Re-imagining The Bible Through Art

Today is The Annunciation according to the traditional Catholic calendar. This is when Catholics celebrate the announcement by the archangel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary that she would become the mother of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. A site I sometimes read had a unique representation of The Annunciation that got me thinking about art and it’s role in how we envision religion.

I would venture to guess that many people of my generation picture Jesus looking like Robert Powell, the actor from the famous 1977 miniseries Jesus of Nazareth. This movie, which was shown every Easter season for years made an indelible mark on an entire generation.

If we travel back in time to the long march of history before television, art still shaped how we view much of religion. From Leonardo’s David, to Michelangelo’s ceiling, artists have told us what famous Biblical characters and scenes looked like. Before wide spread literacy, paintings and stained glass were in fact the main source of information about much of religious history.

However, because of this emphasis on classical artistic depiction do we create a barrier between ourselves and religion? Is it easier to keep the troubling theological aspects of the reality behind The Annunciation, Resurrection or Transfiguration at arm’s length because we envision them as part of some long-distant, almost mythological past. Would those who think nothing of accepting the reality of an angel visiting a 13 yr old girl and announcing her mystical pregnancy feel the same way if a similar situation happened today, in a modern setting?

I am not trying to start a religious debate; I am simply asking the question out loud- does our classical art influenced mental image of Biblical events make them easier to accept? Below are two paintings that got me thinking about this. Each represents a traditional narrative in a modern setting.

This Annunciation is set in suburbia, but the symbolism is quite traditional. Mary is reading from Isaiah about the Virgin who conceives and bears a son. The lily represents her purity, and she is welcoming St. Gabriel. By JOHN COLLIER
Joseph dressed as a carpenter with the Child Jesus standing beside him. Jesus holds a plumb line to say that He, as the Plumb Line, is a fixed point against which all else can be measured. By JOHN COLLIER