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John Everett Millais and the Problem with Jesus

I really enjoy the art of the Pre-Raphaelites. If you don't know who they are, you should absolutely look them up. If you're a Christian, you might be interested to know that one of the founders of the movement was Dante Gabrielle Rosetti, the brother of Christina. They were a group of young, talented painters, sculptors, and poets who hob-nobbed with the Victorian social elite. They are historically significant as well as artistically significant, and you probably couldn't imagine how influential they have been on the culture we inhabit right this very moment. But more on that in another post. But for now, you can think of them as the Beatles of the art world. Naturally gifted, but with a liberal sense of purpose and desire to move culture, to test, to challenge, and to see what happens when cultural norms are abandoned. Less thoughtful, more experimental. A bit like we are today...

Anyway, even if you've never heard of the Pre-Raphaelites, you've probably seen this picture by John Everett Millais. It's one of the earliest Pre-Raphaelite pieces and also one of the most significant.

Now, the reason I want to share this is theological, not artistic. I'm not going to comment on how it fits into the Pre-Raph canon, rather I'd like to draw lessons from how it was received by society back in 1850 Victorian England, lessons which have implications for us today.

Examine the picture closely. What do you see? What do you like? What don't you like? What is genuine artistic license? What is progressive heresy?

In case you hadn't noticed, it's a painting of Jesus. The painting is called 'Christ in the House of his Parents'. Hopefully it's obvious which one Jesus is.

And this painting of our Lord was problematic for an almost superstitiously conservative Victorian culture and there were at least two main objections. Firstly Jesus has red hair. Red hair has a stigma, it has negative connotations and it's not the colour of hair you give to the Son of God in a painting. Even if you don't know what colour hair he actually had, you don't give him red hair. Quite an abhorrent symbol to sensitive Victorians. Next, Christ is in the workshop. We know that Joseph was a carpenter, so this absolutely makes sense. But, in Victorian England, the divinity of Christ was far more significant than his humanity, and it was almost blasphemy to locate him in this situation. The Victorians apparently liked their saviour to be above them, to be above lowly mortals, to stand out from the crowd, perhaps floating in the off the ground a little bit with an ethereal complexion and a halo above his head. At least he's wearing a nice white innocent-looking gown and at least it's Mary he is displaying intimacy with.

The thing is - who cares! Right? This painting received criticism when it was first brought to public attention. Criticism for the reasons I've given above. The Victorians had a clean, clinical view of their Christ. It was an idealised view that spoke to their own standards and aspirations. The problem with this painting for the original audience is the fact that it rebels against the Jesus of their own imaginations. But that in itself is a problem.

You see, there are many objections to this painting, but the objections the Victorian public had were not even close to the main problems. The first objection is that Jesus has been painted at all. Arguably an unbiblical thing to do, especially in such detail. Second, he's Caucasian. It's quite a stunning arrogance to not find that objectionable. But also, Jesus is clearly younger than what we can only assume are siblings here. Deliberate or not, artistic license or not, this is factually and theologically incorrect. Jesus was Mary's firstborn son and presenting him as younger here is so full of heretical symbolism I don't even know where to begin. So I won't. Thirdly, instead of working hard, Jesus is just standing there. I know he's been painted as a young boy, but he's centre stage here. Aloof from the rest of the workers. The Victorians likely found this to be the most agreeable aspect of the painting, whilst failing to find fault with his age and his older brothers. The point is, the objections to this painting were NOT theological. This painting was not criticised because it misrepresented the Jesus of the Bible, but because it misrepresented the Jesus of Victorian religiosity; the ethereal, other-worldly, too pure to touch Jesus. In fact, the criticism ended up actually being aimed at what the painting does gets right. In trying to provoke a response in his audience, Millais actually does well in representing the humanity of Jesus. He presents him as a real human boy, which is what Jesus was. And although Jesus wouldn't have had red hair, the red hair of the Jesus in the painting does a very good job of expressing just how human Jesus was. He came to represent all people. As Isaiah says, the real Jesus had no form or majesty about his appearance that we should look upon him. Appearance is arbitrary compared to what Jesus really came to do. He probably didn't look much when he walked on earth. It wasn't meant to. It matters not that we don't know what Jesus looks like. Infact, one could argue that it's important that we don't. Yet the upper-class art appreciating Victorians certainly wouldn't have wanted to spend time with a dusty old carpenter man based on his appearance. And their true hearts were revealed by the brazen taunt of John Everett Millais's painting.

So, the Victorian response to this painting is a call for Christians, even today, to value the Jesus of the Bible, not the Jesus of our imaginations. The critics of this painting when it first met the public eye did not want a common Jesus. A Jesus who looked more like the people they were trying to socially rise above was problematic for them. Instead, they wanted the symbolic Jesus, an emblem of pure divinity, a lofty association with which to bolster their own reputations and statuses. Perhaps the initial response to this painting is similar to how Jesus himself was despised by his friends and relations from his hometown (Matthew 13). May well we encounter things about Jesus which challenge or disturb us. Yet if we do not humble ourselves before the real Jesus of the Bible, ready for him to change us, we may find that we either reject him or, perhaps worse, attempt to change him. To present him as the man who benefits our social standing. Perhaps we downplay his miracles, perhaps we allegorise his teaching, or ignore the socially hard to stomach parts alltogether. Thus making him out to be a prop to serve our sinful inclinations. And when we believe in the Jesus of our imaginations, we will be offended at the real Jesus, the man who is God. And we will have missed the point completely and will miss out on the privilege of knowing the only son of God.


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