The Human Face

Why is it that we often feel disturbed in a modern art museum? Surrounded by artifacts of our own culture, we should feel right at home. But many of these unrecognizable and fragmented images fail to communicate the true meaning of the human person. If, as Chesterton put it, “Art is the signature of man,” then today that signature betrays a dangerous disorientation.

“God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them.” The soul, the image and likeness of God, shines through the human face. In fact, our concept of “person” most likely comes from the ancient Etruscan phersu, the word for a sculpted face of god, an imago Dei.

The perfect face mirrors the perfect soul, the soul in complete conformity with God. This perfection is not physical beauty, but a spiritual perfection that shines through the human face. When we speak of a person’s “inner beauty,” we are acknowledging that the spiritual soul is revealed through the human face.

Faceless Features

Faces are missing from the earliest known figures of human beings, such as the thirty thousand-year-old Willendorf Venus. Hundreds of such figures have been found over time from the stone age, and most either have absolutely no face or have a rudimentary, frightening, mask like visage.

This hiding of the human face behind a hideous mask is significant. It suggests a man estranged from his humanity and at odds with his own rationality. Consider the figure known to us as the Gorgon Medusa from the temple of Artemis at Corfu (c. 600 B.C.). On the face is the mask of the destructive feminine demi-urge, Gaia, a seductive and fecund goddess who is death-dealing and cruel.

This image is not unique to early Greece; it is found throughout the Near East and the Indian subcontinent where mask like images of Kali, the goddess who drinks the blood of her offspring from cups fashioned from their skulls, are virtually identical to those of Medusa.

The birth of philosophy in early Greek thinkers, such as Thales and Anaximander during the sixth century B.C., awakened man’s awareness of his power to reason. Masks were removed from human faces, and male Kouros and female Kore figures of Greek youth strode onto the stage of human history with human faces adorned with the gentle smile of self-awareness. The significance of the human face was beginning to be appreciated.

During the Roman republic, with its insistence on individual worth and responsibility under law, portraits of male and female citizens reached a high level of artistic skill and extension. Although these Roman sculptures arose from a cult of ancestor worship, they are living effigies of both psychological and spiritual depth. These human faces reflect a rational and volitional nature.

Classical civilization had restored the human face to its genuine stature. This was noted by the early Church Fathers, such as St. John Chrysostom: “Clearly the ancients passed laws that were inspired by the law of God infused in man at creation, and as a result they were able to invent the arts and all the rest.”

Having rediscovered his humanity, what was now lacking to fulfill the human vocation was sanctifying grace. Through baptism man could be fully incorporated into the Mystical Body of Christ and be restored as imago Dei. This was recognized by St. Gregory Nyssa who wrote in the third century: “The image of God is to be found in the face of the saints.”

Broken Images

Ironically, Christian art now faced an unlikely obstacle: the Old Testament prohibition against graven images, especially faces of the saints. This thorny problem for the early Church culminated in the iconoclast heresy. In 726 the Byzantine Emperor Leo the ‘saurian issued an edict demanding the removal and destruction of all sacred images. When he tore down the image of our Lord that had stood over the gates of Constantinople, the patriarch who protested was summarily imprisoned and murdered. Riots broke out all over the empire.

Finally in 787 at the Second Council of Nicea, the Christian Churches, both East and West, under the guidance of Pope Hadrian I, convened to resolve the problem. This ecumenical council acknowledged as valid by all, was the watershed for Christian art that spurred the greatest profusion of creative activity in all history.

The final decree, read in both Latin and Greek, reiterated the earliest tradition that

according to the divine economy according to the flesh, to represent the human face of the Son of God, ‘image of the invisible God’ (Col. 1.15) is to see the ‘Word made flesh’ (cf. John 1.29) the ‘lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ (John 1.29) . . . Therefore art can represent the form, the effigy of God’s human face and lead the one who contemplates it to the ineffable mystery of God made man for our salvation.

Pope Hadrian, as supreme pontiff, wrote: “By means of a visible face, our spirit will be carried by a spiritual attraction toward the invisible majesty of the divinity through the image where is represented the flesh that the Son of God deigned to take for our salvation.” The tradition reestablished, images of Christ, especially as Pantocrator (Lord of all), once again adorned the churches of Christendom. It was further decreed that the Blessed Mother and the saints might also be represented and given the prostration of honor which is accorded to icons, for “He who prostates before the icon does so before the person who is represented therein” and that this honor in no way impinges upon or interferes with the “true adoration owed to Almighty God alone.”

The Eastern Church then embarked upon a glorious and prolific outpouring of images of our Lord, holy Mary, and the saints that has survived virtually intact to this day. These images, known as icons, are painted according to very strict rules. They are abstractions of a sort and are meant to convey visual concepts according to heavenly archetypes of the imago Dei. They are not meant to portray fleshly persons.

For example, the image of the Blessed Mother is not meant to show the actual Virgin of Nazareth. This image follows the oldest iconographic tradition, the Hodegetria style, and represents Mary presenting her divine son to us. Because it portrays ideas, it can be “read” or deciphered. Thus Mary’s face is depicted as a spiritual reality. Her eyes, the windows of the soul, are very large and prominent. Her mouth, the door to the body, is rendered quite small. Her nose is thin and refined to play down any aspect of sensuality.

She wears a cloak of red earth color to show that she is not a goddess but a daughter of Adam. The eight-pointed star on both her head and shoulder shows that she is holy in both body and mind. Her divine son, Jesus, is represented as a small adult to show that he is the “Wisdom of God.” His golden robe shows that he is high priest and king, and the whole scene is placed against a golden backdrop that represents heaven.

This icon follows very literally the dictates of Nicea II: To bring viewers to the heavenly abode where they might contemplate the reality of the holy persons as exemplars of human perfection in the glorified state.

Facing West

The West followed a somewhat different path. Rather than destroy existing pagan art forms, the Roman Church adapted them to serve the spiritual needs of the many converts who were imbued with a tradition of idolatry. In a landmark letter written in 596 to the French Abbot, Mellitus, Pope St. Gregory the Great instructs that the statues of the pagan gods were simply to be converted to images of Jesus, Mary, and the saints. This practice would provide continuity and facilitate the incorporation of the barbarians into the Church. Some of these new images show their Hellenistic origins while others reflect ancient folk traditions of the Celts, Visigoths, and other pagan tribes.

The practice of painting saints as very human persons began with the Franciscan humanism of the early thirteenth century. In contrast to the Byzantine tradition, which looked to heaven to find God, St. Francis saw God’s splendor in all of his creation. Francis pointed out that through the Incarnation nature itself had been transformed and elevated to a new level.

Thus, the artists of the period, starting with Ducio and Giotto, infused their art with this new spirituality. Ducio, the great master of the Siennese school, still painted the Madonna according to the canons of the Byzantine Greek style, but he softened and humanized her face to give the viewer a deeper intuition into the psychological dimension of her sanctity. The Virgin’s eyes make contact with the viewer, inviting a deeper understanding of her “fiat” and the nature of both her joy and her suffering.

The rendering of the same subject by Giotto, while still influenced by Byzantine tradition, breaks more definitively from the old theological style by conveying a concrete mood both through facial expression and body language. This depiction of the Blessed Mother contemplating her dead son captures that moment in time when “through her own heart a sword would pass.” However, according to many, the greatest artist to render the complete imago Dei—that is, the rational soul infused with sanctifying grace as reflected in the human face—was the Dominican friar, Giovani de Fiesole, known as Fra Angelico. His portrait of St. Dominic is one of the most profound images of a human being whose soul is molded to the divine likeness in the history of art.

With subtlety and intuition, Fra Angelico has distilled in this portrait of the founder of his order that holy hope spoken of by that other great Dominican, St. Thomas Aquinas: “It is not for some vaguely defined happiness that they hope, but for eternal happiness with Our Lady and the angels and saints in the vision of the Triune God.” It is not surprising that Fra Angelico, this great genius of human creativity, was himself recently raised to the official rank of Blessed and made patron, along with St. Luke, of Christian artists.

Death Masks

Fortunately, we do not always have to rely on artists to see how the face of a canonized saint reflects, and through grace, reveals, the image of God. We have effigies molded directly from their faces in life and in death, and now we even have photographs. These images speak for themselves. Especially at the hour of death one notices the gentle smile, the calm and composed facial muscles, the relaxed expression on the death mask of Paul of the Cross. Similarly the death-bed photographs of Bernadette Soubirous clearly show her joyful encounter and intense relationship with Jesus Christ that is the hallmark of the Christian saint.

Some of the photographs of more recent saints were taken while they were still living and carrying out their apostolic endeavors. The pictures of both St. John Bosco and St. Theresa of Lisieux bear the unmistakable stamp of the saint. Their expressions do not show a stoic resignation but a loving gentleness and a quiet joie de vivre. Even though both saints look weary from hardship and pain, a radiant love streams forth from their eyes. Here is the imago Dei, the face of Him who saved and blessed man from the throne of the cross.

The canvasses of modern painters broadcast man’s estrangement from God and from himself. Artists such as Rufino Tamayo and Pablo Picasso have taken us back to the prehistoric vision of the Gorgon’s mask, of woman the sorceress, of pleasure holding hands with death. In Tamayo’s Carnival, the naked woman is front and center, her imago Dei covered with a feline mask as she leads her willing victim away.

In Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon a more complex message emerges. The masked figure on the left represents primal innocence as stepping forth into the red background, symbolic of passion. Compositionally she forms a triad with the two central figures, who with their frank, frontal sexuality and dead-eyed faces display not only candid eroticism, but the passive despair of the joyless. The grossly distorted women on the right are covered with bestial masks. For Picasso, who fundamentally loathed and feared women, desire and dread are linked in sex, and sex, for Picasso, was the god in his groin.

Led on by such avant-garde cubists as Picasso, other artists have pressed even further. They deny the validity of representing not only the human face but all created reality, in a Manichaean denial of the goodness of creation. As documented in the 1985 catalogue of the Los Angeles Museum of Fine Art, virtually all of the Promethean figures of abstract modern art—Art, Klee, Kandinsky, Mondrian, Pollock, Rothco—have drawn their inspiration from some form of occult gnosticism, that ancient heresy that posits that man, at his core, is a divine being trapped in the horror of physical reality.

Window of the Soul

Gnostic New Agers, with clear ties to ancient cults, once again sing the siren song that man, if he looks deeply enough within his own nature, will find the spark of his own divinity. Look at the faces of two of the best known modern prophets of “human divinity,” educator Rudolf Steiner and theosophist Madame Helena Blavatsky. Notice the cold stare of defiance and hubris. Compare these faces with those of Theresa of Lisieux and John Bosco. Even more revealing, compare the eyes—the windows of the soul—of Mother Teresa with those of Jack Kevorkian (Doctor Death). Whose are alive with hope, and whose are dead in despair?

Do we see the image of God on the faces of our celebrities? At the other extreme, do saccharine images of Our Lady and languid depersonalized statues of Christ and his saints seen in religious art catalogues inspire us to contemplate the ineffable mystery of God and man? Do they stir us to search for truth and discover the real purpose of our lives?

As we cross the threshold of hope in the twenty-first century, the third millennium of the Christian dispensation, let us pray that there be renewal among artists—painters, sculptors, poets, writers, musicians—ready to inflame the imagination with worthy images of the human person, all potential saints, destined to be united with God for eternity.


  • H. Reed Armstrong

    H. Reed Armstrong is a sculptor and Professor of Fine Arts with the International Catholic University, Notre Dame, IN. He has written articles and reviews for Crisis, Communio, Latin Mass, The Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly, and most recently, the Review of Metaphysics. Much of his sculptural work and writings may be seen at his website: A.G. DEI Art.

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