During those last days at CBS, I received a call from Lee Boltin, who had been the chief still photographer at the American Museum of Natural History. He left the Museum to work for the Rockefellers. Whenever Laurance Rockefeller or members of his family went on expeditions, Lee was called in for photographic documentation. He amassed a large still library.
Each time Lee saw an image of Jesus Christ, he made a photo of the object. Now he wanted to make a documentary from his stills. Laurance funded the project. Lee had cancer. He knew he was dying, and he asked me to finish the work he had begun. He assigned the funds and the pertinent stills to me.
After I left CBS, I spent several months making a documentary called Images of Jesus — a history of Christianity told through photographed icons.
“How odd of God to choose the Jews,” wrote the British journalist William Ewer.
My friend and mentor Leo Rosten gave this response: “Not odd of God to choose the Jews. The goyem annoy Him.”
I think everyone feels uncomfortable entering a house of worship, a church, or a synagogue not his own.
As a writer in the house of language, it is difficult for me to think that “thee” and “thou” are second person familiar forms, equivalent to “tu” in French and “du” in German and Yiddish. For me “Thee” will always be so formal as to be capitalized. For me all Christian churches, no matter what denomination, are extraterrestrial. Yet I had accepted the assignment and started the research.
Lee’s photography led the way. Because the glory was in the images, I wrote a short script…
While Jesus lived, no one made a record of his face. In his time, no one made a picture, or a sketch, or a painting. Since then every image of Jesus came from the minds and hands of those who lived after he died. Early Christians, by tradition forbidden to portray a graven image—at first too poor to pay for great art—scratched graffiti, signs that announced Jesus. A fish was the earliest symbol for Christ, the fisherman of men’s souls. The anchor was the hidden symbol of the cross because the cross was for criminals.
The first figurations of Jesus date from about 320.A.D. in the style of the ancient world — curly hair and no beard, an astonished shepherd boy.
The budget for the project was very tight, and I had to act not only as the writer-producer but also as the haggler-accountant. The editing equipment we rented was three technologies back. There were no cleaning facilities in the suite, but my enlisted status in the Army had taught me mop and broom skills. Nobuko Baba agreed to edit at union scale wages. The Japanese Jesuits had educated her and the subject matter interested her.
“To Hell with the Jesuits” was a notation I had seen on one of my friend Thomas Ryan’s legal lined notepads. Thomas was a Catholic in a constant state of grace. He acted as my unpaid religious guide, as he had on Luigi Barzini’s film, The Catholic Dilemma.
I had read about the schisms in Christianity but I had paid little attention to images, and the wars and killings those images had cost. I knew that the prevalent image of Christ in Europe was that of the crucifixion.
Christ on the cross is the central symbol of Western Christianity. The portrayal of a God who felt the same pain humans feel makes it the most powerful image in Western Art. In the east in Byzantium, the central symbol of Jesus is not the cross, but a dark, bearded judge with the book of judgment in his left hand. His right hand gives a blessing. Later in Byzantium, small pictures called icons were placed close to the congregation. Some of the faithful fell down before the icons, carried them in processions, and lit the candles. This veneration horrified others who said only God was to be adored, not representations…even of Jesus or Mary or the saints. Those who would destroy the icons were called iconoclasts.
For some fifteen hundred years, the images of Jesus could be seen only in sacred places. The history of western art was confined to religious sites.
Every major artist through the Renaissance and many afterwards painted Christ. There were small geographical variations. In France, Italy, and Germany, there is only one nail through His feet. In Spain there are two. In Europe, Jesus is always white.
Then technology changed the way Jesus could be seen.
The invention of woodcuts and printing changed theology. For over a thousand years, the rich and the clergy had influenced the image of Christ. Now simple woodcuts like those by Dürer were bought by the illiterate thousands. For the first time, pictures of Jesus could come into the home. The technology underlay the Protestant revolt. Once more, images were destroyed. Inside the Protestant house of worship, there was only simplicity and literalness, so that no image stood between the believer and his God. According to Martin Luther, the over-elaborate Church costumes and architecture tainted the spirit of God’s Son. Jesus was not to be portrayed. So for hundreds of years, Protestants and Catholics went to war and slaughtered each other, in part because of the manner in which Jesus was shown.
Tom and I went to Canal Street in lower Manhattan to buy a crucifix for a baptism in his family. The Muslim merchant asked, “You want Jesus on the Cross or Jesus off the Cross?”
When we began to photograph the Irish Book of Kells, Tom asked,” Why would God send his Only Son as a Jew? He could have sent him to Ireland, for instance. Why is Christ a Jew?”
“Why did God send his only son as a Jew?” A theological mountain I cannot climb.
Until the age of colonialism, Jesus and Mary were always white. When Christianity came to dark people, mother and child changed color…and then Jesus became black. In Asia, the images of Christ’s blood and suffering were found offensive. In Chinese art, Jesus on the cross is small with no evidence of violence. If every man had God in him, then the eyes of Jesus could be Chinese. And if the West painted him on canvas, the Far East could paint him on silk. American Indians converted their totem poles to Christianity. A Mexican Indian wove a crucifixion in wicker.
Jesus was no longer a white Jew.
Gauguin painted him yellow, and painted a Nativity in which Mary was Polynesian. Gauguin painted himself as Christ. In New York in the 20th Century, Jesus was painted on a slatted steel door protecting a convenience store. While Jesus lived, no one made a record of his face. No sketch, no painting, no photograph. The look of Jesus has been created by Man.
The originating station was WETA in Washington. They forwarded a completed copy to PBS for national distribution. PBS rejected it on the basis that the photography was not good enough and that “in some places, the horizontal scan was improper according to PBS technical standards.”
Three years later, when I was more in favor at PBS, the new program director was candid with me. Images of Jesus was thought to be controversial. Religious controversy was not on the approved list of controversies. Vietnam, certainly; racism, certainly; sexism, but not too much; drug addiction, to some degree; but religion, don’t spend the money.
The head of WETA was Sharon Rockefeller. She found another distributor of public service broadcasts, and Images of Jesus appeared on hundreds of local stations. It stirred no controversy, but it embarrassed PBS because it won the prize for the best non-sectarian religious broadcast of the year. I received a Christopher award from a Catholic foundation. I never knew what the ratings were, but when the program was put on tape, it sold over twenty thousand copies.
Laurance ran out of tapes. His assistant called me and urgently asked if I could messenger six tapes to Rockefeller Center. He asked to be billed. I think the six tapes probably cost $18. I gave them to the Rockefellers free. A gift to Laurance. Philanthropy.
Later, I asked my taciturn Catholic lawyer friend if he liked Images of Jesus. He said, “Only a Jew could condense the history of Christianity into fifty three minutes.”
DVD Cover, Images of Jesus, amazon.com