Images of Christ

With no “true” image of Jesus, artists put their own perceptions of his face and form on canvas
Sunday, April 11, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:50 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 7, 2008

Jesus Christ has captured the minds and hearts of believers since he walked amongst them on the dusty streets of Jerusalem almost 2,000 years ago. To Christians, this divine man is simultaneously the conqueror of death, the harbinger of everlasting life and an intimate and enduring friend.

As stories about this acclaimed savior and confidante were read by parents over the dinner table or by Sunday-school teachers at church, young Christians unleashed their imaginations on what Jesus might have looked like. Their minds sought to create a realistic image of Christ that could be reconciled with their personal beliefs about Christianity, according to art historian David Morgan in his book, “Visual Piety: A History and Theory of Popular Religious Images.”

Perhaps they imagined Jesus as a short, stocky man with light brown hair, a boisterous laugh and eyes that crinkled whenever his lips parted for a smile. Or maybe he had a wealth of jet black hair that tumbled in soft waves over his shoulders, muscular arms so strong that one blow from his carpenter’s hammer could drive a nail straight through a piece of wood and long legs that swiftly carried him over rocky terrain.

Although such personal depictions of Jesus might seem real within the creator’s imagination, there is no one true visual representation of Christ.

Artists from across the ages have sought to help decipher this enigma by offering their own perceptions of Christ’s face and form. For instance, Italian painter Pietro Perugino depicts Jesus as muscular, handsome and strong, whereas Edouard Manet presents him as thin, passive and vulnerable.

Even though such depictions of Jesus are, to the best of current knowledge, objectively untrue, each “picture can become for us a highway between a particular thing” — such as the image of Christ — and a universal feeling,” Canadian painter Lawren Harris once said.

An agnostic’s impression

Photographer uses his conventional looks and religious roots to connect himself with the form of Jesus

With his religious upbringing in a Kansas City suburb, expressive blue eyes and tousled blond and brown hair, Keith Hamm might appear to be an American “Everyman.” However, this MU art student explores his conventional looks and religious roots in a rather extraordinary manner.

On a spiritual, mental and physical level, Hamm has inescapably intertwined himself with his art.

While he is entrenched in the creative process, Hamm said he is not only manipulating images, but is also finding himself shaped by the art itself.

Through this delicate dance between art and artist, Hamm said he has reconciled his feelings toward Christianity, which have been marked “by belief in God, a time of total rejection and ... now has found comfort in the impartiality of agnosticism.”

Perhaps this religious transformation has been sparked in part by Hamm’s use of photography as a vehicle for literally uniting himself with the form of Jesus Christ “in order to question the proliferation of the Caucasian-Christ image.”

By utilizing the timer and shutter release on his camera, Hamm said, he is able to take black and white photographs of himself and, with a few alterations, craft his own countenance into a likeness of Jesus Christ.


Some of Keith Hamm’s art hangs on the wall in his home in Columbia, Mo., on Friday, April 2. Hamm says that his art helps him understand religion more. (SEAN GALLAGHER/Missourian)

Hamm mimics the traditional Western dark-haired Jesus by shading in his hair on the developed photos with a black pen. In one series of pictures, Hamm even shed his shirt and donned a makeshift crown of thorns in order to better replicate Christ’s appearance during the last hours of his life.

How “is it wrong to portray myself as Christ (in my photography),” Hamm asked reflectively, “when I fit the look” of the Caucasian Christ?

Hamm compared the use of his image to the many depictions of Christ as a white European that are still generated by artists even though, he said, it is now well-established that Jesus was Jewish and probably had a darker complexion.

There is always a person who models as Christ, said Brandon Tischer, Hamm’s good friend and a fellow photographer. “It might as well be (Hamm).”

However, Hamm said he hopes that by perpetuating the conventional appearance of Jesus in a “nontraditional way,” his photography will stimulate thought on who Christ really is and encourage exploration of “Christ as a man, a real person.”

“I want to subvert preconceived notions (about Christ),” Hamm said, and reveal logical inconsistencies about Christianity.

But it’s hard to “dissect the myth from the man,” Hamm said. He said this is especially true in the West, where he thinks Jesus the man is more worshiped than the rest of the Christian trinity, God and the Holy Spirit.

Hamm expresses these thoughts on the trinity in one piece that is 4.5 feet wide and 2..5 feet high and consists of a conglomeration of “sketched on, sewn on and scratched on photographs.”

Within the piece, the placement of his drawings of each member of the trinity are staggered — with the sketch of Jesus placed at the zenith in order to illustrate Hamm’s belief that Jesus is often worshiped more than God.


Some of Hamm’s work sits on a television in

his home in Columbia. Hamm says, “I want to subvert preconceived notions (about Christ)” and reveal logical inconsistencies about Christianity. (SEAN GALLAGHER/Missourian)

However, all of the images in the piece, of Jesus and God alike, are united by thousands of red stitches and are surrounded by an myriad of words scrawled in black pen.

Although sewing the images together is quite time-consuming and demands constant work, the stitching “is sort of devotional, with so much nonstop activity that it almost becomes an act of prayer or like the repetition of a rosary,” said Hamm’s friend and fellow artist Curt Erlinger.

The writings around the images, said Hamm, are formulated in a “stream of consciousness” fashion as he reflects on his work. However, the words give the piece even more personal aura as they are “a mirror of (Hamm) ... a journal of sorts, a personal dialogue,” Erlinger said.

But perhaps the most eye-catching and thought-provoking elements of this piece are the four identical black and white photographs placed beneath the representation of Jesus. The photos boldly exhibit Hamm’s pale upturned fingers and overturned forearm stretched over a sparse, white bathroom sink. In the photo, red thread was painstakingly sewn by Hamm up his arms, tracing the haphazard pattern of his veins, to illustrate the “blood flow from a wound similar to a suicide or the more likely roman placement of nails into the forearm instead of palms.”

This image almost immediately conjures up thoughts of suicide in viewers, which, Hamm said, was the intent.

This work, Hamm said, asks the question, “What is the difference between martyrdom and suicide, if you knowingly choose both?” Christ, who willingly laid down his life, embodies this tension, said Hamm.

Tischer, who corroborates with Hamm on ideas for art, described Hamm’s allusions to Christ’s death and suicide as “a very provocative argument.”

No such allusion would be complete without depicting the death of Christ, though, and Hamm does this in another series entitled “Dead Christ in the Tomb” that displays images of the crucifixion.

These pieces are each about 6 inches high and consist of four images sewn together with red thread — symbolic of blood — in the shape of a cross.

On the top of each cross is Hamm’s face standing in for that of Jesus, with an expression that appears to be simultaneously suffering and contemplative. In a separate work, Hamm even plunged a screw through the center of his photographed face in order to further express belief that “Christ is the embodiment of physical and psychological pain,” he said.

Although many artists portray Christ as a tortured figure, said Erlinger, the questions that Hamm’s work raises about Christ and Christianity are unique.

This theme of questioning pervades Hamm’s art, Erlinger said, and his photographic creations themselves — even withstanding content — are aligned with Hamm’s goal of breaking down social conventions.

“(My photography) is all about putting my own spin on it and deconstructing ideas people have about photographs as just glass and matting,” said Hamm.

Hamm explores photography by literally tearing into the surface of his photographs by peeling the emulsion off to create a rough appearance. He even draws on the surface of photos to further alter his visage.

“The scratches and crumpling of the face of photograph are really effective ways of ‘questioning identity’ and further expressing the torture of Christ,” Erlinger said.

Even though Hamm is challenging Christianity and certain photographic norms, he said he does not intend to be offensive.

“(Hamm) is not just another rude boy artist,” Tischer said. “There is a weird reverence in Keith. He wants to knock (Christianity) off its pedestal, but he keeps coming back there ... His reverence and nihilistic views are almost symbiotic. They won’t let go of each other.”

Hamm’s art is “working with representation of Christ and commenting on how they are communicated on a private level and how the representations are received in a public, communal sphere,” said Erlinger.

Breaking away from tradition and depicting the world according to personal beliefs is what art is about, according to Trevor Pateman’s “Religion and Art.” For in this manner, art in itself is often regarded as a religious experience. This notion was expressed by photographer Man Ray when he said, “To reproduce is human, to create is divine.”

Although in Hamm’s work he questions the divine and poses as the divine, he never claims to make art because it is divine.

“I just do (make art) because I am compelled to,” Hamm said.

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