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Anno Domini: Two millennia of Christian art and impact.

The Provincial Museum of Alberta in Edmonton opened a cultural exhibition on October 7, 2000, which runs to January 7, 2001. It's entitled Anno Domini: Jesus through the centuries. 325 artistic works, ranging in date from the 3rd century up to the present, have been assembled from 59 institutions world-wide. Jesus and His impact are presented through art, music, film and recorded voices.

The artwork includes paintings, iconography, statuary, textiles, stained glass, illuminated manuscripts, ecclesial objects, and books. Each object, whether ancient or contemporary, was selected with the purpose of exploring Jesus' impact on people of a particular time and place. The variety of the images speaks of the many different ways in which Jesus has been understood and approached by Christians of various cultures and denominations.

Despite its focus on Jesus, the exhibition is not intended as a celebration of any particular Church or even of Christianity. Instead, the exhibition gives a sense of the enormous impact of Jesus on civilization over the past two millennia, and is of interest to both Christians and non-Christians alike.

Much of the artwork captivates one by its incredible beauty or unusual and creative approach. Note the presence of the awe-inspiring tempera and gold leaf on panel of Fm Angelico, "Imago Pietatis Flanked by Saints" (c. 1428-1429); the powerful "Nativity" woodcut (1509-1511) of Albrecht Durer of Germany; the fiery etching of Rembrandt van Rijn from the Netherlands, "Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple" (1635); the serene and touching antependium, "Jesus with Five Wounds Adored and Mourned by an Angel" (c. 1890) of Sister Anastasia de la Visitation from France; and the creative modern work suggesting the cosmic and orderly existence of God, "Sidereal Time" (1998-1999), of American artist Donald J. Forsyth. Occasionally an item is offensive, such as John Copley's "Precious Ointment" (1923).

Eighteen themes

The artwork is presented under eighteen appropriate themes, as they are found in Jaroslav Pelican's book Jesus through the Centuries. The themes portray Jesus from a variety of perspectives which include Jesus, the Jew; the Light of the Gentiles; the Cosmic Christ; the Crucified Christ; the Liberator; the Prince of Peace.

Under the theme "Jesus, the Light of the Gentiles," portrayed in art are some of the prophecies which anticipated the coming of the Messiah. Apart from the Hebrew Scriptures, the prefiguring of Christ was found in the writings of the Gentile writers Homer and Virgil. According to the Fathers of the Church, Homer's Odyssey featured an explicit foreshadowing of the life of Jesus, as shown in "Odysseus Lashed to the Mast." Clement of Alexandria (died c. 215) saw the binding of Odysseus as a prefiguring of Jesus nailed to the cross. Odysseus' "cross" meant freedom from the passions; Jesus' cross signifies freedom from sin and from death.

The human nature of Jesus is undeniably evident in Scripture. Yet it is "Jesus, the Son of Man" who arose from the dead; His resurrection is a joyful prophecy of the resurrection of humans. In the English oil on canvas of Sir Stanley Spencer, "Resurrection: Rejoicing" (1946), children dance in ecstasy at the sight of the resurrection of the dead.

"Jesus, the King of Kings" is yet another dominant theme at the exhibition. The Canadian wooden sculpture "Christ the King" (1968) by Jean-Julien Bourgault captures both opposing portraits of Jesus--the One who is Cosmic Emperor, and He who is humbly crowned with thorns and enthroned upon a cross.

God in art form

Jesus is "The Image of the Invisible God" (Col. 1:15) in visible form. The Divine Word of God became incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth. In the 8th century St. John of Damascus (c. 675-749) defended the portrayal of God in images against the iconoclasts of his time. The tradition of portraying God in icons and other religious art forms continues in the Church until this day.

Among the numerous icons at the exhibition are the twelve Great Feasts of Heiko Schlieper (born in 1931), painted according to the symbolic style of Eastern Christian iconography. In the icon "Nativity of the Virgin" (1999), St. Anna, the grandmother of Jesus, is seated upon a royal bed, after giving birth to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Anna is dressed in a red garment; being clothed in red represents the immense role of the divine in her life. Near the bed two women are bathing the newborn Mary; this bath alludes to the water of baptism, in which one dies to sin and is born to live in Christ. There are remarkable similarities between this icon and the icon of the "Nativity of Our Lord," emphasizing the closeness between Anna and Mary as mothers, and between Mary and Jesus, as children born through divine promise and intervention.

The Cross

Since early Christendom up until the present, the cross has been a powerful symbol, probably the most influential one of all in Western civilization. For Christians, the cross of Jesus Christ signifies God's power to conquer sin and to call forth life from death itself; it is also a reminder of God's patience, wisdom, and incomprehensible love for humanity. A variety of crucifixion scenes are displayed at the exhibit through crucifixes (such as the simple 18th-century polychromed wood from Mexico), icons (e.g. from the 16th-century Cretan School), sculpture (e.g. Vergour's wooden "Crucified Christ", 1960-1970), and other art forms.

Among the brilliant contemporary artworks featured is the 15-foot stained glass "Physics Window" (1983/2000) of Johannes Schreiter of Germany Paradox is central to the thought behind the design. In the window a citation from II Peter 3:10 forewarns of the fiery end of the world; another citation follows (Isaiah 54:10), affirming God's everlasting love for creation. Below the verses is another paradox-Einstein's relativity formula, which revolutionized science, but also gave rise to the destructive atomic bomb. At the bottom, Schreiter's "fireball" symbol commemorates the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima. At the top of the window, in the "God" zone, a white arrow represents God's grace actively present in the world in contrast to the violence the human intellect can produce.

Jesus Christ, Son of God, has shaped and reshaped numerous civilizations and cultures worldwide; thus He has become "The Man Who Belongs to the World." The missionaries who addressed the physical and spiritual needs of the starving, the sick, and the uneducated, passed on the Christian message to the simple of heart. In the beautiful hand-woven tapestry of Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones of England, "Suffer Little Children to Come Unto Me" (1874), the childlike virtue of innocence and trust in the Lord is effectively conveyed.


Throughout the exhibit, banners are displayed along with the artwork-"Voices of the Twentieth Century." These are quotations from famous individuals, Christians and non-Christians, selected for having united their voice to that of Jesus. Among the "voices" are Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Jean Vanier, Dorothy Day, G.K. Chesterton, Northrop Frye, Albert Einstein, Hannah Arendt, Elie Wiesel and Mohandas Gandhi. Many of these "voices" reflect Christian thought, but some are ambiguous or antagonistic to Christians and even to Jesus Christ Himself.

A tour of the exhibition begins with a 15-minute introductory video based on "The Beatitudes" (Matt. 5:1-12). A number of the "Voices of the Twentieth Century" are featured in this video as being among the blessed. Among "the meek" are Gandhi and Jean Vanier; "those who mourn" features the Montreal shooting of women in 1989; "those who hunger and thirst for righteousness" presents Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr.; among "the persecuted" are Oscar Romero and the Holocaust victims.Inappropriate and shocking is the inclusion of Saskatchewan's Robert Latimer, who murdered his 12-year old daughter, among "the merciful."

Christian music (from Gregorian chant to modern pop), live performances, and a lecture are also part of the Anno Domini experience.

The organizer of the exhibition, curator of folk life David J. g, has spent the past three years assembling materials. Mr. Goa attributes much of his inspiration for the project to Yale University Professor of History Emeritus and writer Jaroslav Pelican, whose numerous books on Christianity sparked his enthusiasm for promoting appreciation of the Christian tradition. As Goa points out, "[m]useums and art galleries in North America have focused on connoisseur exhibitions, showing fine works of art or examining an artist's work or particular school of art in retrospect. Museums devoted to the study of history and culture have been very shy when it comes to the religious dimensions of North American culture" (David J. Goa, Anno Domini.. . Gallery Guide, p. 2). Anno Domini: Jesus through the centuries, in this Jubilee year of Jesus' birth, certainly acknowledges Jesus' impact on Western civilization and exposes it for all to see.

Jaroslawa Kisyk is administrative assistant for Catholic Insight.
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Title Annotation:Provincial Museum of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta
Author:Kisyk, Jaroslawa
Publication:Catholic Insight
Geographic Code:1CALB
Date:Dec 1, 2000
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