Last year, a story went viral about an 81 year-old Spanish woman who turned a damaged Church fresco into an international joke of sorts. “Well-meaning amateur Cecilia Giménez — a parishioner at the Santuario de Misericordia in the small town of Borja — set out to restore the fresco by artist Elias Garcia Martinez, worn over time, to its original glory.” (1) But the results of the restoration were anything but glorious. Take a look for yourself. One art conservator referred to the attempted restoration as a tragedy. The somewhat classical rendering of Jesus now looked like a “cartoon with a smudged face and furry crown of thorns”. Giménez turned the image of Jesus into something other than what it once was. Only the barest resemblance of the original now remains. The new effect is grotesque, more Picasso than Jesus.
We learn something here that we can transfer to bigger questions. We learn from the process of image restoration that multiple facets must work together. Its more than just paint and brush; basic physical chemistry must be taken into account, as well as an understanding of art history and technique. Perhaps most important is the will of the restorer to faithfully represent what the original artist intended. Image restoration always involves more than one thing.
What might it mean then to restore the image of Jesus to our time and place? John’s first letter is uniquely helpful here. Written at the close of the first Christian century, John, the apostle and friend of Jesus, the author of the fourth gospel, is keen to show what a faithful representation of the Jesus-life actually looks like. If John’s gospel is the original picture of Jesus, John’s first letter is his statement on what that picture looks like when it is lived in us. In other words, the letter describes the image of Jesus as it is restored into our world and circumstance.
At the time he wrote, John saw that some were quite willing to paint over the original picture of Jesus. John would not let that happen. He wanted nothing fuzzy or distorted. John wanted a sharper picture, a clearer restoration. And that meant that, for John, there were three things that had to be present: first, an embrace of who Jesus really was, as God in human form for us (truth); second, a willingness to obey what God asked of us (obedience); and third, a heart for practical expressions of love towards others (love). Truth, obedience, love -- all three. This was what a restored image of Jesus looked like.
John was adamant he knew what he was talking about:
From the very first day, we were there, taking it all in—we heard it with our own ears, saw it with our own eyes, verified it with our own hands. The Word of Life appeared right before our eyes; we saw it happen! And now we’re telling you in most sober prose that what we witnessed was, incredibly, this: The infinite Life of God himself took shape before us. We saw it, we heard it, and now we’re telling you so you can experience it along with us, this experience of communion with the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ. [1 John 1:1-3, MSG]
John was not only an original artist, he was a keen restorer. He wanted his readers to see the essence of the life of Jesus he had known in personal terms. And he wanted them to see how that life could become lived inside of their own lives. Care needed to be taken here, with no part left out: truth, obedience, love.
Twenty years ago, C. FitzSimons Allison wrote a helpful little book he called The Cruelty of Heresy. Allison wanted to assert the thought that to hide, or distort, or evade anything of Christian faith is not merely to be mistaken, but in effect to be cruel. That phrase is haunting me lately. I find myself praying, “Lord, help me to live in truth, to walk in integrity, and to demonstrate your love in practical terms. Help me not to paint over your life with my own foolish distorted pictures of you. I want to be a blessing to those who watch my life, so that in my life they will see yours.”
The story of the bungled fresco has pushed me in a new direction this week.
- When have you felt that Jesus was distorted by someone who bungled his image? Who do you trust to faithfully represent him?
- How are you personally going about representing the image of Jesus in your world?
- In John’s three tests of authentic spiritual life -- truth, obedience, love -- which is the biggest challenge for you?
- Want more? One of the best contemporary and faithful re-readings of Jesus is Philip Yancey’s The Jesus I Never Knew.
(1) All notes on this story come from Jayme Poisson and Lesley Ciarula Taylor (August 23, 2012), “Lesson from Spain’s botched painting: Leave art restoration to the experts”. The Toronto Star. Retrieved from thestar.com