The Laughing Christ: Inspiration Through Tradition
The description next to the painting read in part…
On Sunday morning in January of 1975, Father Stewart did not come to conduct services at his Melbourne Beach, Florida church. He had a serious brain-stem stroke and doctors could give little encouragement for his recovery. Prayer vigils were set up near and far. Father Stewart suffered intensely for three days, then something extraordinary began to happen. Within a two-hour period, vital signs went back to normal. He thought our Lord was standing back of him at the head of his bed, laughing uproariously, like a man who has just caught that big bass, and not laughing at him but with him as the healing was taking place. The following Sunday the doctors dismissed him and Father Stewart walked from the hospital with his family to the car. His doctor’s said, “Give God the glory.”
I recently visited St. Marys Episcopal Church of the Frescoes in West Jefferson, North Carolina. It’s one of two churches in the area (the other in Glendale Springs) featuring frescoes created in the 1970’s by noted artist Benjamin F. Long IV–a realist from Asheville.
Hanging among Long’s beautiful tempera and plaster creations is a framed oil painting by Bo Bartlett, a student of Long, which he painted at the young age of 19. It is entitled The Laughing Christ (Bartlett was also the model for Long’s frescoe of John the Baptist which, opposite Mary Great With Child, flanks The Mystery of Faith–the central figure by Long depicting the crucified savior).
Bo has stated that he always wanted to do a painting of Christ laughing because he thought of his Lord as a happy, joyous, laughing person. Then in the summer of 1975 he was especially inspired by the miraculous healing of Father William Stewart, a good friend of this parish.
I was struck by this depiction of Christ, by His carefree nature, His glee contrasting with what I know of His reverence. He appears very approachable in Bartlett’s vision–kind and gentle and human. Also, I see several elements working as symbolism, intended or not, that warrant further investigation. But something else struck me in this original and inspired version of Jesus, something that in other renderings of Christ, by other artists, has bothered me. It has to do with tradition and has seemed unbelievable, unauthentic, even silly. But I saw it in a new light this time.
Christ is depicted many times, as in Bartlett’s version, as the quintessential European Christ–a soft bearded Caucasion with flowing, shoulder-length hair. Maybe Jesus looked this way, I don’t know and I don’t know what motivated Bartlett in his rendition, but it’s as though artist’s have accepted this version as the “authentic” representation. But there’s more to it. This phenomena–the imbuing of “approved” characterizations, i.e., tradition–into our art is a subconscious product of being a feeling, social being. I think about the Rubenesque figures from the 17th century, with their swollen hips and rounded forms, contrasted with how the figure is depicted today, and with how “beauty” is interpreted in general in different societies. People, artists, are social animals responding to the influences of their day.
More profound for me however, and what provoked the reexamination of my feelings through Bartlett’s work, is how these human propensities are revealed in the bible. Scholars have pointed out the adoption by Old Testament writers of traditions not necessarily true to the actual events or ideas they represent. These authors may have unintentionally borrowed and combined details from various stories passed down through generations and societies to portray deeper truths.
Bernhard W. Anderson (Understanding The Old Testament, Third Edition, 1975, p. 19,20) writes:
The dominant theory held by Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic scholars is that the Pentateuch is a composite work in which several traditions or “sources” have been blended together…The various inconsistencies, repetitions, and stylistic differences reflect the ways in which the story was retold, reworked, and reinterpreted in different historical periods. In this literary “mosaic,” the original meaning of the Mosaic faith has been preserved and blended with the overtones of meaning experienced by the community down through the subsequent years.”
Just as in Bartlett’s Laughing Christ borrowing from tradition does not make the story false. This is not a strict historical record but an interpretation of a deep sentiment. The social act of adopting from tradition actually imbues it with humanness and can, paradoxically, make it even more authentic in it’s representation of the artist’s mind and soul. Moreover, Bartlett’s approach to Christ sets up a profound contrast, that being, his inspiration seen through the original and creative context of Christ laughing, juxtaposed with a traditional portrait of the Savior.