I was recently made aware of a striking image, The Face of Christ, by Dublin artist Jonathan Byrne.
Today is Good Friday. Over these next few days until Easter, Christians around the world will be pausing to reflect on the last days of Christ on Earth, and what it meant for him to be human. Byrne is aware that artists over the centuries have wrestled with portraying Christ’s likeness – using their craft to contemplate visually how ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.’ To paint an image of Christ’s face is on the one hand to align oneself in a long tradition; on the other hand, it also must be seen as an attempt to communicate something about Christ to the contemporary world. As Byrne writes: ‘It is faith that will fashion the Face for you. And the artist’s job is to provide the space for that faith; the artist’s job is to allow the room for that great contemplation.’
Why bother with a new image? There is some attraction to the idea of an image that is at once present and not present, seen and unseen. It seems to me that the modern images that are generally on display seek to create a hyper-realism that does not imbue any sense of mystery around the image. Somewhere in all our thoughts there is the idea of a cloth or shroud that may contain an image. The Shroud, despite its uncertain history, is, at least, a highly resonant concept as it delivers a notion of a hidden image that can only be revealed in fuller detail through an X-Ray process. And, following from that, I have been developing a painting technique that creates a textural overlay onto an image, a texture of combed paint that delivers an effect similar to a distressed piece of cloth. So, the quest, then, is to create a shrouded image upon a canvas using the accumulated paint layers to create the effect of a veil or a shroud. And to apply a treatment of light that might resemble light passing through a cloth.
In a Guest Post for Good Friday, Bryne has written an allegory that communicates some of his rationale behind The Face of Christ. (You can also access the allegory here.)
What’s in a Face? by Jonathan Byrne
Sabadici was the Master. The students would be apprehensive when, during a lesson, he would commence his inspection of their drawings. In the circular amphitheatre of the Academy, with sunlight streaming in shafts from the windows high above, the Master would begin on his path around the room. He would stop at a particular student, would stand beside them at their easel and, then, with a thick stub of charcoal held outward under his thumb as though pointing the tip of an arrow; he would begin his corrections to the student’s drawing. In the space of one minute, a drawing that had been worked on by the student for two hours became a different and a better thing. ‘There… there it is’, the Master would say, ‘…there is the line, my friend’.
To the student it seemed an invasion upon their work, firstly the surrender of control after their own concentrated struggle to deliver a precise image and then, standing in their workspace, Signor Sabadici, his arm movements – short stabs, like a stuttering autonomic device. With his blackened thumb pressed flat onto the charcoal point, new lines would emerge, shattering much of the sense of accomplishment that had previously guided the student’s hand during the original drawing.
But Sabadici was not a brute. His touch was swift and gentle onto the drawing surface; fleeting sweeps of line emerged rapidly, the lines were of different density according to the pressure of Sabadici’s thumb; a line could be both thick and thin along its traversal, jagged or smooth along a curve. And the line was confident and singular, never exploratory; each line was precisely placed, definitive, exact. When he finished, Sabadici would turn to the student and ask, with some empathy toward the intrusion upon the student’s work: ‘So, what do you think? Are we correct?’ And the student would look, would hope to see an anomaly but would usually agree that the Master’s line was, indeed, the true line.
The exercises varied, discovering the shadows in the folds of a cloth, in the fall of a long dress, studying the gradations of skin tones along a thigh and in the wiry tendons down the leg.
And there were portrait sessions, where the sitter might be Old Pascal, the Academy’s handyman, with his much creased face and with his hooded eyes, dark insets, twinkling full of curiosity. And all the while, Sabadici, on the prowl, his right hand at the ready, waiting to step in beside a student and to deliver the virtuoso touch.
‘Look at the face of Pascal, try to see it in two ways, see it as Pascal and as the landscape called Pascal. Look at this sloping incline of the forehead, its descent to a cliff-edge with eyebrows like sprays of wild grass. And now, the eyes, these dark pools of mystery, divided by this great raised ridge of the nose. And then, the mouth below is just a cave. So, we have the cliffs, the sprays, the hills and valleys, the dark pools, the sharp ridge and the sunken cave. This, my friends, is the landscape of Pascal…’
‘Now, however… .’ he continued, ‘…If, we go a step further and if we are to seek the character of Pascal, we see how the face is used and we study the eyes. Any face reflects the muscles that are most active, we see the creases at the corners of the mouth, the smile line or the frown. And then, the eyes, the light in the eyes, ever curious… The eyes contain the spark of life, we now see the personality. First the landscape, then the personality. That is today’s lesson concluded. Thank you all.’
In his Final Year in the Academy, a student by the name of Giovanni Bruciare decided to attempt to portray a Face of Christ. It would be executed in oil paint, using the translucency of the paint to deliver the effect of falling lances of light and using the soft-to-hard malleability of the paint to deliver texture, combing the paint while soft, over-combing as it hardened, to obtain a texture like distressed cloth or fabric. And, then, to combine these qualities of the oil paint with shading in such a way that an image could be laid down and this image, a face, might just be visible lying behind the simulated cloth-like surface.
Bruciare began the painting and, week by week, it grew into something resembling a shadow of a face, a ghostly image upon a cloth. The idea triggered a discussion amongst the other students. Questions arose around the skill levels required to portray an unknown face. Some argued that it could not be classified as a portrait at all if it had no provenance to an actual face.
‘It should be submitted as a landscape,’ one student slyly suggested, within earshot of Sabadici.
The Master approached Bruciare’s painting. Some of the students followed the Master, anticipating that a discussion might ensue and that it might also reach an important decision point. Bruciare stood back from the painting. Sabadici moved in and studied the image, lifting his glasses as he bent slightly and swept his eyes down along its length. Then, standing straight, he turned to the students.
‘Here is the argument. That it is not a portrait if we cannot reference it to a known face. What is the point of producing an imagined face, who can judge if it is a true representation of an actual person? And, it might follow, therefore, that the picture would seek to escape the full weight of critique in terms of making an accurate reflection of a subject. But that is to miss an important point. Signor Bruciare is not painting a person; he is painting an idea of a person. Somewhere, within all of us, in some parts of our brain, there exists an image of the Face of Christ. This goes deeper than the discussion of painting, an image seems to be essential to the mind’s contemplation of whether there was a Christ on Earth and essential to our consideration around whether his human form carried the personification of being the Son of God. These are big questions for an artist because it tests not only the artist’s skill, it tests the artist’s faith. As the psalm says: Faciem Tuam, Domine requiram – Your face, O Lord, do I seek ..
What may be at issue is that there is a possibly invalid presumption by Signor Bruciare that he, alone amongst us, has some special insights to offer, that he has been so blessed as to be the revealer of a great truth…’
Sabadici turned to face Giovanni Bruciare. ‘So, he asked, ‘Are you a seer of truths, Bruciare, do you claim a great privilege that is denied to the rest of us?’
Bruciare addressed the group:
‘My intention here is quite the opposite of what you are saying. I claim no special insight. My painting is just one in a long line of images over the passage of history, images that have sought to imagine and to portray, to conjure up a convincing image of Christ. And, as the Master says, like all of us, I had a residual image in my memory from which I may have composed the image that you see here in front of you. But I believe that I may have brought something new to the discussion. If you remember when we drew the face of Old Pascal, the character of Pascal was in the creased lines of the face and the sparkle of the eyes. And this is what we see when people come to make an image of Christ, the artists seek to tell us the expression, they guess what the eyes might have looked like, we are given the personality. It seems to be either a gentle Christ, or a judgemental, severe Christ, or a tortured Christ. But, my argument is that while we can know that Christ had a face, we can never know the eyes. The eyes are a guess too far. And they tell too much of things that can never be known, they are indeed the windows to the soul but I don’t think that we can know the soul of Christ.
In my painting, I have refrained from offering a defined character. The image is deliberately indeterminate. The eyes are closed, giving fewer hints toward the personality of Christ. And my reason for this is that I believe that a representation of Christ should merely be a framework for the viewer, a loose template to which they can bring their own interpretation of The Face and their own interpretation of the soul of Christ. In order for the image to be indeterminate, I have chosen to fashion the image as though it is being seen behind or upon a cloth.
This approach is in line with the notion that there always existed a Veronica, an image of the Face of Christ upon a veil. And it is also in line with the notion of a death shroud. I’m not claiming support for, or vindicating, the notion of a Veronica. The idea of the cloth just serves to slightly mask the face and that serves the purpose. As the Benedictines have said: By its nature, the consecrated life is a pilgrimage of the spirit, looking for a Face that sometimes shows itself and sometimes remains veiled.
So that, if the viewer is truly a lover of Christ, then they can imbue the image with an overlay of that love. I think that they will find that the image comes and goes, just as it does for all of us when we try to remember the face of an absent or departed loved one. It is in that space between portrait and indeterminate image that the artist can try to deliver a useful vision. And it is in that intermediate space between being seeing and being unseeing that true belief is called upon.
It is faith that will fashion the Face for you. And the artist’s job is to provide the space for that faith; the artist’s job is to allow the room for that great contemplation.
The Master scratched his chin, then he walked in amongst the gathering of students and, turning, with one arm extended toward Brocade’s image, he said: ‘Behold the Man’.