POSSIBLY THE EARLIEST visual representation of Jesus of Nazareth is a crude drawing scratched on the wall of a Roman house, dubbed by scholars the “Alexamenos graffito.” It shows a man in profile gesturing toward a donkey-headed figure on a cross. Beneath it, the anonymous artist has written, “Alexamenos worships his god.” Around 200 AD (when this drawing was likely made), it would have been dangerous to be a Christian in public. Conversions to Christianity were forbidden, and emperor-worship was required. Was this graffito an example of schadenfreude—of local ruffians “piling on” after a despised peer’s arrest? Was it an example of good-natured ribbing among youths, a joke too obscure to capture the authorities’ attention? Whatever the motivation, this graffito marks Christ’s visual entry into the history of art, and it is decidedly, perplexingly, chimerical.
In his Iliad, Homer described the mythological chimera in this way:
[It was] a thing of immortal make, not human, lion-fronted and snake behind, a goat in the middle, and snorting out the breath of [a] terrible flame of bright fire.
Homer’s chimera was made up of parts of other things. As a result, its identity was unstable. This made it incomprehensible and unpredictable, and thus particularly fearsome. And its clashing complexity only grew as one encountered it, for beneath its animal defenses (venom, fire, claws), it was multi-gendered. Though maned like a male lion, its genitalia were female: the word chimera literally means “she-goat.”
The chimerical Jesus in the Alexamenos graffito is both a human criminal and a donkey-god. The first-century scholar Apion charged the Jews with donkey worship, and the graffito’s donkey-headed Christ may mean that in 200 AD, Christianity was seen as a Jewish sect. But donkeys had other resonances. Silenus, the god of wine, was often depicted drunk and riding on a donkey. Donkeys were lowly work animals, a cultural perception that underscored the lowliness of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem on one’s back. Then there is the sentient donkey in Apuleius’s Metamorphoses; once human, this creature dabbled incompetently in magic and transformed itself into a hapless beast. Did this resonate with opinions about the supposedly miracle-working Christ?
The ancient world was obsessed with chimerical monsters. There were centaurs, minotaurs, sphinxes, manticores, and even the lesser-known “monocerous” (the stag-horse progenitor of the medieval unicorn). Roman circuses often featured exotic chimerical “monsters” (such as the camelo-leopard, now known as the giraffe), and Roman naturalists posited the existence of monstrous hybrids on the plains of Africa. It was perhaps natural for the ancients to parse newly discovered animals (such as the giraffe) in terms of known ones. How else to make sense of such oddities? Much later, and in the same spirit, chimerical monsters became staples of traveling freak shows. For example, Barnum’s circus featured the “Feejee Mermaid” and in England, poor Joseph Merrick toured as the “Elephant Man.”
The very word “monster” is related to the Latin verb “monstrare,” which means “to show.” This gives a clue about the psychological power of the chimera. As a puzzling hybrid of other, more comprehensible things, the chimerical “monster” does not immediately make sense as a thing. It cannot be verbally denoted and filed away into a preexisting mental category; rather, it must be seen to be believed. Ancient artists struggled to represent Homer’s mythical chimera, for how could one legibly juxtapose a lion, a goat, and a snake all at once? No rendering could possibly capture the original. Instead, as later showmen instinctively grasped, chimeras demand a real-life encounter. In their requirement to be shown and seen, chimerical monsters inspired pilgrimage—the going-out from familiar environs to see something absolutely and shatteringly new.
Thus, for the ancients, the chimera had the potential to force transformation. Incomprehensible through language, its apprehension required contact, and this contact could be awe-inspiring, eye-opening, and even dangerous. In a famous ancient Greek legend, the Corinthian prince Oedipus arrives at a crossroads, where he meets the mysterious Sphinx. This chimerical beast offers a deadly bargain: if Oedipus correctly answers the Sphinx’s riddle, he can save his people, but if he answers incorrectly, he will die. Oedipus takes the Sphinx’s bargain, braving the dangers of this encounter with the unknown. In the process, he becomes a hero and gains deep human wisdom. Remarkably, this wisdom consists in a new understanding of the human person as a sort of chimera. The Sphinx’s riddle is, “What walks on four feet in the morning, two in the afternoon and three at night?” The answer, of course, is man, whose time-bound existence entails constant transformation—metamorphosis—as humans vacillate between power and helplessness, sovereignty and dependence, experience and ignorance.
The Christian Jesus is chimerical along a number of axes. It is appropriate, therefore, that the most familiar artistic depiction of him is the crucifixion. There, Jesus is nailed up high as an example, a spectacle, and a warning (“monster” is also related to the verb monere, “to warn”). He is shown as simultaneously an innocent and a criminal, a lion and a lamb, a rabbi and a blasphemer, a king and a prisoner. Most perplexing is his status as both “fully man and fully God”; in fact, the inability to grasp this particular juxtaposition provoked centuries of small religious wars, assassinations, and sacred vandalism. Byzantine Christians, grappling with a received intellectual framework that rigorously separated spirit from body (manifest in heresies such as Gnosticism, Manichaeism, and Arianism), could not accept—perhaps could not even fathom—a transcendent God who had been anchored in corruptible, contemptible flesh.
In his meditation on Andres Serrano’s infamous photograph titled Piss Christ, which features a crucifix submerged in golden urine, the psychologist Richard Beck marveled at how humans’ tendency toward “negativity dominance” provoked violent responses to the piece. After the work’s 1989 display in Brooklyn, Serrano received death threats, and in 1997 the photograph was attacked with a hammer in Melbourne, Australia. Why, wondered Beck, did viewers see Serrano’s Christ as contaminated by the piss that surrounds it, rather than as redemptive of biological reality? Beck went further:
the real blasphemy just might be this: That we think urine is stronger than Christ. That we instinctively—and blasphemously—believe that the defilement of our lives is the strongest force in the universe. Stronger even than God.
Beck’s intuition supports Serrano’s own statements. (Serrano told interviewer Udoka Okafor, for example: “I’m a Christian artist…bringing the symbol closer to its original meaning.”) Across his oeuvre, Serrano has shown a commitment, again and again, to an anti-gnostic reclamation of the physical. In this way, he can be viewed as a postmodern champion of the most fundamental Christian orthodoxy.
Serrano would no doubt agree with an early figure like Saint John of Damascus, who wrote: “Because of [the incarnation], I salute all remaining matter with reverence.” Serrano’s major touchstones, however, are a bit more recent: he admires Caravaggio and has called himself a “neo-Baroque” artist who wants to recapture the sacred sensuality of the Counter Reformation. This inspiration is most clearly seen in Serrano’s early work. His 1987 photograph The Passion, for example, actually includes a quasi-Baroque sculpture of Christ’s head. But in a visceral and almost humorous move, Serrano has placed the sculpture atop the body of a plucked chicken [see Plate 6]. The result is a highly unusual “Jesus,” embarrassing and uncomfortable to look at. Our initial mirth, however, soon gives way to horror. We become aware of the figure’s intense physical suffering. This is innocent flesh about to be consumed. This is an ensouled creature that has become dehumanized. And the meat shown here (meat features prominently in many of Serrano’s early photographs) forces us to face our squeamishness about bodies, slaughter, and the violence that sustains life.
The political, ecclesiastical, and cultural ramifications of Jesus’s spirit-flesh chimericality are enormous. In the early centuries of Christianity, teachings about Christ’s two natures impacted the highest realms of both church and government. Emperors adopted positions on the issue and persecuted their opponents. Saints were exiled or martyred over the question. But the chimericality of Jesus penetrated society on a smaller scale as well, not least in the confusion surrounding early, devout representations made prior to the great councils of Nicaea and Ephesus. We have already seen that what may be the earliest representation of Christ shows him with a donkey head. Another very early representation, probably also from around 200 AD, shows Jesus as a sun god driving his chariot across the sky. There are hints of the Greco-Roman god Apollo here, and perhaps the Egyptian sun god Ra, but the most powerful cultural resonance is with the Sol Invictus, the exotic patron-god of Roman soldiers, who was equated with the Persian deity Mithras and the Syrian god Elagabalus. Thus, by the second century, an executed Jewish criminal was being associated with classical gods, state armies, and foreign deities.
By the third century, imagery of Christ as the sun god was in competition with images of the Christ-child and of Jesus as a good shepherd. The latter was a humble formulation derived from the Bible but also reminiscent of Greco-Roman depictions of rustic country folk. In the mausoleum of Constantine’s daughter Costanza in Rome, meanwhile, Christ was likened to the god of pleasure and drink, Dionysus (Christians, after all, were ritual wine-drinkers, and Christ was the self-proclaimed “true vine”). There was no single accepted image of Christ; in fact, the images that existed seemed to contradict each other, hinting at the complexity of the figure they represented.
Mainstream scholars increasingly argue that religious and cultural practices are actually adaptive heuristics (that is, rules of thumb that experience has proven useful). Humans, they say, have evolved systems of ritual, storytelling, and picture-making because these practices are intrinsically healthy and conducive to human flourishing. Though we cannot always identify rational origins for such systems, this does not make the systems invalid. On the contrary, their murky, ancient origins suggest their time-tested and overwhelming needfulness. Global, inevitable, and deeply instinctive, religious ritual and art reside squarely at the center of the human experience in a way that science cannot yet understand.
Social scientist Jonathan Haidt helped popularize this view in 2012 through both a TED talk and a Time magazine article (“Have We Evolved to Be Religious?”), in which he connected scholarly speculations, ranging from biology to anthropology to psychology, into a narrative. According to Haidt, “we evolved to see sacredness all around us and to join with others into teams that circle around sacred objects, people and ideas.” This has promoted our survival by encouraging us to work together and even sacrifice for the common good.
In June of 2018, the philosopher Stephen Asma expounded on this idea in an op-ed for the New York Times called “What Religion Gives Us (That Science Can’t).” Asma argued that religious stories and rituals are “adaptive” and “can improve psychological health.” He described how his encounters with religious people helped him understand how myth and ceremony enable “coping and surviving” and “offer quicker ways to solve problems than deliberative cognition.” Asma later released a book on the topic, titled Why We Need Religion. As an atheist, Asma does not believe in the truth of sacred stories, but he believes in their utility, and he seems to favor a deliberate suspension of disbelief that allows everyone—including nonbelievers—to access the mental health benefits of our ancient cultural practices.
Some scholars take Asma’s position even further, arguing not only that myth and ritual are indisputably adaptive, but also that science is in no position to question the grounding of these phenomena in fundamental reality. They suggest rather that these cultural forms are themselves a deeper kind of science, winnowed through millennia of trial and error, and that they are suggestive of networks of (for lack of a better word) spiritual necessity that humans still only barely grasp. Psychologist Clay Routledge points in this direction in his book Supernatural: Death, Meaning and the Power of the Invisible World. A more influential popularizer of this view is the Canadian psychologist, author, and professor Jordan B. Peterson, whose meditations on ancient myths, contemporary story-forms, and particularly the Judeo-Christian canon suggest not only the enormous psychological utility of sacred culture, but also its anchoring in a vast truth external to present human comprehension. Peterson’s psychological appreciations of Judeo-Christian stories, such as his talk about the Easter story entitled “On the Death and Resurrection,” are so hopeful and creatively ecstatic as to verge on theology or even prophecy.
Meanwhile, in the visual arts, art therapists have been stressing the adaptive power of art making since the 1940s. Much less work, however, has been done in the field of visual-artistic reception (that is, the experience of passive immersion in a surrounding visual culture). Nevertheless, several early visual art theorists have laid the groundwork for a consideration of the chimerical in visual art, and how visual representation of shifting, chimerical patterns could prove to be a vital tool for psychologically coping with the reality of suffering and change.
In our consideration of the benefits of the visual-chimerical, it is perhaps best to begin with the pioneering Swiss art historian Heinrich Wölfflin. Wölfflin was the son of a classical philologist, and from childhood he was attuned to the nuances of communicative structures. He was perhaps the first to observe that patterns of visual representation historically swing between what we might call “factual” and “impressionistic” extremes. Looking back on European art history, Wölfflin identified many such swings, some of which had occurred over short periods of time, and he noted that they distinguished the early and late phases of famous styles (as, for example, early Gothic vs. high Gothic). At the factual extreme, Wölfflin noted, lines were sharp, details were clear, boundaries were established, and the viewer was left feeling that the pictorial subject had been entirely comprehended. (Consider, for example, the meticulous work of Albrecht Dürer.) At the impressionistic extreme, lines and boundaries began to dissolve, details were lost, and the subject receded amidst a fog of uncertainty (as in the case of a later northern European artist like Frans Hals). Wölfflin, a historian of style, merely observed this phenomenon—he did not posit social or psychological causes. Later scholars, however, would begin to discover the psychological utility of such patterns.
One such scholar was Ernst Gombrich, whose highly influential book Art and Illusion mapped Wölfflin’s extremes onto the opposed (yet mutually dependent) cognitive practices of “making” and “matching.” Making, for Gombrich, consisted in summoning a priori symbols to represent an object. Gombrich called these a priori symbols “schemata” (now a widely used term for psychological templates), and argued that they are an inevitable stage in human apprehension of the universe. Matching is the next stage. It occurs when the maker recognizes the inadequacy of her symbols and attempts to stretch them to better fit experienced reality. For Gombrich, matching is a value-laden process, and so he used value-laden vocabulary to describe its dynamic. In his discussion of the British painter John Constable, for example, he described the imperative of freeing oneself from the “prison of style” (that is, the schema) in pursuit of a “greater truth.” Though necessary, Gombrich believed that schemata are dangerous and limiting. A culture (and a person) that relies on them ossifies, and is unable to adapt to an ever-changing, expectation-shattering world.
Gombrich did not neglect the role of audiences in this process of visually driven adaptation. In fact, he believed that the act of viewing is itself a sort of making, in the sense that viewers use their own mental templates to validate the artist’s rendering. This is how visual stereotypes are accepted, canonized, and perpetuated; the ones that persist are the ones that resonate with what viewers imaginatively produce in their own minds. The adaptation of visual languages occurs when audiences demand new schemata to match their evolving physical experiences, or when artists force new schemata by presenting new forms (via matching) to a sometimes reluctant audience. Though Gombrich did not go so far, this latter dynamic can be understood as the engine that drives modern, and now contemporary, fine art. Mindful of their role in forcing adaptation and greater truth-perception, artists have institutionalized the process of schemata-destruction and revolutionary matching. This is the so-called avant-garde, and from this comes the mythic story-structure that undergirds recent art histories (consider, for example, Clement Greenberg’s account of the triumph of abstraction). In these histories, the great artists are the ones who have forced a paradigm shift, literally reshaping the outlines of human perception.
Other theorists addressed the psychological power of image-making (and image-breaking). Walter Benjamin, for example, wrote his famous “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in 1935, in which he coined the terms “exhibition value” and “cult value.” Roughly speaking, exhibition value referred to an image’s ability to precisely echo an existing schema, thus communicating with utter clarity and transparency. Cult value, meanwhile, referred to an artwork’s stubborn uniqueness within time and space—its refusal to be subsumed within a schema. These two values undermine each other: aggressive uniqueness compromises schematic power, and schematic power compromises individual uniqueness. Benjamin was interested in how truly unique objects (like, as we will discuss, chimerical ones) could assume an almost magical quality, which he captured in the word “aura.” He lamented the loss of aura in a culture overrun by schemata—that is, a culture of rampant mass reproduction.
Finally, the Russian literary critic Viktor Shklovsky contributed the term “defamiliarization” (sometimes translated as “estrangement”) to the discourse about art’s psychological purpose. Taking up the myth of the paradigm-shattering artist, Shklovsky found a way to insulate the artistic prerogative from crass political demands (such as, say, the establishment of communist utopias). For Shklovsky, the artist’s role was not to nudge the culture in a particular direction (say, toward the overthrow of the bourgeoisie), but instead to resist deadening “habitualization.” Schemata-alteration, or even schemata-destruction, should serve to open the mind. When mental structures become so rigid as to lose their usefulness, schemata-alteration should help us stretch out of old patterns of thought and cope with elements of reality that do not fit within those old patterns. Art was meant to give strength, courage, and perspicacity; it was not meant to catechize or subdue.
So what about chimeras? Efforts toward matching or defamiliarization, and away from exhibition of existing schemata, are always chimerical. Because the human mind simply can’t apprehend reality directly, schemata can only be ruptured through the incorporation of other schemata. The great Renaissance pioneer Giotto famously matched reality by combining Byzantine schemata with medieval Gothic ones. Giotto’s works, in other words, are visual-psychological chimeras (this was not immediately recognized: an early biographer wrote that Giotto “never learnt from anyone but nature”). Opponents of the great high Renaissance artist Raphael disparaged him as a mere thief who stole from elders like Perugino, Michelangelo, and Leonardo da Vinci. However, it was precisely this chimerical patchwork that made Raphael the most revered and influential artist in Europe for three hundred years. Creatives from Picasso (who “stole” African masks, Greek sculptures, and Iberian folk costumes) to Stravinsky to Steve Jobs have asserted that “great artists steal,” celebrating the Frankenstein-esque magic of the paradigm-busting chimera. This is how art is born, matures, and eventually dies within cultures; schemata are superseded by chimeras, until eventually those chimeras become schemata themselves.
The great appeal of Christ is that he is endlessly chimerical; he is the chimera that will never—can never—be reduced to a schema. Something about his character is almost infinitely adaptable to social needs, and attempts to codify him have always failed. Art historians have long noted that different eras of Christian history fixated on different “Christs.” The so-called Christus Triumphans (“triumphant Christ”) of the early western middle ages, for example, was replaced by the Christus Patiens (“suffering Christ”) of the Gothic period. Christ can be believably presented as serenely passive or deeply anguished; his character and story lend equal credibility to both depictions. Hans Belting chronicles a similar dynamic in Eastern Orthodox Christianity: at times when theologians attempted to vigorously over-define God, the faithful turned more passionately to their visual icons, which did not define so much as manifest.
Art historians have also noted Christ’s fluctuating gender characteristics: the Christ of Bramante, for example, is “a warrior, a hero, with the athletic energy of the Riace bronzes,” while Guido Reni’s beloved Christs show a “sweet grace and radiance” that is positively androgynous, even recalling the mien of female virgin saints. Cimabue’s famous crucifixion in Florence boasts swelling maternal hips and even breasts, while the Christs of Piero della Francesca stand almost column-straight with barrel chests. And then, at a more abstract remove, there are the Arma Christi symbologies of the late middle ages. In these images, which aggregate, collage-like, the emblems of Christ’s crucifixion, an abstracted side-wound appears remarkably like a vulva. This multivalent symbol suggests at once that Christ’s death was productive of life, and that the human act of love is itself a “little death,” associated with both ecstasy and danger (particularly for the woman, the stand-in for Christ the life-giver).
Jesus can be a glowering judge or a free-spirited hippie. The satirical show South Park portrays him as reasonable, quirky, a bit anxious, and widely misunderstood. The historical church has encouraged the representation of Christ in a wide range of ethnic idioms, wherein he often assumes the characteristics of local people and even supplanted deities. The beautiful altar at Saint Joseph’s Church, Hiruharama, in Whanganui River, New Zealand, for example, shows a Maori Christ with facial tattoos, his crown of thorns transmuted into horn- and wave-forms, and his tormentors as leering tiki figures [see Plate 7].
The Bible stressed Jesus’s chimerical elusiveness again and again. Consider the famous “suffering servant” passage in Isaiah 53:
For he grew up before him like a tender shoot,
And like a root out of parched ground;
He has no stately form or majesty
That we should look upon him,
Nor appearance that we should be attracted to him.
He was despised and forsaken of men,
A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief…
Yet in the book of Revelation, the heavenly Jesus is described as splendid and fearsome, with a “face glowing like the sun” and shining hair of pure white. The biblical Jesus is both wrathful (dashing the tables of the moneychangers) and gentle (saying “let the little children come unto me”). He attracts crowds (as during the Sermon on the Mount), but can also walk about unnoticed (as at the pool of Bethesda). Much Christian hymnody has borrowed the admiring language of the Song of Solomon (Christ is a “lily of the valley,” and a “rose of Sharon”), but other hymns, like the famous “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” wring sympathy from a litany of grotesqueries. In three of the Gospels, meanwhile, the chaste bachelor Jesus (transcendently asexual) is the object of a woman’s confused affection, as when Mary Magdalene pours perfume on his feet.
The challenging, adaptable, expectation-shattering chimericality of Jesus can shed new light on recent cultural attempts (like Serrano’s) to grapple with Christ’s image and legacy. This is particularly true if we consider how Christ’s role as redeemer par excellence might extend to the realm of semiotics (that is, the study of referential meaning). The word-sign Christ is God’s great communication. In its prodigious adaptability, this sign has the capacity to redeem literally every other sign—every representation, every truth, every rule, every schema—by enfolding it without loss or erasure and making it a true and clear indication of reality. In this way, as Jesus said, “not a single jot, not a stroke of a pen” would disappear. This famous declaration, so perplexing to its audience, occurs in the Sermon on the Mount when Christ seems to both fully claim and replace Old Testament legalities. Somehow, in himself, contradictions can be held in tension and ultimately harmony.
This is the precise opposite of the negativity dominance Richard Beck lamented in his consideration of Piss Christ. It is rather a sort of “positivity dominance,” through which even the most despised substance-symbols (like piss, or in Serrano’s later work, shit) become incorporated into a redemptive paradigm that has space for everything—for everything, by virtue simply of its existence, contains a seed of the good. (As Saint Augustine affirmed, anticipating John of Damascus: all that exists, exists in God, and evil is the privation of existence in its fullness.)
The artist David Wojnarowicz, who died of AIDS in 1992, used the image of Christ to redeem the suffering around him. Raised Catholic, Wojnarowicz explored the image of Christ throughout his career, and a recent retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art has introduced a new generation to his work. In a dramatic post-pop tableau from 1987 titled The Death of American Spirituality, Wojnarowicz depicted a range of typically American spiritual icons (including Christ, a Native American deity, and a cowboy) being overtaken by a corrosive mechanical force [see Plate 8]. For Wojnarowicz, the greed and materialism of the modern world was destroying the American soul. In The Death of American Spirituality, the spirit world is highly chimerical, drawing archetypes from sublime nature experiences (in the form of the cowboy), the mystery of ancient vision (in the form of the petroglyph character) and modern organized religion (in the form of Christ). Where modern technology devours uniqueness and enforced sameness, the realm of spirit accepts everything, taking up all life in its (small-c) catholic embrace.
Though Wojnarowicz experimented with other religious and spiritual archetypes, the image of Jesus remained his touchstone, appearing with a frequency that sheds light on everything else in his oeuvre. In a photograph from 1989 called Spirituality, Wojnarowicz captured a small wooden crucifix dashed to the ground and swarmed by fire ants; one ant completely obscures Jesus’s right eye, creating a monstrous chimerical effect [at left is another work from this series]. This image was part of a cycle made as two of Wojnarowicz’s friends were dying of AIDS. In earlier images from this cycle, Wojnarowicz drew on the imagery from Raphael’s Deposition to tenderly document his friend Peter Hujar’s death. The following year, he created Spirituality, dedicated to a second lost friend, the artist Paul Thek. In these works, Wojnarowicz’s desperate identification of AIDS-suffering with Christ’s suffering is clear, along with his desire to extract meaning from oppression, pain, death, and decay. In an interview, Wojnarowicz extended his empathy even to the fire ants, saying that they provided “emotional content” in their humble work. As in Serrano’s Piss Christ, the redemptive power of the Jesus figure was meant to give significance to the lowly things around it. Unfortunately, viewers at the Smithsonian felt otherwise, and the filmed prototype of Spirituality was censored from an exhibition there in 2010.
But perhaps in his refusal of negativity dominance, Wojnarowicz understood better than his more pious audience the potential of the Christ-sign to integrate and transform. The Bible, of course, later integrates the suffering servant schema of Isaiah 53 into what we might call the eschatological schema—a form that is not truly a schema at all, because of its incomprehensibility to the mortal eye and mind. The eschatological Christ described by awestruck prophets is multidimensional, aggregate, and infinitely complex. This is the Christ whose body is at once an individual human form and a communal body of manifold believers who literally comprise his “hands and feet.” This is the Christ who, in the Book of Revelation, emits blinding white light—for white light is every other color of light combined. This Christ is not a departure from his earlier self, but an adaptation; the biblical authors tell us that Christ took his wounds with him into heaven. Christ’s eternal scarification, then, is a deeper, more profound way—a way that transcends mere speech—of asserting that “not a single jot” will disappear.
But this essay is about visual art. And if we take Christ’s “all-ness” seriously, perhaps the most radically adaptive—and therefore the most prophetic—artworks are also the most paradoxical, in that they cast the widest possible net for chimerical integration and most forcibly disrupt existing schemata. Within such a process, an image like Chris Ofili’s controversial Holy Virgin Mary [see Image issue 69] has extraordinary adaptive potential. Ofili’s painting incorporates black skin, dung, and female genitalia, none of which are common in traditional Christian religious art. Here, the oppressed, the cast-off, and the hidden are summoned and made beautiful. Ofili, according to some sources a devout Catholic, has explored sacred paradox in other works. His 2002 installation Upper Room attracted criticism for likening Christ and his disciples to rhesus monkeys [see Plate 5]. However, the dignified simians in Ofili’s luscious paintings need not seem insulting; instead, they can be understood as meditations on humankind’s earthly origins and the miraculous improbability of God taking fleshly form. One is put in mind, perhaps, of C.S. Lewis’s analogy for the incarnation: “If you want to get the hang of it, think how you would like to become a slug or a crab.”
Meditation on the chimerical Christ also gives new meaning to the phrase “name above every name.” It bids us consider that the name of Jesus is not only hierarchically ranked above every other name, but it also, as an adapting and growing symbol, encompasses every other name. This, perhaps, is the meaning (or a possible meaning) of Colossians 1:17: “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” Here, “before” can mean both “antecedent to” and “superior to”; this all seems logical and relatable. But then there is the elusive preposition “in.” This hierarch Christ, the text implies, contains his charges. He does not simply rule over them. He envelops them and grants them their meaning, and all of their meaning resides in and comes from him.
The name of Christ is the symbol of symbols. On the golden ceiling of the Church of the Gesù in Rome, Christ’s name literally ascends to heaven, rendered in yellow-white paint that almost dissolves into vast, blinding brightness. It is as if the artist, Giovanni Battista Gaulli, attempted to capture the most chimerical symbol of all, a symbol that contains within itself the life, beauty, possibility, and significance of every other communicative sign. In Gaulli’s Triumph of the Name of Jesus, the name itself is almost invisible; similarly, the Bible presents Christ’s name as unreadable, or unhearable. The Bible attributes roles—messiah, sacrificial lamb, true vine, good shepherd, door, creator, word, victor—to the man called Jesus, but it never gives a proper designation (its best effort is in the “I Am”). This is because Christ’s eschatological name is literally unutterable in its multidimensional complexity. The only mouth that can utter it is the mouth of God himself, and the utterance is none other than the man called Jesus, leaping forth alive and fully made as Athena leapt from the head of Zeus.
And so a word is found to be alive, and life itself is recast as communication. The Gospel of John famously states: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Jesus did not just put words into action—he was a word. He was a communication, out to his fingertips, from birth until death.
But what are the implications for us (we potential graftings into the chimera-body of 1 Corinthians 12)? It seems possible that it means that we, too, are words—utterances of meaning into something “formless and void”; that we are, after a fashion, schemata driven by an arduous process of adaptation to match some part of a holy exemplar in whose being the entire meaning of humanity is captured once and for all. Could it be that all things are the creator God’s artful effort to match himself, at ever higher resolutions, ever greater registers of complexity, until a resplendent chimera-body emerges, harmonious like white light—humbly, bashfully complicit in its own designing—that is worthy of eternal communion with him?
Creation repeats itself across harmonies of scale, from the very small to the unimaginably vast. The swirl at the center of a tiny snail’s shell is congruent with the spiral of a hurricane. One profound but less obvious ramification of this is that these congruities extend across all dimensions—not just the dimensions of space, but also those of time. The religious thinker Mircea Eliade posited that within time there is an “eternal return” through which human acts echo, again and again, the redemptive or creative power of divine acts from the world’s beginning. This, Eliade said, is the meaning of ritual. True joy comes through participating in this eternal return, escaping from linear time to a place of oneness with God’s ever-act, which is the ongoing act of life-sustenance and refinement. Could it be, then, that when we make, match, interpret, and challenge, with the goal of shattering inadequate schemata, we also enact “eternal returns” to the divine process of adaptive creation, echoing its grand gestures with our smaller ones? Is the pursuit of truth, in other words, a smaller form of participation with God, and therefore, a form of true redemption?
“Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and all this will be added unto you,” Jesus said. He said also, “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.” And finally, “Look at the birds of the air. They do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.” These are three different ways of encouraging us to single-mindedness in our pursuit of God. “Seek ye first” the truth, said Jesus (make and match) and leave the rest. Our eternal responsibility lies in this search for truth, and as we adapt our hearts to the truth, our whole selves will follow. But when we stop matching—when we stop adapting and seeking and become complacent, hard, contemptuous, closed—our eternal life is actually imperiled. Confronted by Christ, Zacchaeus adapted. The Pharisees, on the other hand, did not.
The chimerical Jesus is, and was, the most adaptive being of all. His eyes are like fire, and also like doves. His legs are like marble and also like bronze. His hair is at once woolen white and raven black. His mouth is sweet but bears a double-edged sword. Of all people, he is the most able to flow with eternal life, evolving endlessly, so that bodily destruction could not, in the end, stop his movement. He did not fail to “run his race” with utter dedication, and so he continues to run, leaping and dancing, forever. Like a prism with a million facets, he continues to reflect new lights. Every new thing that is made will be integrated into him. His chimerical beauty will grow ever more impossible, ever more astounding, ever more riotously complex-yet-harmonious, until the angels can only laugh in astonishment. Satan’s efforts to deform will only launch new, unexpected patterns and harmonies. And so it will be forever and ever, Amen.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.