From the Latin Vulgate
with Illustrations by James Tissot, 1899
Introduction by James Tissot
That portion of the life of Jesus during which He taught the people was not in itself the most important, but from the point of view of the painter who wishes to portray Him under many different aspects it is the richest in varied and characteristic episodes. The baptism, the temptation, the calling of the Apostles, the teaching in the Synagogue, the journeys to and fro, rich in miracles and sublime incidents, the actual preaching, interspersed with so many striking parables, and supplemented by the gestures and movements of the crowds to whom those parables were told, all these things combine to call up a series of vivid pictures, every page of the Gospels, even when merely read, filling the mind with emotion and enthusiasm. Such was the subject I had now to render, and I must say a few words to explain how I understood it.
As I have already explained in my Introduction to these volumes as a whole, my one aim is to interpret Jesus. Now Jesus is a very complex individuality, for He is both God and man, and even if treated as man only He has many aspects, for He is alike the type of humanity as a whole and of the Jewish race in particular. He is the hero of one century and at the same time the master spirit of all ages. I had to give a rendering of Him in each and all of these manifold aspects, and I had but one medium with which to perform my task : that of my art. For, truth to tell, I am not a literary man, I am a painter. Instead of a consecutive discourse, in which the truth is gradually unfolded, I have at my disposal but a series of successive pictures, each illustrating some one aspect of our Lord's career. It is not for me to say whether this be an advantage or a disadvantage, all that is certain is that the pictorial mode of expression, the only one at my command, imposed on me one rigorous condition : that of having to make my own choice of subjects.
I have, then, chosen from amongst the scenes of the public life of Jesus, those which best illustrate not only what He is, but what He was, and what He ought to be to us; especially those which, being more suggestive than others, are a better starting-point for the imagination in its efforts to rise to the comprehension of that incomprehensible ideal which is the Christ. The episodes and parables of the Gospels, in which the heart of the Master was laid bare, and in which His thoughts, His designs, His temporary and eternal relations with Humanity were revealed; such were the subjects which first claimed my attention. Then, anxious to make Jesus known as a typical member of a peculiar race at a special epoch of its history, I set myself to seek scenes in which full justice could be done to historical truth and local colouring. From this quest resulted certain compositions of which at first sight the raison d'etre is not perhaps apparent. They are intended to put the spectator in touch with contemporary Jewish civilisation at the time of the Roman domination; to bring vividly before him the people and their institutions, the country and its customs, in the midst of which the life of Christ was passed, so that, without too great a strain on his imagination, he may be able to form a just idea of what that life as a whole really was instead of adopting some one or another of the modern travesties of it evolved by the caprice of this or that critic.
It will now be understood why my pictures illustrative of the Parables are interspersed amongst my scenes from the actual life of Jesus, instead of being grouped separately. Had I followed the latter plan, not only would a certain heaviness and monotony have been the result, but I should also have misled the public as to my intentions, for it would have seemed as if I wished to give a series of illustrations of the teaching of Jesus, which is not the case. I only wished to recall that teaching in those instances in which it reflected the personality of the Master, or the social environment in which He lived. For instance, I have represented the Sower, the Qood Samaritan, the Good Shepherd. the Vine and the Fig-tree, because beneath all these figures Jesus Christ revealed Himself. Other parables, such as that of the Blind leading the Blind when both shall fall into the ditch, the two Women grinding at the mill and the Son ot the Lord of the Vineyard, gave me an opportunity of painting on the spot some bit of natural scenery or some characteristic aspect of life in the East. If at the same time I saw a chance of embodying in any picture some great moral truth I was not slow to avail myself of it. As cases in point, I may mention the pictures of the Man that layeth up treasure for himself, the Beggar Lazarus and the Pharisee and the Publican.
Is it necessary for me to add that in all my compositions I have endeavoured, in addition to their historic and picturesque aspects, to render the philosophical side of the subject? For example, in the various synagogues I have painted, I have purposely accentuated the details of construction and ornamentation accumulated beyond measure by Jewish formalism; I have brought into relief the complex and complicated costumes of the rabbis, which are a reflection of the customs observed by them. In the midst of what I may call all this superannuated decorative lumber, the noble simplicity of the personality and doctrine of Christ stands out all the more vividly; we already foresee that He is come not to destroy but to fulfil the law; that He will sweep away all these mouldy accumulations of centuries; and we can understand the better the bitter hatred which the Divine reformer will arouse against Him on every side.
I will not, however, pursue this analysis too far; that would be to depart from my true role, and would really be a sign of weakness; for a work of art should need no commentary : every intelligent and attentive spectator ought to be able to grasp its meaning at once. My only wish in all I have just said is to arouse attention.
It may be asked why I have given separate portraits of Jesus, the Apostles and the other chief persons mentioned in the Gospels. Some will perhaps remark that it would have been enough to introduce them in the various scenes represented, and that as the portraits must of necessity be mere arbitrary representations, to give them by themselves was perfectly useless. I have not felt myself in the least bound to respect this objection. It was my earnest endeavour to obtain a distinct idea of every personality with whom I came in contact by the way; and I wanted to embody that idea. Penetrated by what the Gospels tell us of the lives, the moral temperaments, the acts of our Lord and His followers, I endeavoured to embody each personality in what I may call a synthetic portrait, in which the type alone was arbitrary, not either the character or the expression. Have I succeeded? I dare not venture to say; the enterprise was, it will be admitted, difficult enough, especially with regard to the divine figure which should dominate every other, that of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. In His case I had to give myself up to protracted meditation and prayer, and to appeal to every source of emotion at my disposal; yet after all the result seems to me to be but feeble.
Lastly, I have supplemented the principal compositions with a few sketches and studies taken on the spot, which I think introduce an element of agreeable variety in the work as a whole, and complete the story told by the paintings.
May I now in a few words answer certain criticisms which have been pronounced upon me. I set aside, of course, those which merely dwell upon the amount of talent shewn by my work; these, by the way, are rare, for the public and my brother artists have been very generous in their treatment of me. There are, however, certain remarks of another character which touch me far more nearly, and which I feel it my duty to reply to with a few observations.
It has been said : the work is not summary enough ; there are too many details, too many pictures; it would have been better to condense the whole into a few profound pages. I beg leave to differ from this opinion. As to profundity; well, I have sought it to the best of my ability; perhaps without attaining it; but it was my firm determination to be diffusive. And what proves to me that I was in the right is the difficulty that certain persons have from the first had in looking at things from the point of view I wished them to take. It is not easy to represent at the present day the environment in which Jesus lived; many things in attempted restorations of extinct civilisations astonish and even repel us. This being so, was it not of vital importance for me to take complete possession of the imagination of the spectator, to isolate him entirely from his preconceived ideas and to lead him slowly, yet without fatigue, along the paths where he will meet the true Christ? To have acted differently, under pretence of avoiding repetition, would, I think, have been to diminish my chances of success and to have exposed myself to being only half understood.
It has also been said, and this has wounded me alike as a believing Christian and as an artist with convictions of my own: what was the good of painting Christ like that? The only Christ there is any sense in painting now-a-days is the Christ crowned with thorns; that is to say a conventional Christ, such as the devout are used to; Christ as you conceive Him to have been is no longer a subject for the painter, for nobody believes in Him now.
To this I reply, to begin with: that, as for me, I believe in Him firmly, and that, consequently, I have every right to express my own conviction in my own way. I then answer that it is not true that nobody believes in Christ at the present day; what is more near the truth is, that He is ignored and forgotten, which is precisely what gives me confidence in the opportuneness of my work. I wished to say to this positive century, whether it is presumption on my part I know not, this it appears to me is what once happened in the history of humanity. This is what I have read; what you too can read for yourselves in history, not in a history concocted after consulting some system, but in true history, sincere history, disinterested and courageous history. Now, what took place then is worth thinking about! The whole of human life depends on it; in it we can find what we all so earnestly seek in this century, what has been sought in all past centuries: help, comfort, light, ideality, hope of eternal happiness. Once more, was it for me to speak of these things? I do not know, but it does seem to me that it is permitted to every one to interest himself in his fellow men, to endeavour loyally and simply with the help of the resources at his command, to lead them back to what he thinks is the truth, when he sees them disregarding or forgetting, yet still needing it.
Such was my thought: it seems to me good. The sincere public shall be the judge of the result.
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