The Human Face As The Image of God


Hamilton Reed Armstrong


 In his 1956 retelling of the ancient Greek myth of Eros and Psyche titled Until We Have Faces, C.S. Lewis alluded to a perfection of humanity that was only atainable through the Christian dispensation. Although the ancients grasped the truth in a partial manner, for Lewis, a truly human person, a being with a "face" was in some way, one who had been redeemed and perfected through grace. How is it that this equation of the face with human personality came into being?

To begin at the beginning, the first chapter of Genesis tells us: "God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them" (Genesis 1:27). This image lies primarily in the soul, in the intellect and will, in our ability to know what is true and to love what is good. The soul, however, does not exist as a separate entity from the body; rather it informs our physical reality so as to constitute the complete human person. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 362 -365) It is in the human face, however, that the soul, the image and likeness of God, shines through. In fact, our concept of "person" most likely comes from the ancient Etruscan phersu, the word for a sculpted face of a god, an imago dei. The "perfect" face, then, would mirror the "perfect" soul, the soul in complete conformity with its creator, God. This perfection has nothing to do with physical beauty as we know it. It is a spiritual perfection that is made manifest in a physical way through the human face. When we speak of a person's "inner beauty", we are acknowledging the fact that the spiritual soul is revealed through the physical face. In that sense, Adam and Eve enjoyed a spiritual and physical perfection in their intimate union with God, which was made holy through sanctifying grace.

The act of original sin radically changed the imago Dei in our first parents. Their intellects became clouded, and their wills became weakened. Most important of all, of course, was the loss of sanctifying grace and the intimate union with the Creator. These effects were passed on to all mankind. Thus, it is not surprising that as man lost the very notion of divine likeness, he drifted into superstition and the worship of natural fertility. As the Bible notes:

"...and men imparted to stocks and stones the incommunicable Name of God. Nor were they content with false notions of God's nature; living in a world besieged by doubt, they misnamed its innumerable disorders a state of peace. Peace amidst their rites of child murder, their dark mysteries, their vigils consecrated to frenzy." (Wisdom 14:21/24)

Evidence for this state of affairs is not hard to come by. The earliest known figures of human beings, such as the 30,000 year old Willendorf Venus (Figure 1), have no face, no imago Dei, at all; instead the full breasts and belly of a fecund "mother nature" are emphasized. Hundreds of such figures have been found over time from the stone age, and most either have absolutely no face or have a rudimentary, frightening, mask-like visage. This hiding of the human face behind a hideous mask is significant. It bespeaks of man estranged from his humanity and at odds with his own rationality. Consider the figure known to us as the Gorgon Medusa (Figure 2) from the temple of Artemis at Corfu (c. 600 B.C.). On the face is the mask of the destructive feminine demi-urge, Gaia, a goddess who is not only seductive and fecund but death dealing and cruel (see Hesiod's Theogony 160-185). This image is not unique to early Greece; it is found throughout the Near East and as far off as the Indian subcontinent where mask-like images of Kali (the goddess who drinks the blood of her offspring from cups fashioned from their skulls) are virtually identical to those of Medusa.

The birth of philosophy by early Greek thinkers, Thales, Anaximander, and Anaxemenes in the 6th century B.C. awakened man's natural power to reason, and the art of this period emphasized man as imago Dei. Masks were removed from human faces, and male Kouros and female Kore figures of Greek youth strode onto the stage of history with human faces now adorned with the gentle smile of self-awareness. (Figures 3 and 4). Man was beginning to appreciate the significance of the human face. Finally, during the Roman Republic, with its insistence on individual worth and responsibility under law, portraiture of male and female citizens reached an apogee of artistic skill and extension (Figure 5). Although these Roman sculptures arose from a cult of ancestor worship, they are living effigies of both psychological and spiritual depth. These human faces truly reflect a rational and volitional nature. Classical civilization had restored the human face to a near approximation to the norm instilled in man from the beginning: to live according to his authentic nature. This was noted by the early Church Fathers, both in the East and in the West: "Clearly the ancients passed laws that were inspired by the law of God infused in man at creation, and as a result they were able to invent the arts and all the rest" (St. John Chrysostom, Homiliae ad populum Antiochenum, Xii, 4-5).

Having rediscovered his humanity and thereby having restored himself at least partly to his original integrity, what was now lacking to bring man fully back to friendship with God was sanctifying grace. This was realized through the Incarnation and Redemption, and the establishment of the Church. Now through baptism man could be fully incorporated into the Mystical Body of Christ and be restored as imago Dei. This was recognized by St. Gregory Nyssa, who wrote in the 3rd century that "The image of God is to be found in the face of the saints."

Ironically Christian art now faced an unlikely enemy: the Old Testament prohibition against graven images, the representation of the human face, especially faces of Christ the Blessed Mother and the saints.

Did not the Bible explicitly prohibit the fabrication of "graven images?" It most certainly did, but not to condemn atristic representation per se, ( golden cherubs were specifically mandated for Ark of the Covenant and the Santa Sanctorum of theTemple), but to avoid any confusion between the created order and the Creator in regard to worship. Portrayal of the human face was especially rejected as it led to the elevation of certain men to divine status. A case in point is described in the Septuagint Bible. "A king would have his own likeness carved, and his subjects, living far away, so that they who could not do obeisance to him in person, would have his present image set up in their view, eager to pay his absent royalty their adulation. And if any spur were needed yet for their ignorant superstition, the rivalry of craftsmen afforded it; each of these sought to please his master by improving the portrait, with the utmost abuse of skill, until at last the vulgar, carried away by such grace of art, would account him a god whom yesterday they revered as mortal man." (Wisdom 14 ) The two portrait sculptures shown here of Akhenaten illustrate tis passage. The first, (Figure 6) was molded from life and shows a very human and perhaps cruel man while the second (Figure 7) shows the deified "Son of Aten" from the temple of Karnak.

 This thorny problem for the early Church culminated in the iconoclast heresy. In 726 the Byzantine Emperor, Leo the Isaurian, issued an edict demanding the removal and destruction of all sacred images. When he tore down the image of Our Lord that had stood over the gates of Constantinople, the Patriarch who protested was summarily imprisoned and murdered. Riots broke out all over the empire. Finally in 787 at the Second Council of Nicea, the Christian Churches, both East and West, under the guidance of Pope Hadrian I, convened to resolve the problem. This Ecumenical Council, acknowledged as valid by all, was the watershed for the succeeding fusion of art and Christianity that spurred the greatest profusion of creative activity in all history. The final decree, read in both Latin and Greek, reiterated the earliest tradition that "...according to the divine economy according to the flesh, to represent the human face of the Son of God, 'image of the invisible God' (Col. l, 15) is to see the 'Word made flesh' (cf. John 1, 29) the 'lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world' (John 1, 29)....Therefore art can represent the form, the effigy of God's human face and lead the one who contemplates it to the ineffable mystery of God made man for our salvation."

(J.D. Mansi, Sacrorum Consiliorum nova et amplissima Collectio, XII, 1062AB)

Thus, Pope Hadrian, as Supreme Pontiff, would write: "By means of a visible face, our spirit will be carried by a spiritual attraction toward the invisible majesty of the divinity through the image where is represented the flesh that the Son of God deigned to take for our salvation." The tradition re-established, images of Christ, especially as Pantocrator (Lord of all), once again adorned the churches of Christendom (Figure 8). It was further decreed that the Blessed Mother and the saints might also be represented and given the prostration of honor (timetike proskyesis) which is accorded to icons, for "He who prostates before the icon does so before the person (hypostasis) who is represented therein" and that this honor in no way impinges upon or interferes with the "true adoration" (latreia) owed to Almighty God alone. (Mansi XIII, 377E)

All this said and done, the Eastern Church embarked upon a glorious and prolific outpouring of images of Our Lord, Holy Mary, and the saints that has survived virtually intact to this day. These images, known as "icons," are painted according to very strict rules. They are abstractions of a sort and are meant to convey visual concepts according to heavenly archetypes of the imago Dei. They are not meant to portray fleshly persons. For example, the image of the Blessed Mother (Figure 9) is not meant to show the actual virgin of Nazareth. This image follows the oldest iconographic tradition, the Hodegetria style, and represents Mary presenting her Divine Son to us. Because it portrays ideas, it can be "read" or deciphered. Thus, Mary's face is depicted as a spiritual reality. Her eyes, the windows of the soul, are made very large and prominent, and her mouth, the door to the body, is rendered quite small. Her nose is thin and refined to play down any aspect of sensuality. She wears a cloak of red earth color to show that she is a daughter of Adam, not a goddess. The eight-pointed star on both her head and shoulder show that she is holy (full of grace) in both body and mind. Her Divine Son, Jesus, is represented as a small adult to show that He is the "Wisdom of God," an important concept in the Byzantine Church. His golden robe shows that He is high priest and king, and the whole scene is placed against a golden backdrop that represents heaven. This icon follows very literally the dictates of Nicea II: to bring viewers to the heavenly abode where they might contemplate the reality of the Holy Persons, as exemplars of human perfection in the glorified state, according to fixed theological concepts

The West followed a somewhat different path. Rather than destroy existing pagan art forms, the Roman Church adapted them to serve the spiritual needs of the many converts who were imbued with a tradition of idolatry. In a landmark letter written in 596 to the French Abbot, Mellitus, Pope St. Gregory the Great instructs that the statues of the pagan gods were simply to be converted to images of Jesus, Mary, and the saints. This practice would provide continuity and facilitate the incorporation of the barbarians into the Church. Some of these new images show their Hellenistic origins while others reflect ancient folk traditions of the Celts, Visigoths and other pagan tribes. Virtually all are stamped with the marks of simplicity and faith.

The idea of painting saints as very human and natural-looking persons arose from he Franciscan humanism of the early 13th century. In contrast to the Byzantine tradition, which looked to heave to find God, St Francis saw God=s splendor in all of His Creation. Francis in his genius, pointed out that in a very special way, through the Incarnation, nature itself had been transformed and elevated to a new level.Thus, the artists of the period, starting with Ducio and Giotto infused their art with this newly found spirituality. Ducio, the great master of the Siennese school, still painted the Madonna (Figure 10) according to the canons of the Byzantine Greek style but he softened and humanized her face to give the viewer a deeper intuition into the psychological nature of her sanctity. The Virgin's eyes make contact with the viewer, inviting a deeper understanding of her "fiat" and the nature of both her joy and her suffering. The rendering of the same subject by Giotto (Figure 11), while still influenced by Byzantine tradition, breaks more definitively from the old theological style by conveying a concrete mood both through facial expression and body language. This depiction of the Blessed Mother contemplating her dead Son captures that moment in time when "through her own heart a sword would pass." However, according to many, the greatest artist to render the complete imago Dei--that is, the rational soul infused with sanctifying grace as reflected in the human face--was the Dominican friar, Giovani de Fiesole, known as Fra Angelico. His portrait of St. Dominic (Figure 12) is one of the most profound images of a human being whose soul is molded to the divine likeness in the history of art. With subtlety and intuition Fra Angelico has

distilled in this portrait of the founder of his order that holy hope spoken of by that other great Dominican, St. Thomas Aquinas: "It is not for some vaguely defined happiness that they hope, but for eternal happiness with Our Lady and the angels and saints in the vision of the Triune God." (Summa theologiae, 2a2ae17,2) It is not surprising that Fra Angelico, this great genius of human creativity, was himself recently raised to the official rank of Blessed and made patron, along with St. Luke, of Christian artists.

Fortunately we do not always have to rely on artists to see how the face of a canonized saint reflects, and through grace, reveals the image of God. We have effigies molded directly from their faces in life and in death, and now we even have photographs. These images speak for themselves. Especially at the hour

of death one notices the gentle smile, the calm and composed facial muscles, the relaxed expression on the death mask of Paul of the Cross (Figure 13). Similarly the death-bed photographs of Bernadette Soubirous (Figure 14) clearly show her joyful encounter and intense relationship with Jesus Christ that is the hallmark of the Christian saint.

Some of the photographs of more recent saints were taken while they were still living and carrying out their apostolic endeavors. The pictures of both St. John Bosco (Figure 15) and St. Theresa of Lisieux (Figure 16) bear the unmistakable stamp of the saint. Their expressions do not show a stoic resignation but a loving gentleness and quiet joi de vivre. Even though both saints look weary from hardship and pain, a radiant love streams forth from their eyes. Here is the imago Dei, the face of Him who saved and blessed man from the throne of the cross.

Today's world has lost the notion of sanctity. Dark passions and pride blot out the image of God. The canvasses of modern painters broadcast man's estrangement from God and from himself. Artists such as Rufino Tamayo (Figure 17) and Pablo Picasso (Figure 18) have taken us back to the prehistoric vision of the Gorgon's mask, of woman the sorceress, of pleasure holding hands with death. In Tamayo's Carnival the naked woman is front and center, her imago Dei covered with a feline mask as she leads her willing victim away. In Picasso's Les Demoiselles d= Avignon a more complex message emerges. The masked figure on the left represents primal innocence as stepping forth into the red background, symbolic of passion. Compositionally she forms a triad with the two central figures, who with their frank frontal sexuality and dead-eyed faces display not only candid eroticism but the passive despair of the joyless. The grossly distorted women on the right are covered with bestial masks. For Picasso, who fundamentally loathed and feared women, desire and dread are linked in sex, and sex for Picasso was the god in his groin.

Led on by such avant garde "cubists" as Picasso, other artists have pressed even further. They deny the validity of representing, not only the human face, but all created reality in a Manichaean denial of the goodness of creation. As documented in the 1985 catalogue of the Los Angeles Museum of Fine art s, virtually all of the promethean figures of abstract "modern art"--Arp, Klee,Kandinsky, Mondrian, Pollock, Rothco--have drawn their inspiration from some form of occult gnosticism, that ancient heresy that posits that man, at his core, is a "divine" being trapped in the horror of physical reality.

Gnostic "New Agers," with clear ties to ancient cults, once again sing the siren song that man, if he looks deeply enough within his own nature will find the spark of his own divinity. Look at the faces of two of the best known modern prophets of "human divinity," educator Rudolf Steiner (Figure 19) and theosophyst Madame Helena Blavatsky (Figure 20). Notice the cold star of defiance and hubris. Compare these two faces with those of Theresa of Lisieux and John Bosco. Even more revealing, compare the eyes--the window of the soul-- of Mother Theresa with those of Jack Kevorkian (Doctor Death) when next you see them on national television. Whose are alive with hope and whose are dead in despair?

The late 20th century finds man back to a state of confusion. We have once again given to nature the incommunicable name of God and are besieged by doubt. Drug-induced frenzy and child murder are the order of the day. Our modern age icons are the "Madonna" of MTV and Elvis on black velvet. Do we see the image of God on the faces of these celebrities? At the other extreme, do saccharine images of Our Lady and languid depersonalized statues of Christ and his saints seen in religious art catalogues inspire us to contemplate the ineffable mystery of God and man? Do they stir us to search for truth and discover the real purpose of our lives? There is an urgent need to recapture the human imagination for Christ and to convey through art the good news that we are made in the image of likeness of God and have been redeemed by His Son.

As we cross the threshold of hope in the 21st century, the third millennium of the Christian dispensation, let us pray that there be renewal among artists--painters, sculptors, poets, writers, musicians--ready to inflame the imagination with worthy images of the human person, saints in potential, destined to be united with Him for eternity.

H.R.A. 1995



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