Wednesday, October 9, 2013

On the real meaning of the second commandment, as applicable to paintings, images, and supposed likenesses of Christ, in Churches and houses.

The design of a law must be learned from the circumstances under which it is enacted. The Israelites were surrounded by idolaters, who made to themselves the graven images of their objects of worship, whether the hosts of heaven, or the creatures upon earth. The first design, therefore, of the second commandment, was to prevent the Israelites from complying with similar practices. But the command is of universal and perpetual obligation, though the immediate necessity of its enactment, in consequence of the cessation of idolatry, may be said to have ceased. The object of the law appears to have been, the elevation of the minds and souls of the worshippers of Jehovah above all the objects of sense. They saw no manner of likeness, when the glory of the God of Israel appeared. They were to endure as "seeing Him who is invisible." Their God was the God of heaven; the Spirit who was to be "worshipped in spirit and in truth ;" the God whom the senses could not grasp ; and who, though both sometimes visible as the Jehovah Angel to the eye, touched by the hand, as by Jacob, and heard with the ear, as by Moses and the prophets; was still so superhuman that no likeness nor image could represent or describe Him. I extend, therefore, the meaning of the second commandment to the Christian Church. Christ, the Jehovah of the Old Testament, was once upon earth. He lived, suffered, died, as a man. He is now the ascended and the glorified Saviour; and the soul of the Christian is required to be unfettered by any representations of the painter or the sculptor; and his ideas of the God he worships are never to be identified with the senses. He is to behold a glorified Christ by the eye of faith, and to endure as seeing Him who is now invisible.—To me, the confusion of thought produced by the recollection of the portraits of Christ, which the painters of various countries have invented and imagined, is both most shocking and most painful. Whether it be the head of Christ, by Carlo Dolce, holding the bread at Burleigh ; the full-length bearer of the cross at Magdalen College, Oxford; (and these are two of the most beautiful of these works of art;)—whether it be the Flemish Christ of Rubens, the infant Christ of Murillo, the innumerable Christs of painters of all countries, crowned with thorns, scourged at the pillar, expiring on the cross, or conversing with Mary; or whether it be the inexpressive innocence of the unmeaning faces of West, or the fearful agony of the Veronicas, all, all, are unendurable. If the painter describes tenderness, he loses the majesty of that countenance; if he describes majesty, he loses tenderness. Even the sublimity of the features of the Christ in the Transfiguration of Raphael, failed to delineate to me the heavenliness of that visage, which, though it was more marred than that of any other, was "fairest of ten thousand, and altogether lovely;" which made Pilate exclaim, "Who art Thou?" which prostrated the soldiers who came to arrest Him, with wonder and awe, to the ground; which none of the Evangelists have described; and which no painter, therefore, could delineate from reality.
It is most remarkable, that the last times that Christ appeared, He seemed to widen and increase, as it were, the distance between the human and the divine, as if He would command us to consider Him, not as flesh, but as Deity; and to look upon Him, not through the imaginations of painters and sculptors, appealing to the senses, but as God in heaven, visible only to the eye of faith. To Stephen He appeared in glory, to St. Paul with the brightness of the sun, to St. John, in Patmos, in the mystical majesty which made the beloved disciple to lose all remembrance of the familiarity with which he leaned upon his bosom as a man, and which caused him to fall at his feet as dead. We shall see Him, "we shall see Him as He is;" but no painter nor sculptor can convey to my soul the representation of the face or form, the humility and the glory, the dignity and the sorrow, the sympathy with Mary and the scorn of the Sadducee, the meekness before Pilate and the reply to the adjuration of the high priest, the bowing of the head when He gave back the human soul, and the serenity of the parting blessing, when He lifted up his hands, and was borne from his gazing disciples.—We must die and live again before we can understand that countenance. We must walk by faith, and not by sight, whenever we would believe ourselves in the presence, or realize the appearance of, our Saviour and our Judge.

—George Townsend, Scriptural communion with God, pp. 190-191