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.”

The Laughing Christ by Bo Bartlett

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.

The Mystery of Faith by Ben Long

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, Heads of Christcontrasted 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.”

St. Marys Episcopal Church of the FrescoesJust 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.

MT McClanahan

An artist and perpetual thinker, MT McClanahan finds inspiration through connecting ideas across a broad range of topics. He especially enjoys philosophy and how art and life interconnect. He is the founder of TPT and his paintings can be seen at

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7 Responses

  1. Elena Roush says:

    It is very interesting… and creative vision of Jesus Christ personality. This painting giving me beautiful emotions and positive energy. Thanks for this.

    • One of the “symbolisms” in the painting I see is the fact that Christ appears nude.Doesn’t bother me, may others, but I see it as symbolic of something about Christ. Don’t know if artist intended this.

      • Colette Atalla says:

        I loved that image of Christ laughing and I do believe in that miracle. When we see Byzantine Icons we see Jesus has always a serious face and even looks in some icons angry or sad.
        The first time I saw the Lord in a dream , He was smiling at me and His smile was AMAZING , full of love and understanding. Thanks MT for sharing this!

        • Thank YOU for your comments Colette! Actually it was your comment AND Elena’s That made me think to add the last sentence to this post. So thank you also! I know what you mean by the medieval depictions of Christ, very stoic. But they are fascinating nonetheless to look at.

    • Me too Elena–on the positive energy! And your comment on the “creative vision” prompted me to add one last sentiment to the end of the post, thank you!

  2. Stephen says:

    Sometimes, too much knowledge and “experience” can get in the way of an understanding. The painter and this article have stirred personal historic thoughts and memories. I won’t bore you with the details. Byzantine icons, stern to our eyes and mentioned above, focused primarily upon Christ as Paraclete (defender- lawyer), Christ as Judge, Christ at the Right Hand of the Father (caps intended). Stern stuff this. Softer is Christ the Good Shepherd, and then to our age of humanity- Christ as the itinerant preacher on the road and seaside. This is the personal Christ, the one who eats seeds, walks and kicks up dust, hangs out with his friends who are not all savory by the way. So why mot that moment when the humor is too much to contain? To that end, I remember a retreat many decades ago when our leader asked, “So- did Jesus poop?” The shock as i remember it was that no one saw that remark as out of place.
    So, I’m pleased that this painting is extant and that this article has been written.
    Thanks again and again MT.

  3. We often forget Christ is joy.

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