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Category Archives: art

One of the controversial Muhammad CartoonsI’m sure you have all heard about the controversy surrounding cartoons depicting the Muslim Prophet Muhammad. Sunni Muslims forbid images of Muhammad and though Shi’a Muslims do allow representations of Muhammad any depiction of him must be done with respect and dignity. Because of the Danish cartoons many Muslims were quite pissed off. In true religious insanity they wanted the heads of the cartoonists because of the disrespect done to Muhammad and because the images depicted Islam as violent.

So why does Islam get so touchy about images of Muhammad? Christianity seems perfectly fine with showing Jesus as black, white, Asian, young, old and pretty much anything else you can think of. Some of the most beautiful art ever made has featured Jesus yet Muhammad is strangely neglected in the world of art.

From the Qur’an
Shakir translation
Chapter 21 : Al-Anibiya (The Prophets)

When he said to his father and his people: What are these images to whose worship you cleave?

They said: We found our fathers worshiping them.

He said: Certainly you have been, (both) you and your fathers, in manifest error.

They said: Have you brought to us the truth, or are you one of the triflers?

He said: Nay! your Lord is the Lord of the heavens and the earth, Who brought them into existence, and I am of those who bear witness to this:

And, by Allah! I will certainly do something against your idols after you go away, turning back.

So he broke them into pieces, except the chief of them, that haply they may return to it.

The earliest surviving image of Muhammad made in 1315 and showing Muhammad re-dedicating the Black Stone at the Kaaba.

This passage from the Qur’an is talking about idolatry and is similar to the story of Moses on Mt. Sinai getting all worked about the golden calf. We have to dig a bit deeper to get at the real meat of the issue.

From the Sahih Bukhari
Volume 9, Book 93, Number 648:

Narrated Abu Huraira:

I heard the Prophet saying, “Allah said, ‘Who are most unjust than those who try to create something like My creation? I challenge them to create even a smallest ant, a wheat grain or a barley grain.’ “

The Sahih Bukhari is known as a Hadith which is a written form of the oral traditions regarding discussions “relevant to the actions and customs of the Islamic prophet Muhammad”. These Hadith are used as tools to help Muslims gain a deeper insight into their faith. They are a supplement to the Qur’an on issues either not covered in that text or that may be open to interpretation because the teachings are not clear. These Hadith are considered cannocial but are not technically part of the Qur’an so there is plenty of room for disagreement which has led, in part, to the divide between Sunni and Shi’a Islam.

Putting aside the history lesson and any of the deep religious reasons for controlling (or forbidding) a “graven” image of Muhammad there is another benefit. Think about it this way – Miles Davis, Jim Morrison and Maynard James Keenan are all potent public figures who knew that people will want them even more if during a concert they turned their back to the audience. Anticipation motivates people and in some ways makes the presenter even more powerful because he remains something of a desired mystery.

15th century illustration in a copy of a manuscript by Al-Bîrûnî, depicting Muhammad preaching the Qur'an in Mecca.

In the movies of the 30’s and 40’s the screen would go dark when the characters were about to have sex and your imagination was left to fill in the blanks. This same method then turns Muhammad into a much more of a personal experience for those who believe in him because each believer is investing a bit of themselves into the experience. A Christian has plenty of images of Jesus with which to stare at but it becomes a less personal investment made by the viewer. Instead of a happy profile of Muhammad hanging on the wall on the other side of the room like Jesus, Muhammad is right there in your minds eye – a visualized manifestation created by the individual that is always present. He becomes not only a God from a holy text but also a God you have helped to create for yourself.

This close attachment to Muhammad may be why Muslims are so much more fervent about their faith than modern Christians. 1000 years ago Christian icons of Jesus were harsh and angry and motivated people to do terrible things (to Muslims ironically enough) but over time the image softened and so did the Christians. Islam, on the other hand has taken the opposite route. Before the 16th century images of Muhammad were more common but then artists began painting him with either a veil covering his face or even just as a glowing bright light.

Illustration portraying Muhammad preaching to his early followers. 15th century illustration kept in the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris.Muhammad at Mount Hira (16th century Ottoman illustration of the Siyer-i Nebi)Though many Muslims do allow Muhammad to be shown his image is tightly controlled because Islam understands the power their prophet can have over the faith. Since the Qur’an requires supplemental texts to clarify murky issues and with the deep divisions already present within the Islamic faith, keeping Muhammad on a tight leash keeps the faith from spiraling out of control because they are controlling its most important figure.


To conclude two days of posts I want to impress upon you that art can be a powerful tool even if many people may not know why or how. Since religion relies on faith in the unseen, the decisions made in depicting various important holy figures plays a large role in the lives of the believers and can literally alter the tenor of the faith. By controlling art, music, literature and other forms of human expression a religion can become a powerful vice with which to hold people inside of.

Islamic protesters in London denouncing the Danish cartoonsThough there are theists who believe they are well meaning in limiting the sorts of expression that should be publicly acceptable (banning books in high schools, denouncing rap music, etc), what is really going on is just plain and simple control over free will. Something seemingly as simple as a friendly picture of Jesus or a veiled image of Muhammad has a deeper meaning than just some fickle taste in art because it can literally change the world and they way people “choose” to see the world.


Nearly everyday I get junk mail from some church wanting me to attend a service, join a bible study or give money to them. The advertisements are usually pretty slick too; glossy paper, color images and bright, bold text proclaim eternal salvation through the glories of modern printing. One thing most of these fliers have in common is the face of Jesus staring back at me. He is usually represented benevolently with open arms and a ray of light behind him – very welcoming and non-threatening. Somehow I doubt this is the image Jesus would approve of if he had an agent since he was prone to more assertive measures to get his message across.

A few weeks ago I received an oversize, 4 page flier requesting my presence for a seminar titled “Israel and the Countdown to Armageddon”. The presenter, a smarmy looking young man named H.S. Rester was giving a free conference about Bible Prophecy and if I acted quickly I could receive a free DVD about other “Unfolding Revelations“. Basically this was to be another end times sermon designed to pick and choose fuzzy bits of the Bible to scare suburban soccer moms into religious submission. All in all, the advertising was exciting with F-18 fighter jets flying over Israel, troops carrying guns, a very D&D dragon, a lion with wings and a 666. On the back cover was something I did not expect, this:

Jesus?What? Who is this guy? Is that Jesus? Sure enough the Christian savior actually looks like he’s from the Middle East. Shocking! Needless to say I was surprised since most images of Jesus are far more, how should I put this, ethnically biased.

I live in the very suburban Front Range community of Fort Collins, Colorado and most everything I see is white-watered down to keep me feeling safe. Though we have a large Hispanic community, there is very little in the way of any real ethnic diversity so seeing a Middle-Eastern Jesus on my glossy, end of the world flier really sticks out.

Since 9/11 I would have imagined that portraying Jesus as being from the Middle East (which the Bible clearly says he is from) would be a bad PR move. Anything even remotely resembling the Middle East is considered scary these days in America. Terrorists are supposed to be from that part of the world, but not the Christian savior, right? But actually I was kind of glad that the people promoting the end of the world seminars were actually getting at least one bit of information right. For all their nonsense about the marks of beasts, four horseman and outrageous Biblical interpretation they at least moved a step closer to realizing their prophet was a Jew from Israel. Sure, the above image still leaves something to be desired in terms of accuracy but maybe the days of the Anglo-Saxon, Romanesque hippie are drawing to an end.

The white Jesus has always bothered me because I think Christians need to face facts and stop watering down their faith with friendly, nice guy pictures of Jesus holding lambs and smiling with his 12 buddies as happy children run behind him tossing palm leaves. How is anyone going to take a guy who looks like he travels with Phish supposed to be the same guy that’s going to judge all souls come time for the apocalypse? I thought religion was supposed to be serious business and not a feel good romp through the meadow.

In my opinion white Christians like to avoid the nasty side of their religion. They like to make it easy on themselves to continue believing. They want to feel righteous and to do so they strip away all the stuff that clearly states they are poor sinners who could quite easily go to hell for all eternity. White Christians want to feel good all the time without any of the guilt.

Scary Jesus?Here is a very early image of Jesus. This fresco was painted in Daphni, Greece around 1100 and it can be found in the Church of the Dormition of the Virgin. The title is “Christ Pantocrator” which in Greek means Christ the Almighty. Some familiar features are visible such as the beard, long hair and thin face. His expression, though, is far more foreign that when we are used to seeing. Here is a man to be reckoned with, his large eyes look away from the viewer as if he has more important things to worry about than just you. The hand he keeps on the bible is interesting in that it is twisted and seems ready to drop that bible to punch someone if need be. Jesus is not smiling either because he is serious business and he means it. Overall he looks kind of mean and frightening but I bet you would not want to piss him off either. He certainly lives up to the name of this work.

Kingly Jesus?This next image was done by Orcagna around 1354-57 and is titled “The Redeemer”. Here Jesus has been given a bit of a face lift to make him look somewhat more Italian since the artist was working in Florence, Italy. We still have the long hair and beard but now he is staring right at us and with his glowing crown he seems to be passing judgment on the viewer. He is still not smiling and his insensitive eyes make the viewer fear him somewhat like the above image but he at least looks like he could be related to any good Catholic Italian and thus he seems like an accessible savior who can be reasoned with. The title “The Redeemer” suggests as much anyway.

Friend Jesus?Sad Jesus? These two images (left & right) were both painted in the late 1400’s. The painting on the left is by Schongauer and is titled “Noli Me Tangere” (Christ With Mary Magdalen). The image on the right is by Geertgen Tot Sint Jans and is titled “Christ As The Man Of Sorrows”. Here both artists are appealing to our empathy. Gone are the angry, judgmental figures from 400 years earlier. The Jesus we are now seeing is frail and almost feminine and seems somewhat weak in the face of evil. Both paintings feature women who are reaching out towards him and instead of Jesus being an imposing, king like figure he is more of a friend who we can feel sorry for. Here is someone willing to die for all of human sin so that we don’t have to. He will take the pain away unselfishly so that you can go about your day without having to worry about all that yourself.

Cryptic Jesus?In this detail of “The Last Supper” by Leonardo da Vinci (which was painted in the late 1400’s as well) we get more of the same. Recently much has been made about this painting and it’s supposed hidden meaning. True, the symbolism of the number three is used all through the painting (3 windows, triangles, apostles in groups of three all represent the trinity) but these meanings are usually lost on the casual viewer. Sure most people can “feel” this is an important work of art and may marvel at it’s beauty but the image of Jesus is surrounded by cryptic meanings that only scholars can ever really appreciate. Leonardo give us a Jesus that is all math and symbolism, his meaning is shrouded in mystery and code. Jesus moves further away from having any real, down to earth meaning for the common man and becomes just another Christian symbol.

As the ages pass the images of Jesus become less and less what he probably would have hoped to portray himself. Forgotten is any message he may have had because it has been replaced by artists who wanted to make him less threatening in hopes to bring in more converts to the churches commissioning their work. Jesus the friend of man, Jesus the nice guy, the good looking white man who will forgive you no matter what you do is what we have left all in the name of Public Relations.


Bored Jesus?

The above image is what remains of the guy. A portrait and profile of a white guy with a nice Romanesque nose and golden, flowing hair. He may be looking to heaven but I don’t think it’s because he is praying but rather because he is bored. In short, it’s a silly image.

Young black Jesus?Rasta Jesus?There have been attempts to put the meaning back in the art though. The image on the left paints Jesus as a sort of pissed off black man and that’s not too surprising since it was made in the 1960’s. The right image is from the Caribbean and both images are trying to engage the viewer. They both have an iconic quality similar to the famous icons you see in Russia in that they are both looking right at you, ready to take you on and judge you. Jesus may not have been a black man but the point is you can’t hide from this guy because he will find you.

So why am I so concerned about how Jesus is portrayed in art? Basically it’s because I’m sick of Christians who believe in Jesus as the savior yet have absolutely no idea how to deal with him. I find it hypocritical that Jesus is just watered down faith with no substance. White Christian Americans love to proclaim that Jesus will send you to hell for not believing in him as your personal savior when at the same time they strip away all meaning Jesus has just to make their lives more comfortable. Christians may say they believe in Jesus, but which one? What Jesus are they worshiping every Sunday (when the game isn’t on)?

Blood soaked Jesus poster from Central America Christ Syndrome Chocolate Jesus Hirst's Resurrection Indian Jesus
Dr. Jack Kevorkian The Arrival of 1095 H.R. Giger's Satan I Nexus II Jesus By Robert Craig at
Serrano Andres

Is this video controversial? Does depicting Jesus as a gay man “movin’ & groovin’” to some happy disco offend people?

I’ve written at length about how Jesus is portrayed in art because I find it interesting to learn why certain cultural and ethnic groups turn a man of quite clearly Jewish and middle eastern ancestry and “recast” him in the image of the artist. The bible says humans are created in God’s image, yet aren’t we really just creating God in our image?

So what is this particular video trying to tell us? Well, first of all, it’s funny. Putting aside the “blasphemy” of taking a holy figure and making him dance along to Gloria Gaynor on the streets of L.A., we have to admit that Jesus is a malleable public figure readily available for satire. In this particular example, the video ends where the “gay” Jesus is hit by a bus. Aside from the humor, can we also read into this ending to say that because of the “blasphemy” this man is indulging in that his “death” is brought upon by a higher power? In other words, could God be driving that bus to stamp out the sin of the actor? Or is the video saying that no matter how hard the gay community tries to embrace the good aspects of Christianity, conservative society will always come along to crush (hit and run) the movement?

Very often satire is misunderstood by the people being satirized, but who exactly is being satirized in this video? Christianity? Homosexuality? Gloria Gaynor? While it’s easy for people to get worked up over the literal content of such satire, we should always be willing to dig deeper into the meanings of things. A good strong belief in something (religion, for example) should be able to withstand scrutiny and criticism and the believers should be expected to have a deep understanding of what they believe in. When people respond to such criticisms and interpretations of their beliefs, too often they respond with knee-jerk reactions because they are offended on a superficial level. When people burn the American flag, pick up feces with the pages of the bible or dress up as a quasi-drag Jesus, the common reaction is to kill the messenger but little thought is put into the message itself. To clarify, we like to kill a spider when we see it in our home but when we do that we forget the spider may be there to hunt and kill other “disgusting” insects.

Since I do not know the true intentions of the filmmaker, all I can do is place the video within my own context. Had I known where the video came from and knew a little about the artist, I might have a slightly different interpretation of the “intended” message. But good art does not require context, it only requires a) the art and b) an audience – all other considerations are secondary because once the art has been created by the artist, the artist looses control of the art.

1887Van Gogh is no longer alive to tell us what he “intended” by painting “Still Life with Absinthe” in 1887 so we can only look at the painting and make our own conclusions. Of course, we do know a little about Van Gogh’s life. We know he liked to drink absinthe and we know he suffered from mental sickness so we might be able to conclude he just wanted to paint one of his favorite subjects and wanted to immortalize his vice. But we can only infer that interpretation from outside facts not included in the painting so all we really have is just a study on a bottle of booze in a cafe. We have to put our own meaning into the painting and anything Van Gogh intended is beside the point. In a way, the art becomes the intellectual property of the audience.

MapplethorpeArt also says more about the audience than it does about the artist and our reaction to art is sometimes more interesting than the art itself anyway. Remember when you were in high school and somebody said they thought you liked some girl or boy but you denied it up one side and down the other? You may have been “saying” you didn’t like Suzy or Joe but your overreaction to the question made it quite clear you really did like Suzy or Joe. Art, then, works very much the same way. Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography created controversy because many people did not feel his art was appropriate – either because he was funded by a federal program (National Endowment for the Arts) or because his art “can be viewed as fetishizing black men”. While his photographs are “shocking”, the outcry over them is far more interesting because it speaks about the values of the society upset by them.

So does this mean that everything controversial is art? I believe it does not, but we should always be willing to to give someones self expression at least a moments worth of consideration.