Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Documentary About the Original Divine Mercy Image - Is This Really What Christ Looked Like?

One of the most familiar images in Catholic churches today is the Divine Mercy image.
Most people will be aware of the story of the vision of Sr Faustina, and how she instructed an artist in Lithuania to paint it. What I did not know is that the images that we see most commonly in churches, and which are usually reproductions, are not reproductions of the original, but of painted copies of the original. You can see this in the trailer for the documentary here.

I present this because I know that this image has a central place in the popular piety of many Catholics, but I am going to have to come clean here and give my personal opinion. I do not like the Divine Mercy image - I find it a poorly rendered naturalistic image, very sentimental and not conducive to prayer at all. Although now that I look at it, the original, shown above, does look less sentimental than the one I am used to seeing, which always looks something like this:
I did hear a story that Sr Faustina was never happy with the image either, and in the end, reluctantly agreed to its use assuming that no artist could ever reproduce satisfactorily what she had seen. Then years later, so the story went as related to me, she saw an image of Christ painted in the iconographic style and said, “That’s what he looked like!” I can’t corroborate this, but I find it plausible.
Putting my personal preferences about the style aside, there is another very interesting point about this image. I am happy to accept that there is at least a basic likeness between the image and what Sr Faustina actually saw in her vision and described to the artist. The Divine Mercy image of Christ corresponds to the classic likeness that we are used to seeing in so many paintings from the tradition. He has a beard and long hair, for example. This corresponds also to other images not created by human hands, such as the Shroud of Turin and the Mandylion. 
Is this what Christ looked like historically? The skeptic would say that the Divine Mercy image looks as it does because Sr Faustina’s vision came from her imagination, which had been influenced by images that she had already seen; and that it was not a vision direct from God at all. The criticisms from the politically correct who are interested in cultural diversity would take the same line, and then go further. They would say that the whole tradition is influenced by a Eurocentric vision of the world that makes him a white Western European in flat contradiction to what history tells us about him.
I argue from faith and say that Sr Faustina did see a vision from God, and that (for all my reservations about the style of the painting itself) Christ did look like this. Furthermore, I would say, history backs this up. I will present the arguments in my next blog post on Friday...

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: