Saturday, 4 August 2012

Thoughts on the "Christ in Majesty" Mosaic by Jan Henryk de Rosen

On a social network a friend linked to a photo of "Christ in Majesty", a beautiful mosaic in the main dome of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington D. C., which serves the Catholic University of America.

I was immediately fascinated when I saw the mosaic and its depiction of Christ, because it seems to be a contextual depiction. Contextual evangelism is an attempt to bring the gospel and theological doctrines to the people in a way that is coherent with their own cultural context. Here we have a very European looking Christ, for a mostly European descendent audience. But I soon realised that my conclusion that this is a case of contextualization is wrong, because we find in this mosaic elements that are Oriental, rather than Occidental. 

A close-up of the face of the "Christ in Majesty"
mosaic. (Image Source)

Russian born
Alexander Godunov, a
North Eastern "Nordic",
with typical Aryan features.
But let's first look at the Occidental, i.e. European elements. The Christ looks Aryan, with Nordic features: blond hair, fair skin, light (blue or green) eyes, a long headed face with fine features and slender build. The speculative Aryan race are a supposedly superior people and depending on the tradition may have been the inhabitants of the mythical Atlantis. The Nazis seemed to have believed in Nordic-Atlanteans, and a book Der Nordische Gedanke unter den Deutschen ("The Nordic Thought and the German") by Hans F. K. Günther possibly became the inspiration for later eugenic activities. I find it fascinating that the artist of this mosaic, Jan Henryk de Rosen, should choose to depict Christ in this fashion. 

Jan Henryk de Rosen
(Image Source)
De Rosen was Polish, from a Jewish family that converted to Calvinism. Himself later converted to Catholicism. As an artist he worked primarily on religious themes. Being forced to take refuge in America when the Nazis persecuted Jews in Europe, I find it curious that he should depict Jesus in the ideal that the Nazi's used to persecute his people. At first I thought that maybe he only depicted Jesus in this idealistic European fashion as an contextualization attempt for the predominantly European descendant audience of Washington D. C., but this particular mosaic was not the only time that De Rosen depicted an "Aryan" Christ. 

A Christ Icon by Jan Henryk de Rosen
on display at the
Ukrainian Museumand Library of Stamfort
in Connecticut. 
There are other interesting things about the "Christ in Majesty" mosaic. Let's take a look at the halo. 

Notice the cruciform halo with the three
branches of fire. (Image Source)
Image Source
The halo, a circle of light around a person's head, is a common element in iconic art to indicate holiness. The cruciform halo is a variation of the halo embedded with a cross and is generally used exclusively to depict Jesus. The cruciform halo in the "Christ in Majesty" mosaic above shows a burning cross, which is very unusual. It is not a version of the cruciform halo of Christ icons that I have seen before. I cannot help to think of the burning crosses used by the Klu Klux Klan who also based their ideology on "Nordic Thought" and believe in Aryan supremacy. Yet the burning cross need not be an allusion to the KKK's cross burning, it could have an Oriental connection.

A mosaic of Apollo with beams of light
emanating from his halo, from the 2nd
century, Tunisia. (Image Source)
A Greco-Roman depiction
of the head of Apollo from
the 4th century.
(Image Source)
Notice the similarities in the
hair of this sculpture and the
hair in De Rosen's depiction
of Christ. 
The Greco-Roman sun god Helios (or Apollo) was often depicted with beams of light emanating from his halo (see above).

The Grecian god of light and the sun, Apollo, was often depicted as a beautiful youth, quite similar in likeness to the Jan Henryk de Rosen's depiction of Christ (albeit beardless). In paintings (on pots) and mosaics Apollo is usually attributed with beams of light emanating from his halo, as already mentioned. What I haven't seen illustrated are beams of fire, such as those we see in De Rosen's mosaic. There is however other religious traditions outside of the Western tradition where aureola are shown as flames. An aureola is an expansion of the halo around the figures whole body; i.e. an aura visible as a "golden glow" of holiness. In art from particularly Indo-Persion and Far Eastern traditions we find fiery aureolas.

Vairocana Buddha
(Image Source)
For instance the Vairocana Buddha is usually pictured with flames of radiance surrounding him. (Interestingly, the Japanese term for the Vairocana Buddha is Dainichi, a name used by Christian missionaries in Japan (Francis Xavier) for the Christian God, because Dainichi sounds similar to Deusu, Spanish for God.) Deities with fiery aureolas are evident in Hinduism, Jaism, Zoroastrianism and even Islam (see a picture of Mohammed with a flaming aureola). The flames, of course, are not wholly foreign to Christianity, for the Bible describes God as "a consuming fire" (Exodus 24:17, Deuteronomy 4:24, Hebrews 12:29.)

Buddhist Monk in monastic robes with one
shoulder bare, sitting with legs crossed.
(Image Source)
One of the most curious elements to me of De Rosen's depiction of Christ is his attire and seated position. 

Compare the colour of the robes, the bared
shoulder and cross-legged seated
position with that of the Buddhist monk.
(Image Source)

The similarities between the De Rosen's styling of the robe, colour of the robe, and seating of the figure to that found in Buddhism is striking.

(Image Source)
Keep in mind that this mosaic depicts the "Christ in Majesty". That is, when Christ sits on the throne of God as ruler over everything, an icon that is usually part of the Last Judgement scene. The "Christ in Majesty" scene is a well established scene in Christian iconography, but what we nearly always see in these "Christ in Majesty" icons is a Christ sitting with his legs bent at the knee and hanging down in front of him, as he sits on the throne, as we can see in the picture on the side. I've never seen the "Christ in Majesty" (or to be frank, any Christ icon) depicted in this meditative position that is the customary depiction in Buddhist iconography.

The colour of the robe is also reminiscent of Buddhist monastic dress: Theravada Buddhist monks dress in a saturated orange robe; Tibetan Buddhists dress in crimson coloured robes. The red colour of the robe in De Rosen's "Christ in Majesty" does have Biblical foundation, as the Christ of Judgement is described in the Book of Revelation as "clothed with a vesture dipped in blood . . ." (Revelation 19:13), but the garment dipped in blood is part of another Biblical image, that of Christ sitting on a white horse (Revelation 19:11), and not of Christ seated on the throne.

Jan Henryk de Rosen's "Christ in Majesty" mosaic is a beautiful piece of work, but also an enigmatic one. One I do not completely comprehend. The cruciform halo in the form of a burning cross is quite strange. For me it reminds me of Oriental auroras or KKK burning crosses. Depictions of Christ as Caucasian are nothing new in Western Christian art, but this one seems especially Nordic, yet it was created by a Jew who ought to be in disagreement with "Nordic Thought". Then there is the curious Buddhist robe and meditative cross-legged position, which is almost certainly an allusion to the seated Buddha of Buddhist iconography.

The postmodernist in me wants to exclaim that this is obviously a post-modernist artwork, but that to me feels like a cop-out solution. While it is true that the the basilica was indeed completed within the postmodern zeitgeist, I'm not convinced that saying the enigmas in this mosaic can merely be explained away by envoking postmodernism's a-little-bit-of-this-a-little-bit-of-that characteristic. Iconography are always embedded with symbolic meaning, this is true even for postmodern iconography.

I'm sure I will continue to think about this mosaic for some time still.

(You can read an interpretation of this artwork here, by a Catholic source.)


BoerinBallingskap said...

Vir iemand wat nie veel belese is in die kunste nie, het ek hierdie inskrywing en jou waarnemings geweldig interessant gevind!

Skryfblok said...

Ek's bly!

Voordat ek my M in Skryfkuns gedoen het, het ek nagraadse studie in Kunsgeskiedenis oorweeg, maar die lewe het 'n ander draai geneem. ;-)