Global Images of Christ: Challenging Perceptions at Chester Cathedral
The latest exhibition at Chester Cathedral due to end this month (October 2021) is a diverse, innovative and challenging invitation to the ways in which we represent Christ. In this black history month were taken into a deeper intentional examination of our limitations and prejudices as we see, make sense and come to a judgement.
Lorna May Wadsworth is a figurative painter exploring male beauty from a feminine perspective, inverting the art historical paradigm of a male creator and passive female muse. Wadsworth offers this background
I like to introduce a duality when I tackle religious themes, to make people really think about their beliefs and our deeply limiting prejudices.
‘ I needed to recast my Christ, and found this guy, Jamel Gordon-Lynch, on the New Faces board at Models 1 and contacted him on Facebook. He was up for it so did this painting to see if he would make a good Jesus. The crown of thorns in Pink Christ is actually from the Holy Land from a website that was something crazy like crownofthorns.com. It’s real actual sharp thorns – I had to put little blobs of blu-tac on the end of them when I painted it from life. ‘ (Wadsworth)
It would be hard to underestimate the radical reconstruction of our comfortable, uncritical, unexamined ways within which we read the gospel through white, and too often mostly male privileged eyes and hearts. In our search for religious truth how might we balance stability and change? This exhibition, but especially the work of Lorna Wadsworth demands that we step back and recast our reading of history and text. We are invited into a space where our norms are taken apart and recast into a new frame.
Both these paintings ( The Pink Christ and The Kiss of Betrayal) challenge the normal convention of how Jesus and his disciples are traditionally portrayed in the canon of western art. There is a profound and sensual challenge to our (perhaps) unconscious bias. We are asked through these images to examine the world view and a theological mind set that shapes assumptions.
Vanessa Layfield, Diocesan Inclusion Officer at Chester Cathedral invites us to consider this as she explains
“The Last Supper image of a black Christ may be shocking to some, but why? One might argue that an image of a white Christ is just as dishonest as an image of a black Christ, for Christ was neither black nor white, but a brown Middle Eastern Jew.”
The most powerful of the exhibits for this visitor was the reworking of Leonardo’s Last Supper currently hangs in St George’s Church in Nailsworth, Gloucestershire. It was painted entirely from life with Jesus represented by Jamaican- born fashion model, Tafari Hinds.
Christ stands tall over the table surrounded by animated, perturbed, questioning, arguing, engaging disciples. There is both restlessness and peace in their faces and physical expressions. It casts a very different perspective on the Last Supper asking the viewer to reread the text and explore for themselves who this person is and what his life might mean for all of global humanity. Take a closer look –
For her interpretation, Lorna chose the Jamaican-born fashion model, Tafari Hinds, as Christ. Explaining why she depicted Jesus as a black man, Wadsworth said:
“Painting the Last Supper altarpiece made me really think about how we are accustomed to seeing Jesus portrayed. Experts agree he would most likely have had Middle Eastern features, yet for centuries European artists have traditionally painted Christ in their own image. I cast Tafari as my Jesus to make people question the Western myth that he had fair hair and blue eyes. My portrayal of him is just as ‘accurate’ as the received idea that he looked like a Florentine. I also knew that, from a previous portrait of Tafari, there is something in his countenance that people find deeply empathetic and moving, which is the overriding quality I wanted my Christ to embody.”
I should add that there are over 40 exhibits in this collection which build upon and develop the challenge of how far our religious sensibility and worldview can truly embrace diversity, equality, inclusion and justice. Chester Cathedral deserve great praise for this bold and adventurous and life changing collection of images that offer a much wider and deeper perspective on Christ and the shape of the Gospel today.