J. Kirk Richards is my favorite LDS artist. His newest book is a limited edition anthology of fine art prints, hand bound in leather and hand finished with wood panels. Each of the forty works contained in the book is a different image of Christ. I’ve been a huge fan of Kirk’s work for years, and I am honored that he recently asked me to write a short forward to the book. For me, this is devotional art at its absolute best, and I explain why in my introduction to these striking images, which follows below:
It is not uncommon for Mormons to speculate about which LDS Apostles have seen Jesus Christ in person. The stories that circulate on this subject—like Elder Talmage being personally consulted by the Savior inside the temple while he completed the manuscript for Jesus The Christ—are deeply grounded in a conviction that the Apostles are special witnesses of Christ. One of the most interesting bits of folklore involves a typically unnamed Apostle casually remarking that the image of Christ in a particular painting (though which painting varies quite a bit) most closely resembles His actual likeness. This is a powerful account for Mormon believers, not just because it reinforces our sense of there being an intimate and real connection between Christ and His Apostles, but because it hints at the possibility of our being able to see Christ, to know what He looks like, via the painted image. I suspect that the centrality of personal encounters with Christ among Church members (who have been taught to anticipate their own meaningful and intimate face-to-face, body-to-body meeting with Him) is related to the ubiquity and popularity of Christ portraiture in Mormonism.
There is a rather strange but prominent feature of the accounts of Jesus’ resurrection in the New Testament. There are three separate stories of disciples, intimately acquainted with Jesus during His ministry, encountering the risen Messiah without recognizing Him. This mostly seems like a quaint detail to us now, like maybe Jesus is testing them. But consider it from the perspective of the disciples themselves, men and women who not only now encountered the risen Christ as an ordinary, anonymous person who walked and spoke and ate, but who did so with the personal experience of hearing Him relate the parable of the goats and sheep ringing in their memory. It’s one thing to understand the moral imperatives of the parable in something like metaphorical terms, as Jesus telling you that feeding the hungry or giving drink to the thirsty or visiting the sick or imprisoned is like doing those things to Him. It’s quite another thing to realize that it’s not a metaphor at all, or that the metaphor is also real. The stranger you just spoke with in the garden, that you just walked with to Emmaus, is actually the Christ. He could be anyone, anywhere.
The emblems of the Last Supper were metaphors for—“in remembrance of”—His body and blood. But He did not say “inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these…you have done it in remembrance of me” but rather that you have done it unto Him. This association of the very person of Jesus with the actual bodies of those most in need acquires a new, and perhaps even intimidating or frightening significance in light of the post resurrection encounters because it becomes so shockingly literal. The homeless veteran on the freeway on-ramp or the pathetic rehabbing junky going through agonizing withdrawals or the hardened prisoner—we are to encounter these people and minister to them as to the Messiah because they are the Messiah, not just figuratively but in the sense that any or all of them could literally be the anonymous Christ we memorialize in the hymn famously sung to the Prophet Joseph in his own prison cell.
Our curiosity about the likeness of the Savior, His true image and countenance, is understandable. But the deeper and starker truth is not only that we do not know His true, singular likeness, but that it is more or less nonsensical to speak of Him having one image which He can be said to look like. The emblems of our holiest ordinances are symbolically connected to His body, and we ourselves symbolically constitute, as members of His Church, the Body of Christ. We are His arms and legs, hands and feet. But that too is a metaphor. Still, He has a risen and restored body of flesh and bones, parts and passions. And it is among the very least of us—the outcast, the marginalized, the reviled and downtrodden and invisibly suffering—that we most encounter Him, most often and most literally.
The portraiture of Christ contained in this book presents many images of the Savior, with varying degrees of representational realism. Some works present Him as the faceless and featureless Messiah of the Cristo that first drew my attention. Some present a more fleshed out visage. These images, I’m convinced, tell us the truth about who Christ is and what He looks like precisely in their refusal to give us something concrete to work with. Contrary to some of our favored urban legends, it is in the ambiguous and abstract images that tell us least what Christ looks like superficially that we most directly and unambiguously encounter His true form.
So when you wonder which Apostles have seen the face of the risen Messiah, my answer is it does not much matter. We have all seen Him.
Ann Arbor, Michigan 2013