The official edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church includes four color prints of sacred art, three from the patristic era (two are frescos in catacombs) and one from the eleventh century. Artwork from a third-century catacomb also provided the basis for the cover logo, depicting a shepherd.
A Remarkable Look at Christian Art
These images are not merely decorative, but serve the Catechism’s function of expounding historic Christian teaching set forth in sacred scripture and sacred tradition. For the Church’s sacred art is part of her repository of sacred tradition, preserving and expressing the deposit of faith in a unique and indispensable way.
The Face, a remarkable two-hour documentary produced in conjunction with the Catholic Communication Campaign, is a visually sumptuous and spiritually rewarding exploration of Christian art that surveys the history of how Jesus Christ has been portrayed, and how Christian teaching has been understood, interpreted, and given different emphases by the art of different times and places.
The Face traces the depiction of Christ throughout Christian history, from the earliest images in the catacombs, to the development of distinctively Christian art forms such as the stunning wall mosaics of the patristic era and the iconography of the Christian East, to the to the lavish art of the Renaissance, and into the modern era.
The Passion in Context
Not surprisingly, the documentary loses steam toward the end, as it becomes increasingly hard in the modern era to identify important or noteworthy christological artwork. (Knowledgeable Catholics may take note of the name of a black American artist whose black-and-white depiction of the agony in the garden receives some attention: Fred Carter is “the good artist” responsible for the better-drawn examples of the often scathingly anti-Catholic tracts of Jack Chick!)
Of greater current relevance, in light of recent historically uninformed critiques of the violence of Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, to be released next Tuesday on DVD, is a segment on Christ’s sufferings in art. This portion of the documentary explores the relationship between medieval devotional attention to the Passion and the increasing emphasis on Jesus’ humanity in at times blood-soaked depictions, offering helpful perspective on the tradition Gibson’s film represents. (Coincidentally, Gibson himself is one of the documentary’s narrators, along with Bill Moyers, Ricardo Montalban, and others.)
The Face We Want to See
There are some flaws. A segment on images of Jesus with claims of supernatural origins inexplicably neglects the most famous and important of all such images, the Shroud of Turin. While admittedly a topic that could easily fill several documentaries in itself and has the Shroud and its relationship to Christian art should have gotten some attention. And the narration, while never objectionable, is occasionally facile.
But these are minor points. The Face is well structured and well directed, and given the visual nature of the subject matter, director Craig MacGowan’s use of offscreen narration rather than talking-head interviews with art historians or theologians is welcome, and keeps the emphasis on the face we really want to see.
(c) 2004 Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
Steven D. Greydanus is a film critic for the National Catholic Register and appears weekly on Ave Maria radio. His website offers in-depth reviews of both contemporary and older films, evaluating them for moral and spiritual worth as well as artistic and entertainment value.
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