Abstractions, Shadows, and Images of Christ

By September 18, 2013

Laura Allred Hurtado contributes this next installment in the JI’s material culture month, on Mormon attempts to represent Jesus. Laura is the Global Acquisitions Curator for Art in the Church History Department. She has an MA in Art History and Visual Studies from the University of  Utah and a BA in Art History and Curatorial Studies at BYU. Laura has presented papers at scholarly conferences and curated exhibits at the Utah Museum of Fine Art, Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, and various other venues.

If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.–2 Chronicles 7:14

 All representations of divinity fail. Fail in that they are made of terrestrial materials, seen through non-celestial eyes. 

Modeled out of fabric and dirt, they never capture what Joseph Smith described as the “personage whose brightness and glory defy all description.”[1] Much of the images that ring true or that evoke a sense of familiarity often do so because they have, since a young age, saturated one’s field of visual reference.

Jesus Christ

Take Del Parson’s Christ in the Red Robe, for instance. Inserted into pass along copies of the Book of Mormon, it stands as sentinel outside of missionary apartments, primary classrooms, and seminary manuals. As an image, (regardless of opinions about actual aesthetics), it is ubiquitous with modern Mormonism. In fact, I would dare say, it has, through multiplication of use, become the iconic Mormon Jesus.

According to former Church History Museum curator of Art and Artifacts now Executive Director of the Springville Art Museum Rita Wright, “we bring all kinds of things to an image if we believe certain things, if we practice certain things, we bring a believing sense to the what that we see in a image.”[2]

And yet, does Parsons painting accurately depict the Savior?

Apocryphal stories aside, no, no, in fact, it does not.

This is not a slight towards Parsons. The same sentiments would be true of Michelangelo, da Vinci, among others. Because, artists who depict Jesus Christ make difficult and subjective decisions about the appearance of the model who performs the role of the Savior and so often these choices prove to be culturally constructed and reflect more of the paradigm of the commissioner than the reality of intended subject.


Early depictions of the Savior, often called “Jesus the Good Sheppard,” depicting Him as young, in a toga, almost feminine, but somewhat akin to the Roman gods or at the very least, looking much like a Roman youth. In 14th century Italy, it was most common to depict Christ as a hallowed and suckling infant. Also popular were images of the suffering and, at times, gruesome Christ on a cross; additionally Christ was commonly depicted as triumphant on the cross, with a look that seems to read like ennui.


cbChristByThePoolAtBethesda_1_2F jpgThis looking to the familiar, to what is socially around us, to find the face of Christ is a practice still current today. For example, take the New Testament film produced by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Goshen, Utah. One of the reasons the film is visually successful is the use of the tableau vivant, which means living picture and is a type of performed painting. In this case, one can see, in lighting and in style, the structure of Carl Bloch’s Christ Healing the Sick at Bethesda emerge in the picture frame. Such a reference, built within the very screen shots of the movie, attempts to harness the Mormon familiarity with Bloch, and with his painting and thus increasing the believability, by drawing on the collective believing sense brought to images used in devotion.

All of these paintings work towards some kind of accuracy and attempt to capture some kind of imitation of the real. Yet collectively, in this attempts towards imitation, they deny the inherent failure of the medium, of the maker.


What is distinctively different in J. Kirk Richards’ 150 paintings collectively called Christ-3-e1368586641330 Untitled (Cristo Series), now on display at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art as part of the exhibition “Mondo Utah: the Utah Biennial,” is this issue. There is an acceptance of this failure. Rather than being precise, they are blurry, abstracted, naïve, shadowy and incomplete. The series literally blurs the face of Christ, maintaining only the skeleton of His symbolic portrait. There is no single focal point but rather, there are many and they are distinctively different. Some have red hair, some black, some crown of thorns, some halos.

christ-1By no means do I mean to suggest a sense of visual superiority of Richards over others. It would be inaccurate to stake such a foolish and subjective claim. They are not. But rather I wish to simply suggest that, for me, there is theological value in abstracted images of Christ, because they make obvious the terrestrial fog in which we, in this life, access divinity. The inability to really fix the image of Christ emphasizes the personal nature of one’s relationship with Him, especially vis-à-vis personal revelation. In this frame, attempts at rendering an exact physicality don’t quite have the same effect, as much as the shadows, the abstractions, and the divinity one sees emerging through this repeated, if obscured, material lens.

The writing of Brad Kramer at By Common Consent is perhaps useful as a lens on this final point. “Our curiosity about the likeness of the Savior, His true image and countenance, is understandable. But the deeper and starker truth is not only that we do not know His true, singular likeness, but that it is more or less nonsensical to speak of Him having one image which He can be said to look like. The emblems of our holiest ordinances are symbolically connected to His body, and we ourselves symbolically constitute, as members of His Church, the Body of Christ. We are His arms and legs, hands and feet. But that too is a metaphor. Still, He has a risen and restored body of flesh and bones, parts and passions. And it is among the very least of us–the outcast, the marginalized, the reviled and downtrodden and invisibly suffering–that we most encounter Him, most often and most literally.”

Perhaps then, it is best to conclude with a suggestion: the goal perhaps is not to find an exact likeness of the Savior but to create an image that can serve as a conduit to the narrative, who is almost neutral enough to draw our minds from things of this world to that of the next and to assist in devotion as one seeks His face.


[1] Joseph Smith-History, 1:17

[2] Rita Wright, “Casting Jesus Panel Discussion,” Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, Salt Lake City, UT, July 2012.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Modern Mormonism Christian History Cultural History Material Culture Memory


  1. Laura, that was wonderful! The Church is fortunate to have you acquiring pieces for their collection.

    Comment by Alan — September 18, 2013 @ 10:26 am

  2. Yes yes yes! “Because, artists who depict Jesus Christ make difficult and subjective decisions about the appearance of the model who performs the role of the Savior and so often these choices prove to be culturally constructed and reflect more of the paradigm of the commissioner than the reality of intended subject.”

    Well said! Thanks for the post, Laura!

    Comment by Brant — September 18, 2013 @ 11:38 am

  3. This is great, Laura. Thanks for bringing an art historian’s perspective to material culture and depictions of Christ. Some of this reminded me of art historian Aby Warburg’s ideas about cultural memory as manifested as artists recycle and adapt images.

    Comment by David G. — September 18, 2013 @ 1:50 pm

  4. This is great stuff, Laura. Thoughtful and moving. And I, too, am a huge fan of Richards.

    Ever since reading Paul Harvey and Ed Blum’s excellent book on the racial images of Jesus, these things have been percolating in my mind, and I still haven’t come to a firm conclusion. But it is important stuff to consider.

    Comment by Ben P — September 18, 2013 @ 2:57 pm

  5. This is great! These are good points, both from a devotional and cultural point of view.

    Comment by Saskia T — September 18, 2013 @ 3:51 pm

  6. Laura, this post is just what I needed to push me over the edge and through the doors of UMOCA to experience Richards new exhibit.

    Thank you!

    Comment by Tod R. — September 18, 2013 @ 3:53 pm

  7. Ever since I first saw Jesus Christ Superstar (the film), I have been very curious about how different (mostly Christian) religious groups’ perceptions of Jesus counteract and correspond. I also have been interested in major differences between the way religious groups depict Jesus and different forms of mainstream media like film and musicals do. This gives me another medium to think about. This is really helpful. Thanks!

    Comment by Natalie R — September 18, 2013 @ 4:34 pm

  8. Great post. Thanks.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — September 18, 2013 @ 7:30 pm

  9. Beautiful and thoughtful. Thanks Laura.

    I personally love Kirk’s level of abstraction too, but I am fascinated by this push and pull with religious cultures–particularly my own. I think Kirk’s recent blog post on the guidelines for images for use in temples is a fascinating example of this. http://jkirkrichards.wordpress.com/2013/06/23/defense-against-the-dark-arts-or-why-harry-potter-and-carl-bloch-should-not-make-temple-art/

    Comment by JanieceJ — September 19, 2013 @ 2:27 am

  10. “All images fail”

    There was the beginning of a discussion on Gerhard Richter’s painting “The Annunciation After Titian” a while back on the blog By Common Consent


    The discussion fizzled out though ….. The idea that Richter wasn’t trying to reproduce a Titian, but was questioning the act of painting, was beyond our ken…….

    Comment by Rgate — September 19, 2013 @ 10:15 pm

  11. “There is theological value in abstracted images of Christ, because they make obvious the terrestrial fog in which we, in this life, access divinity.”

    I think you make a compelling case for this, Laura. Thanks for contributing.

    Comment by Ryan T. — September 20, 2013 @ 12:18 pm

  12. Thank everyone for your comments and interest in the post.

    David G: Interesting reference, I?ll look into that. That idea is also explored in less academic terms in Austin Kleon?s TED talk called Steal Like An Artist. There is also a book that is lovely. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oww7oB9rjgw

    Be P: I?ll check out that book. I think there is definitely a race element to all of this that is sometimes THE underlining narrative. Christ in the Red Robe doesn?t have that Middle Eastern Jewish look to him, among others. I moderated a panel discussion regarding the process of Casting Jesus and the artist Ben McPherson, who is Mormon but said that he sold better to a Catholic audience, said in his experience, Mormons resisted (in terms of sales) more ethnically looking depictions of Christ in general.

    Tod R: You should go. It is absolutely a cool institution, not just the Richards.

    Natalie R: Yes, in fact, at the aforementioned panel discussion, it was clear that there were Mormon-looking Jesuses and Catholic ones, Protestant and Evangelical too. And the interesting thing was that the image that was done in a different tradition (say Catholic), seemed to not ring true to another group (say Mormon audience). It is absurd because we certainly believe in the same divine being and thus it is just a matter of cultural language and visual familiarity. Some of this is theological: Mormons resistance towards the cross (think Ron Richmond as someone who is trying to balance these issues through absence) and some seems to be simply familiarity. Some, though, seem to not reflect ones relationship. There is a practice of painting Jesus sitting on a park bench that just seems so causal to me, so in formal that it makes my Mormon sensibilities cringe. Meaning that the image becomes something in and of itself rather than being about the narrative or a devotional practice.
    Rgate: Will absolutely check out that post. Thank you for that reference!

    Comment by Laura H. — September 20, 2013 @ 2:34 pm


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