Cameron and I just got back from our honeymoon a couple days ago. It was an amazing trip to Barcelona, Rome, and Paris. We were both in awe of these places we had heard of and never been, these cities that are full of history, culture, great food, and legendary art. Throughout the three cities, we were able to visit five art museums and between classical sculptures, renaissance paintings, and impressionist pieces, we were able to see some of the most influential Western art from the past 2,000 years.
I have a lot of thoughts about all the art we saw, from Picasso to da Vinci to Monet, but for now I’m only going to talk about one collection that surprised me and stuck with me.
In Barcelona, up many staircases and framed by more than a couple fountains, sits the Museu Nacional D’Art De Catalunya, the national Catalan art museum.
Through the doors and to the left is an extensive collection of Romanesque murals. These murals come from churches and other buildings and are all between 800 and 1,000 years old. The museum has cleverly reconstructed fragments of murals to fit the shapes of the buildings they came from, so as a museum visitor you feel like you’re walking through a meandering ancient structure rather than a gallery in a museum.
One thing that struck me about this art was the bright primary colors, the warm, bold yellows and reds made the murals and altar pieces lively and exciting. On top of the color scheme, the images were stylized in a very illustrative manner, not smooth like refined oil paintings, giving the pieces a really beautiful energy.
As I considered some of the final pieces in that wing of the museum, I was admiring the style when a different thought occurred me. Suddenly, I appreciated how unique many of the figures looked. I was struck by how very not white many of them were. The apostles and the Mary’s and the Jesus’s I was looking at didn’t look like Italian Jesus or Dutch Jesus, as art students so often see in Renaissance works. No, these figures looked like the Spaniard and Catalan people I had seen around me the past few days. This Jesus that I was standing in front of looked like a Catalan Jesus.
Of course, we know (or should know by now) that Jesus was not white. In an environment where most of the art we see portrays Jesus looking more like a California surfer than a first century Jew, seeing Jesus with a slightly darker complexion, larger nose, and facial hair can be jarring. I know though, that these paintings also were not perfect representations of Jesus. Jesus was not Spanish or Mediterranean or Catalan, he was a Jew living in the Middle East. The real, deep beauty that I saw in these murals was a Jesus that fully belonged to the people who painted him.
Jesus, to the Romanesque artists, was relatable, understandable, and relevant to their culture. He was not an “other” brought in by people who looked and sounded different, but had become like them. To the artists and the people looking at those murals, Jesus was a God for their people, not for some foreign place. That, to me, seems evident in the way that Jesus and the apostles were portrayed.
As we desire for more people to know Jesus, it’s important for Christians to remember that Jesus is no more American than he is Chinese. Or perhaps he is just as American as he is Chinese. Perhaps Jesus is equally as American as he is Catalan and Syrian and North Korean. Perhaps God is just big enough to transcend cultural and ethnic boundaries while still remaining deeply relevant to each and every cultural and ethnic group. That is the God I believe that I serve.