By Barbara Falconer Newhall
Churches were at the top of my list of photo subjects as Jon and I set out last month for a three-week river trip across Europe. Stained glass windows, paintings, mosaics, murals — I knew those old buildings would be stuffed to their soaring arches with wonderful old art objects. And I planned to capture as much of that medieval and renaissance beauty as I could.
I saw a lot of Jesuses in those old European churches. But, sad to say, in church after church, Jesus was almost always . . . dying. Or dead. Or staggering under the weight of a cross.
True, there were plenty of images of the Baby Jesus: unblemished and adorable, but often (it seemed to me) no more than a stage prop to highlight the sanctity of Mary, his much-revered mother.
Jesus the Man
But Jesus the man? Jesus turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana? Jesus breaking bread with tax collectors and prostitutes? Jesus making the blind man see? Didn’t happen. Images of the living, breathing Jesus in action were a rarity.
These were old churches, of course, centuries old. And those two visions of Jesus — the suffering Jesus, the babe-in-arms Jesus — must have meant a lot to pre-modern Europeans who endured wars and plagues that went on for decades and took out large swaths of the population. Those people suffered. No doubt it helped to visualize a God who suffered with them.
Is Christianity Dying?
For the past century, Christianity has been doing a slow fade in Europe. The proportion of Europeans who are Christians dropped from 95% in 1910 to 76% in 2010, according to a Pew Research Center report. Today, nineteen percent of Europeans claim no religious affiliation at all.
I wonder. Might all those grisly medieval and renaissance visions of a dying Jesus have something to do with those shrinking numbers?
Bottom line, I have no upbeat photos of Jesus turning water into wine or dining with tax collectors and prostitutes. Just picture after picture of Jesus dying on the cross. And a couple of him as a babe in arms. It’s the best I could do.
More travel adventures at “Pentwater, Michigan — A Small Town on a Big Lake” and “Cheap Thrills at the Glasmuseum Passau.” Learn more about my new book at WrestlingWithGodBook.com.
On a related theme, see Bernard Starr’s essay on Renaissance Christian art.