The Girly Jesus of Modern Pictures

H.R. Rookmaaker in Modern Art at the Death of a Culture comments on this painting, The Shadow of Death, by William Holman Hunt. To understand this quote, you need to understand the context in which Rookmaaker is speaking. He is talking about the Enlightenment desire to get “just the facts” of history without any sort of interpretation. He says that Matthew in his genealogy “spoke the truth; he did not want to bypass the facts, but he did not want to see the facts only in their factuality but in their true meaning. We, in our obsession with tangible facts alone, have become the poorer” (73).

Contrasting Matthew’s biblical, right vision of Jesus with this painting, he says:

“I am not wanting to criticize it just because the Bible does not mention the story but because the whole feeling of the picture would seem to be no more than sheer sentimentality: our feelings are kindled, but the painter show us nothing of any depth or importance at all. There is no ‘exegesis’, no confession, no credal statement. Here is a fact, of no importance…and we are invited to give it meaning, within us, in our feelings (certainly not with our intelligence).

“…almost all ‘Christian art’ since has followed this line. Think of Bible illustrations, of Sunday school pictures, or reproductions on the walls of church halls….For centuries evangelicals have steered clear of art, and so lost their critical powers and any real understanding of the arts…Christians saw the deficiencies of the liberal reconstructions of the life of Christ of Hall Caine and Renan, but failed to see that the same spirit was at work in these pictures.

“Evangelicals have also underestimated the importance of art. They have thought of biblical pictures as being representations of biblical stories. But they did not see that the salt had become tasteless, that there was so much idealization, so much of a sort of pseudo-devotional sentimentality in these pictures that they are very far from the reality the Bible talks about. Could it be that the false ideas of many people, non-Christians as well as Christians, have of Christ as a sentimental, rather effeminate man, soft and ‘loving’, never really of this world, are the result of the preaching inherent in the pictures given to children or hanging on the wall? Their theology, their message, is not that of the Bible but of nineteenth-century liberalism” (75).


About Danny Slavich

I am a Christian husband, father, pastor, and poet. I lead Pembroke Road Baptist Church a multi-cultural, multi-generational church in urban South Florida.
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3 Responses to The Girly Jesus of Modern Pictures

  1. sara says:

    do you even know anything about holman hunt?

    a. holman was not really a religious man, so that painting is more about anti-religion or going against the usual religious painters of the time.
    b. holman liked to paint “pathetic” subjects
    c. holman started an entire art movement and would be extremely insulted by this.

    everything in the painting was done for a reason and you just saw it for a mere second with the biased mind of a christian and assumed it was just a bad religious painting. too bad the jokes on you.

    that painting is about being historically correct, with the clothing, tools, and people. not some text on a page. he believed that painting a picture from a story or script was merely “designing” and not being an artist. to be an artist you must come up with your own ideas. and he did. very brilliantly.

    so maybe try reading up on something besides jesus?
    …you’d probably have less chance of writing something like this again. i don’t know, it’s just a thought.

  2. Danny Slavich says:


    I appreciate your comment. I apologize for not responding to it sooner. I just noticed it in my WordPress dashboard.

    I get the sense you didn’t actually read much if any of the actual post, because this post was actually a summary of H.R. Rookmaaker’s take on the painting and not an opinion I generated. 90% of the post is a quote from Rookmaaker’s book (which I linked to). If you disagree with the content of the post, I suggest you read the book to get a more full-orbed view of what Rookmaaker was talking about (since I was only able to provide a snippet of his argument, and probably did not represent him as fully as would be helpful).

    I admit, I don’t know very much about art, but I found Rookmaaker’s analysis interesting and compelling.

    God Bless,

  3. i like both modern arts and classic arts because they both good “”

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