the Samaritan woman dominates the canvas. I imagine this picture shows the moment (John 4:11) where she says, “oh come on. You don’t even have a bucket. How are you going to get water for me?” Her smirk indicates that she thinks she’s scored a point on him; meanwhile Jesus pauses to work up a good retort. But isn’t that the exact dynamic of the first part of their conversation, as recounted in the book of John?
In fact, this picture shows precisely who Jesus seemed to be to the Samaritan woman—some random guy who just started talking to her one time while she was busy getting water. The neighborhood wells were probably centers of chitchat, gossip, and flirty banter anyway, and to the woman, Jesus’s request for water probably wasn’t out of the ordinary for a trip to the well. The gospel narrative shows that this water run certainly didn’t end in a normal fashion for her . . . ! But that moment, before her life was turned inside out by the teacher who told her “all the things she ever did”, is perfectly captured in this painting.
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