Faces of Christ

Written by Jane Williams Reviewed By Tanya Walker

Sixty-five beautifully reproduced full-color images of frescoes, icons, paintings, and sculptures from the sixth to twenty-first centuries accompany theologian Jane Williams's substantive text on the person of Jesus Christ. As in her previous Lion publications (Approaching Easter and Angels), this book draws both from her expertise as a theologian (tutor in Theology at St Mellitus College and visiting lecturer at King's College, London) and the potential communicative power of representational art to “reach parts of the human mind and heart that words cannot” (p. 6).

Through each successive chapter's text and accompanying images, Williams chronologically narrates the story of Christ from the Annunciation (and Jesus' family tree) through the Passion into Pentecost. Selected events form the framework for Jesus' “Ministry and Miracles” as well as his “Life and Teaching” by highlighting his roles as miracle-worker (feeding of the five thousand, healing the hemorrhaging woman and blind man, and walking on water), storyteller (the Good Samaritan, the Good Shepherd and the Prodigal Son) and rule-breaker (through his surprising exchanges with women and children).

The strength of interaction between word and image is most apparent when Williams explores the same event (such as the baptism of Christ) in multiple artistic iterations, drawing into dialogue with her text the thematic elements each artist has chosen to emphasize. Through this deliberate interplay of media (word and image) Williams hopes, quite simply, that the “face of Christ . . . will emerge for the reader” (p. 6). Readers looking for expert insight into the history and context of a particular artist or work will find scant commentary. Indeed, Williams makes no claims to provide such, but as a theologian focuses instead on interpreting the works through the lens of Christology. Images become the means by which she may “make theological points” while at the same time expecting the images to make their own (p. 6). Williams's thoughtful engagement through text and image offers, at times, refreshingly poignant reminders of the high stakes inherent in such events as the Annunciation to Mary or the desert temptation of Jesus and challenges the reflective reader to consider parallel choices one must make in light of the story of God.

Inherent to any work that pairs text and art are assumptions concerning the relative primacy and communicative power of word versus image. To observe a contrasting approach, one might consider the recent publication of Christopher R. Brewer's Art That Tells a Story in which contemporary works of art, framed by the grand narrative categories of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Consummation, are instead accompanied by minimal text that serves primarily to suggest and direct contemplation as a secondary accompaniment to the images. The large coffee-table-book format and substantial white space surrounding each image also ensure that the weight of communicative power is placed upon the work of art, with the biblical and interpretative text playing a secondary and complementary role. In Williams's more diminutively sized book, text takes the upper hand in communication, whereby the image serves primarily to augment and illustrate her points.

One final observation: while the flyleaf promises “some of the many images of Jesus Christ that have been created by artists across the centuries and around the world,” I was disappointed to find only one image from the twenty-first century (a nativity sand sculpture, circa 2003) (p. 31) and two works by Jewish painter Marc Chagall that originate from the second half of the twentieth century (1952-1966 and 1971) (pp. 37, 106-7). Given Williams's implicit aim to engage the reader with a living Christ, it is unfortunate that the majority of images are too easily relegated to the past and associated only with museum walls or Christmas cards. One refreshing exception is the selection of Edith Caitlin Phelps's Wayside Madonna (1939) (p. 35). Placing this modern depiction alongside stereotypically familiar images of Mary with Jesus reveals the visual potential present in such contrasts.

Christ is, as Williams reminds us, “the citizen of every country, a member of every race, the eldest son of every family, inviting all to become brothers and sisters of his Father” such that we may find “our humanity in his countenance” (pp. 6, 9). Including additional contemporary artists such as Peter Howson, David Mach, Edward Knippers, and Janet McKenzie as well as more non-Western depictions, such as those highlighted in MOBIA's 2007 exhibition The Christian Story: Five Asian Artists Today, would have only served to strengthen her claim to the universality of Jesus for humanity and increase the relevance and communicative power of Williams's book.

On the whole, Williams offers a visual feast for mind and heart-an engaging meditation by which to see Christ so that “our own faces begin to change into his likeness” and we become “what we are called to be: God's beloved daughters and sons” (p. 9).

Tanya Walker

Tanya Walker
University of St Andrews
St Andrews, Scotland, UK

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