Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Behold, The Man

By now, we’ve all seen this infamous tri-panel icon, an Ecce Homo that is Elías García Martínez’ fresco representation of the suffering Christ, crowned with thorns.  The three panels escort our eye from left to right; from the fresco in its younger days, to its time-weathered degeneration, ending finally with the well-intentioned yet botched efforts of an amateur restoration that holds only a shadow of the original.  This century-old Ecce Homo, housed in Spain’s Santuario de la Misericordia, was first created as an instrument to inspire worship.  After its unfortunate “restoration,” the community says it’s now valuable only in a far less lofty function – promoting tourism and stimulating pop-culture.  As t-shirts and other marketing items exploit its odd tale, experts now consider it ruined for its original purpose.

All is not lost; the incident brings out at least two valuable lessons that stand out in bold bas-relief. 

First, the degeneration of the picture can be juxtaposed with the degeneration of mankind.  Reflecting the model of fallen Adam (in whom all have sinned), apart from the grace of God we too continue to degenerate – as societies, as cultures, even as individuals in the aging process.  We constantly sense that we are in need of restoration; yet efforts at both external and internal self-reconstitution, no matter how well-intentioned, fail miserably.

Ironically, since its botched restoration, this Ecce Homo ("Behold the Man") is now being coined by pop-culture as Ecce Mono ("Behold, the Monkey").  While echoes can be heard of the racist conclusions of Darwinist ideology articulated by the proponents of eugenics, we'll ignore those voices to shed light on the more realistic principle of devolution rather than evolution.  It suggests the potential in animal behavior that we, as unregenerate beings have to offer.  Water doesn't flow uphill; apart from an outside Agent acting upon us, we not only stagnate, but continue to devolve further away from our originally created state of innocence, dominion, and unhindered communion with the Creator.  By rejecting the restoration that only He can provide, we are consigned to reflect the animal image of the creation rather than the Designer in whose image we were made.

Second, the fresco’s European representation of Jesus gives us pause to reconsider our own posture of worship.  What should we say of the distinctly European impression of Jesus in the first panel?  This representation also evidences our fallenness – not because it’s European, but because it’s ethnocentric.  Our tendency will always be to conform Christ and the world to our image, through our own ethnic assumptions; of this, we are all guilty.

Any attempts to define Him – both on the canvas and off – will always produce a shadow image patterned after ourselves; our best attempts to define Christ will only reflect the limited creativity of our own imagination.  Only He can define Himself, and we must yield to His definition.  From this perspective, we can see God's wisdom in commanding Israel to avoid the construction of graven images.  This is not to say that God doesn’t give the artist freedom to create, but rather that the artist should create (and the reviewer critique) divine representations with great caution, wisdom, care.

But the greater point here is not the limits of the artist's creative freedom, but rather the posture of all mankind toward the Creator.  The larger lesson is found in the knowledge that in all things, we are exhorted to be conformed to Christ's superlative character and image, not to confine Him to our inferior one.

While the Bible tells us Christ was ethnically Jewish, it also tells us that He is the true and perfect human.  As He gathers the nations to Himself, He stands as the perfect African-American, African, or European; the perfect Asian, Latin American, and so on with all ethnicities. 

As Creator and Lord of the nations, and the only perfect participant in them, Christ identifies with each nation with such completeness, depth and totality that only He is able to fully judge their misdeeds, redeem their sorrows, and ultimately consummate and bring them into harmony.

Standing both among us and above us, He is Ultimate Man and Ultimate Ethnic; Christ is more Black, White, Yellow or Red than any of us will ever be. 

On the last and first day, we will see the Alpha and Omega as more than perfect; we'll see Him in His glorified state, and see our own ethnicity perfected in Him.  He promises that all will see Him and cry out, each in their native tongue, with understanding and full agreement ...

“Behold the Man.”

Karen Angela Ellis holds a Master of Fine Art from the Yale University School of Drama and a Master of Art in Religion from Westminster Theological Seminary.  She is a multidisciplinary performing artist and educator, happily married to Carl Ellis, Jr.  

Karen writes about theology, life, culture and the arts. You can follow her on Twitter @KarAngEllis.

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