Celebrating the Life of Jesus the Christ in Five Centuries of Bible Art
“Celebrating the Life of Jesus the Christ” was originally curated by Dr. John Hellstern and was first exhibited at the opening of the Dunham Bible Museum in the Morris Cultural Arts center in 2007. Arranged in four sections: From Birth to Baptism, Miracles and Healings, Parables and Teachings, and the Passion and Resurrection, the Bible art draws the viewer to the Scriptures and to meditate with wonder on Jesus’ person and work.
From Birth to Baptism
Matthew 1:21, “You shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.”
“The Annunciation”, The Washburn College Bible, 1979
The angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and announced, “behold, you will conceive in your womb, and bear a son, and shall call his name Jesus. He will be great, and shall be called the son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give unto him the throne of his father David.” (Luke 1:31-32)
John Van Eck’s painting of the Annunciation, c. 1430, is in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. This depiction of that momentous event includes important symbols found in numerous paintings of the Annunciation. Mary is shown reading the Scriptures; she is taking in the written Word of God as Gabriel promises she will conceive the Living Word of God by the Holy Spirit. A dove, symbolizing the Holy Spirit, is shown coming to Mary on the rays of light.
“The Nativity,” A New History of the Holy Bible. London: Thomas Stackhouse, 1733
The shepherds were told of Jesus’ birth by angels. They became witnesses to the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem and left “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.” (Luke 2:20)
The lamb lying at the bottom of Jesus’ crib is a symbolic reminder that Jesus was “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” (John 1:29)
Notice the dedication at the bottom of the page. Stackhouse helped finance the production of this magnificent Bible by enlisting the patronage of various church leaders.
“Birth of Christ,” The Saint John’s Bible, 2002
In this illumination of the Nativity, we don’t see the baby in the manger, but a column of gold, representing the presence and power of the Divine. By this we see that in Jesus God has become man. The bull or ox in the foreground represents the Gospel writer Luke. Since the second century, the four Gospel writers had come to be represented by the four faces of the creatures in Ezekiel’s vision: The man representing Matthew, the lion mark, the ox Luke, and the eagle John.
The Saint John’s Bible was commissioned by Saint John’s University in Minnesota. Contemporary scribe and illuminator Donald Jackson handwrote and created the illuminations of the Bible, collaborating with other artists and scribes.
“Presentation in the Temple,” Comprehensive Family Bible. Glasgow, Edinburgh & London: Blackie & Son, 1854.
This engraving of Jesus’ presentation in the Temple is the mirror image of Rembrandt’s painting “Simeon’s Song of Praise” (1631). Rembrandt used light to focus on the infant Jesus, held in the arms of the elderly Simeon, as the kneeling Mary and Joseph look on in wonder and a priest blesses the family. God had promised Simeon he would not die until he saw Israel’s deliverer. When Simeon saw Jesus, he praised God saying, “my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” (Luke 2:30-31)
Rembrandt made at least three engravings of Jesus’ presentation in the Temple and several paintings on the subject, the first when he was 23. An unfinished painting on this theme was on an easel when Rembrandt died.
“Adoration of the Wise Men,” The Holy Bible. A.J. Holman & Co., 1875
Matthew’s Gospel records the story of Wise men from the East who came seeking the newborn King of the Jews. They came to the house in Bethlehem (Jesus and his family had moved from the stable), and when they saw the infant Jesus, they “fell down and worshipped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.” (Matthew 2:11)
This engraving of the wise men’s adoration has some interesting hints of the broader story. Though the wise men visited Jesus in a house, the scene is depicted here as a stable, showing the lowly place Jesus was born. The soldiers in the scene anticipate Herod’s order to kill all the babies in Bethlehem two years old and younger. In front of Jesus is a loaf of bread entwined with a bramble, symbolizing Jesus was the “Bread of Life” and would wear the crown of thorns at the Cross, breaking the curse for Adam’s sin.
Warned in a dream of Herod’s desire to kill Jesus, Joseph and Mary fled to Egypt. This beautiful hand-colored engraving shows the family resting along the way. Though the Bible was printed in London, the engravings were done by A.H. Payne in Leipzig and Dresden, thus the very Germanic (and un-Jewish or Egyptian) look of the family, dress, and landscape.
“Jesus Sitting in the midst of the Doctors.” The Holy Bible, translated from the Latin Vulgate. Dublin, London & Edinburgh: Fullerton & Co., 1848
When Jesus was twelve years old, his family went up to Jerusalem for the Passover, but Mary and Joseph couldn’t find Jesus as they were returning home. When they went back to Jerusalem, they found him in the Temple, “sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.” (Luke 2:46-47)
This engraving of that scene was originally an illustration in the French translation by Louis-Isaac de Sacy of the New Testament published in 1667. That the same engraving could be used in a British translation and publication almost 200 years later shows the international and timeless character of Bible illustrations.
“Jesus’ Baptism and Temptation,” Biblia Sacra, Nüremberg, 1782
At Jesus’ Baptism, he saw “the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him. And lo, a voice from heaven, saying, ‘This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:16-17). Jesus then went into the wilderness, where he was tempted by the devil. Jesus answered every temptation with a quote from Scripture, saying, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Matthew 4:4)
The illustrations in this 18th century German Bible are copied after those of Matthäus Merian the Elder (1593-1650), one of the most important copperplate engravers.
Miracles and Healings
Mathew 11:5, “The blind see, and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them.”
“The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes” & “Peter Walks on the Sea,” The Holy Bible. Oxon, England: Thomas Baskett, 1715
In the miracle of the loaves and the fishes, Jesus took a young boy’s lunch of 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish, blessed them, and multiplied them so that they fed over 5000 people.
Note the banners at the top of each page, acknowledging the underwriters for the cost of the printing.
Following the feeding of the 5000, Jesus sent the disciples in a boat across the Sea of Galilee. When the winds arose, Jesus walked on the water to meet them. Peter in his excitement walked on the water to meet Jesus, but began to sink when he became afraid. Both miracles show Jesus’ power over nature and creation.
“Jesus Healing the Sick,” Die Heilige Schrift des Alten und Neuen Testaments, Vienna and Leipzig, c. 1880s
This engraving of Jesus healing the sick was done by the French artist Gustave Doré (1832-1883) whose Biblical engravings became extremely popular. This scene captures Matthew 4:23, “And Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their Synagogues and preaching the Gospel of the kingdom, and healing all manner of sickness, and all manner of disease among the people.”
“The Healing at the Pool of Bethesda,” Biblia Pauperum, conteynynge Thirty and Eight Wodecuttes Illustrating the Liif, Parablis, and Miraclis off Oure Blessid Lord and Saviour , A.C. Armstrong & Son., 1885
The Pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem was thought to have healing properties when an Angel came and stirred the waters. At this place Jesus healed a man who had been infirm for thirty-eight years, telling him to take up his bed and walk. Some criticized Jesus for this healing because it had occurred on the Sabbath day, when there was to be no work.
This illustration is a 19th century copy of a woodcut from a 15th century Biblia Pauperum, a book designed for instructing the poor about Jesus’ life.
“Christ Healing a Woman,” The Washburn College Bible, 1979
After a bleeding woman touched Jesus’ garment hoping to be healed, “Jesus turned about, and when he saw her, he said, Daughter, be of good comfort, your faith has made you whole. And the woman was made whole from that hour.” (Matthew 9:22)
This picture, dating from the third century, is from what undoubtedly was a woman’s tomb in the Catacombs of Sts. Peter and Marcellinus in Rome. Two other murals in the tomb are of the Samaritan woman at the well and the healing of the crippled woman. The ceiling vault pictures a woman in prayer.
The Catacombs of Sts. Peter and Marcellinus are named after martyrs of the Diocletian persecution of the early 4th century. Between 20,000-25,000 are buried in this catacomb complex.
“Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” The Holy Bible, Rembrandt edition, Abradale Press, 1965
This picture, painted by the twenty-seven year old Rembrandt in 1633, when he had recently arrived in Amsterdam, captures the tensions of the Biblical scene described in Mark 4. The disciples, including fishermen acquainted with storms on the Sea of Galilee, are terrified at the fierce waves. They awaken Jesus, who was sleeping in the bow of the ship, to save them. Jesus calms the sea with his word and rebukes the disciples for their little faith. This miracle again shows Jesus’ power over nature.
The original of this painting was in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum of Boston, Massachusetts. On March 18, 1990 thieves disguised as police officers broke into the Museum and stole The Storm on the Sea of Galilee and 12 other works. This biggest art theft in U.S. history remains unsolved.
Parables and Teaching
Matthew 7:28-29, “the people were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one having authority”
Mark 4:2, “Then He taught them many things by parables.”
Jesus’ first major sermon, found in Matthew 5-7, has come to be known as the Sermon on the Mount. The sermon includes the famous passages of the Beatitudes as well as the Lord’s Prayer.
This photo is of the hillside where many think Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount. With the growth of travel to the lands of the Bible and archaeological discoveries from the Biblical period, some Bible publishers began to use illustrations focusing on the actual sites of Biblical events rather than artistic renderings.
When the religious leaders and some of the people began to reject Jesus’ teaching, he began to speak in parables – stories of everyday life which might interest the crowd, but had deeper spiritual meanings for his followers. The parable of the sower and the seed is found in three gospels. The seed pictured the Word of God. The fruitfulness of the seed depended on the soil, the receptivity of the hearer to the Word. Four categories of soil indicated four categories of people:
- Hard soil by the pathway – the Word heard is snatched away by Satan
- Stony ground – hear the Word with gladness, but have no root and wither when affliction or persecution come
- Thorny ground – the cares of this world, deceitfulness of riches, and lusts, choke out the Word
- Good ground – Hear the Word, receive it and bring forth fruit.
“Sower and the Seed,” The Saint John’s Bible, Artist Aidan Hart, with contributions from Donald Jackson and Sally Mae Joseph, 2002.
In this illustration of the passage of Mark 3 and the parable of the Sower and the Seed, Jesus is wearing blue jeans, scattering the seeds into the text of the Gospel. The four kinds of soil are clearly shown in the illumination.
The parable of the Good Samaritan is only found in Luke’s Gospel and was told by Jesus in answer to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus’ story was of a traveler robbed and beaten and left on the road. Religious leaders who saw him as they travelled and ignored him, but a Samaritan, normally despised by the Jews, provided help and aid.
This chromolithograph of the Good Samaritan is based on a painting by the 19th century German artist Wilhelm Ebbinghaus (1864-1951).
“Lord of the Vineyard Paying His Laborers.” The New Testament of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Dublin, 1816.
This parable, recorded in Matthew 20, illustrated the Lord’s graciousness in rewarding all those in His Kingdom.
“Mary Anoints Jesus’ Feet.” The Devotional Family Bible by Rev. Alexander Fletcher, 1867
This steel engraving was made after a painting by William Hamilton (1751-1801). An engraving of the painting was made for Thomas Macklin’s magnificent 7- volume Bible in 1800. The engraving was then included in numerous other 19th century Bibles.
After Jesus had raised Mary’s brother Lazarus back to life, the authorities began plotting Jesus’ death. Mary, more than Jesus’ disciples, understood that Jesus’ time before his death was short. When she devotedly anointed his feet with oil and wiped his feet with her hair, the disciples criticized her, but Jesus said, “Let her alone, against the day of my burying hath she kept this.” (John 12:7)
“The Widow’s Mite,” The Life, Doctrine, and Sufferings of our Blessed Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, New York, 1844
While in the Temple, Jesus watched the people putting money into the Temple treasury. Many rich people ostentatiously put in large amounts, then a poor widow came and contributed two copper coins. Jesus told his disciples the poor widow had contributed more than all the others, “For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” (Mark 12:44)
The smallest coin in Judah at the time was a lepton (see coin nearby). When the King James translation of the Bible was made, the smallest English coin was a mite, which is how the word for the small copper coin was translated in the King James Bible.
“Das Heilige Abendmahl” (The Last Supper), Biblia, Das Ist Die ganze Heilige Schrift Martin Luther. Philidelphia, 1833
The Last Supper is one of the most frequently portrayed scenes from the Bible. At this last meal with his disciples, Jesus celebrated the Jewish Passover while anticipating his betrayal by Judas and his execution. He also established the Christian communion of the cup and bread for his followers to continually remember his body and blood sacrificed for them.
This engraving shows the twelve disciples, before Judas left to betray Jesus, seated at the table, with two servants waiting on the table.
Passion and Resurrection
John 11:25, Jesus said, “I am, the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will lie, and even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”
During his last visit to Jerusalem, Jesus sought to purify the Temple as a place of worship. He drove out those who were selling in the Temple, telling them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer,’ but you have made it into a den of robbers.” (Luke 19:46).
As Jesus anticipated his death, he wept for Jerusalem, a city which rejected him and would be destroyed by the Romans a few decades later: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!” (Matthew 23:37)
“Judas – His Betraying and the Taking of our Saviour,” The History of the Old and New Testament, extracted out of Sacred Scripture from the Holy Fathers, and other Ecclesiastical Writers. London: Sieru de Royaumont, 1705
Judas, one of Jesus’ disciples, brought the authorities to arrest Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, where he had gone to pray. Judas kissed Jesus as a signal to the soldiers of who Jesus was. Jesus addressed his betrayer: “Judas, would you betray the Son of man with a kiss?” (Luke 22:48)
This engraving builds upon the earlier engraving by Mattheaus Merian, the Elder.
As Jesus was led to the place of crucifixion, a great multitude of people, especially women, followed him mourning and crying. In his own suffering, Jesus, knowing Jerusalem would be destroyed just a few years later, turned to them and said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children.” (Luke 23:28).
The 14 woodcuts in this volume are of the 14 Stations of the Cross.
“Jesus’ Crucifixion” and “The Descent from the Cross” The Life of Our Blessed Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ By Rev. J. Fleetwood, London, 1862.
The engraving of the Crucifixion includes numerous events surrounding Jesus’ death – he was crucified between two thieves; he was offered a sponge full of sour wine; his side was pierced; the women remained at the crucifixion watching from afar, though the disciples had fled; the soldiers gambled for Jesus’ clothes; he was crucified outside the city of Jerusalem.
The women continued watching as Jesus was taken down from the cross. Two of his disciples, the wealthy Joseph of Arimethea and the Pharisee Nicodemus, took down Jesus’ body and prepared it for burial.
“The Resurrection,” The Life of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Rev. John Fleetwood, London, c. 1863
Though early Christian art often depicted Jesus’ appearance to the women in the garden on his Resurrection morning, the first artistic depiction of Jesus’ actual resurrection was not made for a millennium! In this rendering in the most momentous event of all history, Jesus is seen rising from the tomb as an angel watches on. The soldiers sent to guard the tomb fall back in awe and fear.
“The Resurrected Christ appears to Mary.” A Family Commentary of the Holy Bible. Religious Tract Society, London, 1852
This engraving of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance to Mary Magdalene is based on a 1771 painting by Anton Raphael Mengs. As with many paintings of Biblical scenes, the artist portrays the scenes and clothing as if from his own time, so that Mary’s clothing and the setting looks very 18th century.