Wednesday night was a ‘first’ for me. Never before had I sat as a model for a number of artists. But that evening I had no other choice. My wife is quite active in portrait painting. Together with a dozen or so other more (or less) artistically endowed persons she paints every Wednesday evening in Harderwijk, under the guidance of a professional coach. The participants take turns in arranging for a model. This week it was my wife’s duty to ensure that there would be someone who would be prepared to sit for a few hours as motionless as possible, so that the ladies and gentlemen, with their oil paint or other media, would be able to paint their portrait. Unfortunately she had forgotten her promise and thus, when remembering her task shortly before she was to leave for Harderwijk, she did not succeed in finding a victim. I was to serve as a deus ex machina: the sudden solution for the predicament.
After having posed for some two and a half hours, I could admire the results, even though ‘admiration’ was in some cases not the most applicable word. However, the evening resulted in a few good portraits. As usual, my wife’s product was one of the best (I think(. It has a good likeness, shows character and has a nice, soft use of color. My only criticism would be that she could have made me look a bit more friendly.
Just sitting inactively—with the instruction to maintain the same posture and to keep looking towards the same point—I had a few hours for my thoughts. Here I was together with a dozen or so people. All were trying to make a picture of the same object. This resulted in just as many different portrayals. They were using different materials. They posses varying skills and styles. But, perhaps more importantly, they all worked from their own position and thus had their own perspective. Some were directly in front of me, while others could only see me in profile—either from the right or from the left. Their hard work resulted in about twelve different interpretations of their model—that is: of me.
My professional bias as a theologian made me think of a spiritual parallel. Members of a faith community all try to construct their own picture of God. Inevitably, these views vary widely. We all come with our own baggage and have different mental and verbal skills. Unfortunately, the way in which some people portray God is so different from the Portrait that we are presented with in the Bible, that the biblical God can hardly be recognized. However, the fact that our views of God differ is not just inevitable but also enriching. But we must always realize that no human being is able to paint the definitive divine Portrait. It remains an interpretation from a particular perspective.
As I was writing this blog I took two books out of my book case—two books with religious images that I bought some years ago. One Thousand Faces of God is a rich collection that tells us how people around the world see their God. These artistic representations have been made by Christians, but also by people who have a totally different view of God that does not appeal to me and in which I do not recognize my God. The Christian paintings are mostly focused on Jesus Christ, since God made himself visible in him. Titian (early 16th century) portrayed him in a way that differs from what James Tissot did in 1897, or our own Rembrandt van Rijn did. But each of these and many others emphasized specific aspects of how they saw Christ.
And I also spent some time with the beautiful catalogue of the exhibition The Image of Christ that I visited in 2000 in the National Gallery in London. It presented a broad array of artistic representations of the unique person of Jesus Christ. However, beautiful as they were, these were all human interpretations—different from each other and complementing each other. As human being we simply have no other way of portraying an other person or the Other!