Why don’t artists show Jesus as happy or smiling?

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Jesus
This detail of ''Jesus the Pantocrator'' is from the ceiling of St. Catherine's Monastery in Sinai, Egypt. (CNS photo courtesy Catholic Communication Campaign)

Question: For 2,000 years, images of Jesus have been rendered artistically in mediums (oil paintings, mosaics, sculptures, etc.) with virtually all of them portraying him either expressionless or in agony. Why has Jesus never been depicted as joyous or even smiling?

Name withheld

Answer: Your question is interesting not only as a historical one but also as a cultural one. It seems generally true not only of Jesus but also of all art that laughter is seldom depicted. This was also true of early photography. The common call of the photographer, “Smile!” is rather recent. Most pictures prior to the 1950s featured rather stoic, expressionless faces, even for wedding portraits. Part of this was likely due to the longer exposure times needed for pictures. People needed to hold still, and a neutral expression facilitated that. Laughter, or smiling, is also hard to capture well in the “frozen” time of pictures and paintings since it involves numerous, rapidly changing appearances and gestures.

But it would seem that there was also a cultural sense that laughter or smiles were less dignified and that paintings and portraits were formal occasions. While this has changed today, ours is a rather modern notion. It remains the case that many find depictions of a laughing or smiling Jesus less than satisfying. Did Jesus laugh and smile? Surely, he did. But some find attempts to capture this as “dopey,” undignified or the stuff of a children’s Bible, and many think that Jesus should be depicted more seriously. Will this change as our own modern photographic portraits have? Perhaps. But that may depend on whether artistically compelling portraits that command respect can capture the modern imagination and show forth a joyful, even laughing, Christ.

Msgr. Charles Pope

Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. at blog.adw.org. Send questions to msgrpope@osv.com.