Copyright © Edward Riojas
I know just enough about history to get me in trouble.
It isn’t that I dislike history, but I often miss many of the nuances and particulars that so many historians relish. That can become a problem for the sacred artist.
At various times, I have been called to task for [still] putting Jesus on the cross, for giving Mary a cloak that was above her pay grade, and for making the Bethlehem shepherds look too Middle-eastern. Um, okay, I will never understand that last one, but you get the idea.
Of course, Christians mostly agree that the contents of the Bible are historical fact. (Those that don’t confess as much live in Quackville.) But how then do we handle the historicity of Biblical events – especially those involving Jesus Christ?
Sacred art is very unlike historical art. Historians and lovers of history will comb over every detail of a historical painting, assessing whether or not the events and characters were accurately portrayed, or whether things were pulled out of context to glorify someone or to achieve an agenda. John Trumbull’s famous painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence is a classic example of questionable accuracy. So is Frederic Remington’s painting of Custer’s last stand.
Quite frankly, I know most of my sacred pieces are not chock full of historical detail, so it does little to inform me that the mother of our Lord could not possibly have been able to afford a garment of ultramarine blue. I already know that. In sacred art, however, the spiritual reality will always trump its historical counterpart. The Bible is not, after all, simply a historical tome of the dead past – it is the Living Word.
So Mary is often shown wearing a deep blue frock because blue was once an expensive color made from semi-precious stone, and the honor was given to her as being “Blessed ... among women.” The body of Christ is shown on the cross to remind us of the cost of our redemption and the perfect love of our Lord. And shepherds are depicted as Middle-easterners because, well, apparently my sense of geography isn’t so great either.