In 1978, art historian Joanne Snow-Smith quietly began a movement. She argued that a dark and ominous painting of Jesus Christ called Salvator Mundi was a long lost Leonardo Di Vinci. Through the normal media of scholarly debate, provenance building, and good old-fashioned marketing, the painting would make its way to the famous Christie’s auction block. Christie’s describes itself as “a world-leading art and luxury business.” A painting that, at its last sale (in 2005) was highly doubted among the art world as a Leonardo, sold in 2017 as “the last Leonardo” for a spectacular $450 million. It is the highest price ever paid for a single piece of art sold at auction.
An image of Jesus sold for $450 million.
Well, not really an image of Jesus.
Reformed believers have always been opposed to the making and use of images of Jesus. This prohibition is rooted in the second commandment. Jesus, as the second person of the Trinity, is not to be imagined, drawn, sculpted, painted, etc. The Puritan Thomas Vincent said: "It is not lawful to have pictures of Jesus Christ, because his divine nature cannot be pictured at all; and because his body, as it is now glorified, cannot be pictured as it is; and because, if it does not stir up devotion, it is in vain—if it does stir up devotion, it is a worshipping by an image or picture, and so a palpable breach of the second commandment."
And that is not merely his private opinion, it is the confessional position of the Reformed and Presbyterian world.
Surely you know the exception to the rule. It is widely debated, even among church officers. Some will say that it is a “trendy exception” among ministerial candidates in a larger reformed denomination to take exception to the image prohibition. Well-meaning brothers and sisters will argue that since Jesus took on flesh, we are able to portray him. Others will say that images of Jesus are fine as long as we do not worship them or they stay out of the churches. Many will argue that images of Jesus are fine as long as they are only used for teaching rather than worship—think flannel-graphs and children’s books. But surely these are not the norm, but the exception. Every person that argues from these positions argues contra our confessional position and contra historic reformed Christianity.
The rule, rather than one’s personal exception is that images of God are forbidden—and that is all three persons of the godhead. (See Westminster Larger Catechism 109.)
John Owen argued that: "The beauty of the person of Christ, as represented in the Scripture, consists in things invisible unto the eyes of flesh. They are such as no hand of man can represent or shadow. It is the eye of faith alone that can see this King in his beauty. What else can contemplate on the untreated glories of his divine nature? Can the hand of man represent the union of his natures in the same person, wherein he is peculiarly amiable? What eye can discern the mutual communications of the properties of his different natures in the same person, which depends thereon, whence it is that God laid down his life for us, and purchased his church with his own blood? In these things, O vain man! does the loveliness of the person of Christ unto the souls of believers consist, and not in those strokes of art which fancy has guided a skilful hand and pencil unto. And what eye of flesh can discern the inhabitation of the Spirit in all fulness in the human nature? Can his condescension, his love, his grace, his power, his compassion, his offices, his fitness and ability to save sinners, be deciphered on a tablet, or engraven on wood or stone? However such pictures may be adorned, however beautified and enriched, they are not that Christ which the soul of the spouse does love;they are not any means of representing his love unto us, or of conveying our love unto him;they only divert the minds of superstitious persons from the Son of God, unto the embraces of a cloud, composed of fancy and imagination. (The Glory of Christ)"
Images of Jesus are unable to capture the glory of Jesus. They are cheap (or really, really expensive) imprints of a reality unable to be captured in wood or stone or Arches cold-press 140 pound paper (that’s the best!). Images of Jesus are always—always—to be avoided in the life of the Christian Church. For we are unable to capture the image of Salvator Mundi; the savior of the world.
In 2017, when the much debated Leonardo went on the auction block, Christie’s played to the spirituality of the painting being sold. Oxford Professor Martin Kemp spoke of the spirituality of the painting when he initially viewed it. He said, “It was sitting on an easel and I looked it and thought, “Fantastic!” He went to describe that the painting had a “presence.” At the media unveiling of the painting, Christie’s chose to display it against a silky black wall, the way that a jeweler would display a precious ring or bracelet. Surely this painting was being put forward as the pearl of great price.
And to demonstrate the power of images of Christ, over against the reality of the biblical Jesus Christ, you must watch the 4 minute video that Christie’s auction house put out to advertise the Savior of the World. The video is from the eyes of the painting (which is never seen) and shows humanity’s longing, pains, joy, pleading and worship as they view this painting—this image—of Jesus. The video is moving from a humanitarian perspective; but it is disheartening from a theological perspective. The first time I saw the advertisement, it was moving watching people be moved—but by an image of Christ rather than by the biblical Christ.
Truly images of Jesus are religious by nature, they are idols. These men and women did not look into the face of Jesus; for he was not there. The longing and worship and sadness and hope were in vain. The Apostle John pleads with believers to keep themselves from idols (I John 5:21) as well as reminds us that when he is revealed we will see him as he is (I John 3:2). Let’s throw off images, cling to what is confessional, biblical, and good—and know that there will come a day when you will see him face to face.
For he is Salvator Mundi, the savior of the world.
There’s no price tag big enough for the Jesus of the Bible.