The Bellini Syndrome

During Dawn’s message yesterday at church, she said something that caught my attention. She said we often “are looking for a Christ and cross that is not so bloody.” This immediately brought to mind a concept in a book I read not long ago by Michael Frost called “Exiles”. Early in the book he descibes what he calls the “Bellini Syndrome.”

Giovanni Bellini was an Italian Rennaissance artist responsible for the famous painting Madonna with Child and Saints seen above. In the painting, Mary, serenely dressed in flowing taffeta, holds the baby Jesus on her lap while an angel sits at her feet serenading them both with a violin. On either side of them are positioned great saints of the church — St. Catherine, St. Lucia, St. Jerome, and St. Peter—all in various postures of study or prayer. Even the baby Jesus can be seen with two fingers clasped together adminstering a priestly blessing. Everything is orderly, reverent, and heavenly.

As beautiful as they are, images like these cloud our modern day view of Jesus. Many of us would look at the picture above and say “come on…I know that’s not real.” Indeed the painting was meant to be symbolic rather than real. But do we really understand this and separate symbolism from reality?

Every Christmas we sing of Jesus’ birth when “no crying he makes.” We see pictures of Jesus’ life with a gleam coming down on him from heaven and a glow on his face. Even the crucifixion is tidied up so as to not be real. These images of Jesus focus on his all-powerful God side and play down his struggling human side. This is the Bellini Syndrome, the portrayal of Jesus’ life on earth as something with which our lives will ever have little in common. As Christians we hold onto this image because it gives us an excuse.

An excuse from what? From having to go through what Jesus went through. From having to sacrifice as he sacrificed. From taking up a very real cross and following him. From denying ourselves in favor of something greater than us. From reaching the people he reached. From ever fully living up to Christ’s example.

As Frost says, the Jesus of the Bellini Syndrome “doesn’t ask ask for my discipleship, he simply asks for my worship….The one thing that we can’t bear for Jesus to be is ordinary, for his ordinariness invites us to follow him by providing us with a template of how to be Godlike even as an ordinary human being.” But we have been called to do more than worship Christ. We have been called to live Christ.

The paintings and depictions of Christ during the Rennaissance truly are masterpieces of art that convey a wonderfully symbolic Christ. But they can never compare to the beauty of a real Jesus who taught us how to live a real and sometimes gritty Christian life.

Live The Mission,