Artist as Christ

The male artist portaying himself as Christ or God is a difficult subject to explain to fundamentalists at both ends of the religious spectrum, either those who believe in the literal truth of the New Testament or those atheists whose faith in science and limited knowledge of religion makes them reject spiritual truth and experience of any kind. Yet it cannot be doubted that many people do have mystical visions leading to a sense of enlightenment. They seem to occur as frequently among creative people as those with a religious frame-of-mind. A psychiatrist who has studied the phenomenon writes:

“Poets, philosophers and creative men in general have long associated the wonders of creative insights with the Divine. In view of this connection, it is not surprising that peaks of creative inspiration and religious revelation are psychologically similar. Mystical experiences in every religion in every people are expressed in similar language and the great creators have described their creative moments in almost identical terms whether they be chemists, poets, mathematicians, musicians or painters….At such high moments, the psychology of religion and the psychology of creativity become indistinguishable.”1

Nowhere is the unity between creative insight and mystical experience more strange to the untrained eye– nor more self-evident – than in the tendency of major Western artists in every century to portray themselves as Christ and as God.

Remarkably, though, few but artists have noticed this. Some art historians recognize it within their specialty but their narrow focus prevents them from seeing it elsewhere. Most art historians know, for instance, that Gauguin and van Gogh, whose own uncle read the Bible allegorically, painted their self-portraits as Christ. They did so, though, at a time when the Church was on the defensive and science was gaining as a means to explain the world. Surviving letters from artists express such sentiments too.2  Goya, on the other hand, lived earlier in a conservative and Catholic country. John Ciafolo describing Goya’s self-portrait with a doctor wrote in 2001 that if the doctor “is the Virgin [as he correctly sensed], then Goya has had the gall to paint a self-portrait of himself as Jesus Christ ...”3 It is a jarring thought that betrays our culture's general ignorance of esoteric Christianity.  Given that, I will try to explain briefly what should be described at far greater length. 

All religions have mystic origins. Their original goal is usually described as Wisdom, or a truth beyond truth. Only later is the abstract concept conveyed through the figure of a God. The religions usually begin with a prophet (in this case, Jesus of Nazareth) passing on a method of training the mind to see past the illusion of consciousness in which we are trapped to a more complete and fundamentally truthful understanding of the nature of life.  The reality we experience is a mirage, a product of the senses which are limited, misleading and, in large part, a reflection of what we already know. We think the external world is truthful because we all perceive much the same world; ergo, it must be true. All it in fact proves is that we share the same visual system. A bat, rat or mole would see things quite differently. The answers to this conundrum, provided by prophets like Jesus, are complex, often run counter to common sense, and cannot be understood by all. Indeed the content of their teachings perceived from the wrong viewpoint can be dangerously misinterpreted as, for example, in a madman’s perception that he is God. They are therefore passed on in coded language to restrict knowledge of their content to a small circle of followers who become known as the elite, the initiates or, during Christ’s lifetime, the disciples. In the Gospel of St, Matthew Christ is asked why he speaks to the crowds in parables... 

“He answered and said unto them “Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given…….Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing, see not; and hearing, they hear not, neither do they understand…”4

Within mainstream Christianity a phrase like "the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven" is confusing. You either enter heaven or you do not. Only within esoteric Christianity do "the mysteries" make sense, a description of the hidden knowledge of Wisdom that goes beyond mere understanding. The initiate learns that divinity is not external with a distant God up in the sky but internal inside us. We were all made in the image of God which means that heaven, hell and God itself are part of us. Everything ever created finds its match inside our body and mind. That is the meaning of the mystical phrase, “As above, so below” , and why self-knowledge is the only way to God. It is also why Leonardo’s John the Baptist points upwards with one hand, while pressing the other to his own chest.5 To achieve understanding we must turn our attention inward. What Jesus taught was a method of training the mind to achieve self-knowledge, a state which cannot be expressed in words and is often described in texts as simply Wisdom, Enlightenment or union with God. Buddhism openly practices something similar.

Once the intiate has lifted the veil from their eyes, they “enter heaven” or “become at one with God.” Jesus shows the way to become Christ, to perceive the pure essence or truth within oneself. His life is a pattern to follow. We all have divinity inside but only a few can perceive it. In doing so, they become God, or in his human form as Christ. It is as though we each have a particle of divinity which contains the genetic code for the entire cosmos. Get rid of the clutter of misperceptions in each mind and the truth is revealed. At that moment, the initiate is metaphorically reborn as an infant, innocent and pure. Christ’s infancy is a metaphor for the individual who has just gained enlightenment while the life-story of Jesus, and to a lesser extent of the saints too, is a pattern for the initiate to follow in order to guide each soul through the trials of life. St. Paul, the man who first organized the disparate churches of Christ into a world religion, wrote:

“Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the spirit of God dwelleth in you? If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are.”6

In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance far more people than you might imagine were on the higher path, ignoring the literal truth of the Bible to look inside themselves for Wisdom, God or the meaning of consciousness. Private devotional books proliferated, encouraging readers to look inwards. “You must see yourself” they instructed readers and then showed them the way.7 Thomas a Kempis’ Imitation of Christ was a best-seller.  Besides, the visual evidence which will be published here is even more persuasive.  Five great artists - Leonardo, Michelangelo, Titian, Dürer and Rembrandt  – all painted themselves as Christ.  So did Mantegna, Lorenzo Lotto, El Greco and Perugino. Dozens have followed their examples. The idea, though, is so unimaginable to someone grounded in Establishment religion that their eyes are blinded to reality: hundreds of images of Christ and God resemble the artist. Picasso, the greatest artist of the twentieth century, tended to avoid religious imagery but his works leave no doubt that he was aware of the theme and understood it. His mistress Dora Maar recalled that he would sometimes exclaim: "I'm God. I'm God."8

 Enough said here. Please look at the evidence.


1. Philip Woollcott, Jr.  “Some Considerations of Creativity and Religious Experience in St. Augustine of Hippo”, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 5, Spring 1966, p.281

2. Laurie Schneider Adams, The Methodologies of Art: An Introduction (Boulder and Oxford: Westview Press) 1996, p.47-8; Henri Dorra, The Symbolism of Paul Gauguin: Erotica, Exotica, and the Great Dilemmas of Humanity (Berkeley: University of California Press) 2007, p.128; Amsterdam 2003, Van Gogh’s Imaginary Museum: Exploring the Artist’s Inner World (The Van Gogh Museum), pp.71-2; Peter Hecht, Van Gogh and Rembrandt (Amsterdam: Van Gogh Museum) 2006, p.65; for Van Gogh's uncle, see Amsterdam 2003, p.63

3. John Ciafolo, The Self-Portraits of Francisco Goya (Cambridge University Press) 2001, pp. 107-9

4. St. Matthew 13: 13-16

5. As far as I know, this is an original interpretation of Leonardo's St. John the Baptist not seen in the literature.

6. Corinthians I 3:17

7. Jennifer Bryan, Looking Inward: Devotional Reading and the Private Self in Late Medieval England (University of Pennsylvania Press) 2003, p. 3

8. Judi Freeman, Picasso and the Weeping Women: The Years of Marie-Therese Walter and Dora Maar (New York: Rizzoli) 1994, p. 181


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