January 31, 2014

The Temptation of Christ (Explanation)

In my last post, I shared a drawing of the Temptation and asked for readers to point out the symbolism. In this post, I'm going to explain the different symbols that I incorporated into the drawing. I don't always do this. One reason is that I don't want to deprive the viewer of discovering these things for themselves. A work of art becomes more impactful and memorable if the viewer has to work a little at it. That "aha!" moment becomes a reward in itself for the observer who invests a few extra minutes in the work of art.

But there is also a trade-off. If I don't explain the work in my own words, sometimes things that I think are obvious will be missed, or a viewer will put a different spin on it. In this instance, a viewer found the words "I AM" written in the rocks, which I had not at all intended to write. Some symbols do not communicate as clearly as they might, and this is a problem inherent to the visual arts. So with that being said, the following is a brief explanation of "The Temptation of Christ."
  1. Satan: In my previous approaches to this subject, the devil had been a shadowy figure dressed in a tattered black robe. Some years ago, I decided a change in costume would be not only less cliché, but more appropriate. I thought, why shouldn't Satan be dressed as Caesar in all his glory? Satan claimed to own the entire world—as the caesars did—and he also asked that Jesus bow down and worship him—as did Domitian and other Roman emperors. The symbolism didn't have to be invented, since it is already well-established in Roman art. So I dressed Satan as Caesar, wearing a sword as a symbol of his warring conquests. He holds a scepter in his hand, symbolizing his dominion over the earthly kingdom. His posture indicates his arrogance and vanity as he gestures toward the kingdoms of the earth and their splendor.
  2. The Lion: The devil is described as a "roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour" (1 Pet 5:8). There are lions emblazoned on Satan's sandals and in the center of his breastplate, an appropriate symbol of his power and bloodlust.
  3. The Dragon: The book of Revelation describes Satan as "the great Dragon...that serpent of old" (Rev 12:9), which brings to mind that first deception in the Garden of Eden. He wears the symbol of a dragon embossed on his breastplate as a boast: "Look what I have done to God's perfect creation!"
  4. The Tree: The devil's scepter points to a stunted and withered tree, which brings to mind the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil—the means by which he overcame mankind by introducing sin into the world. But Satan could little guess that a tree would also the means by which Jesus would overcome him.
  5. Jesus: Jesus is in every way Satan's opposite. He is the picture of humility—the Suffering Servant. His back is bent, his hair unkept, his clothing torn, his eyes downcast, and he doesn't appear to have the strength to even stand. He is facing away from Satan, and he shows no interest at all in his grand offer. Instead, if you follow his downcast gaze, it is focused on some cracks in the rock which resemble a body hanging on a cross. Jesus was ever conscious of his mission, and solely motivated by love. He resisted each temptation, maintaining his divine perfection—only hinted at here as a thin cloud which forms an 'accidental' halo over Jesus' head.

Pencil and white charcoal on toned paper, 2013.

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