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Review: Picturing The Bible

By Jerome Weeks. KERA Critic at Large

Fort Worth, TX – At the first Christmas, the Gospels tell us, the three wise men came from the East to adore the infant Jesus. Except the Gospels never mention their number. It says only that wise men brought three gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. So where did the three men come from?

They came from early Bible illustrations and church paintings. In other words, some of what people believe about Christianity isn't derived directly from the Bible; it has been filtered through centuries of artistic interpretations. The number of wise men, of course, is not an article of faith. But in its first four centuries, Christianity went from being an oppressed, inward, Jewish sect to being the most powerful church on the planet, a stakeholder in the Roman Empire. Understandably, huge changes buffeted the religion -- and its art -- during these early years.

This is the story told by Picturing the Bible: The Earliest Christian Art, the exclusive new exhibition at the Kimbell Art Museum. It features some 100 pieces of art, many not seen before outside of Europe. Unfortunately, many of the most impressive artworks from the period paintings on catacombs, frescoes in churches can't travel. Photographs must suffice, although because many were taken a century ago and then hand-tinted, they provide a livelier sense of the original colors than what's on the walls in Italy today.

Among several threads it follows, Picturing the Bible chronicles a profound shift in the image of Jesus. At first, he is seen as teacher and healer, depicted as little different than an ordinary man wearing simple garments. It is his wisdom and his miracles that are profound. In effect, he is just a vessel for the Word of God.

But as the Roman emperor Constantine became Christian he was baptized shortly before his death in 327 the imagery changed. Jesus becomes Jesus the Lord, Jesus the King. In the images in the exhibition, Jesus gets bigger, the halos get bigger, the garments turn to gold and he is enthroned in glory.

In effect, the unassuming teacher of love wasn't impressive enough to be the power behind an empire. Jesus became fused, in part, with the traditions of the divine Roman emperor.

These weren't just cosmetic changes. They became enshrined in doctrine at the Council of Nicaea in 325 which declared that Jesus was equal to God the Father.

Much of Picturing the Bible is small-scale -- dishes, funeral items, pages from ancient Bibles -- it's more intimate than what we might think of as church art because for many years, the fugitive Christians didn't really have churches. As a result, many works have more historical and religious significance than artistic polish. Nonetheless, former Kimbell director Timothy Potts has included some dazzlers especially, a sixth century gold crucifix studded with gems. It is understandably saved for last and for maximum impact: Few things could better illustrate the grandeur the Church had assumed than this gift from the Byzantine emperor Justin II.

Picturing the Bible is not easily absorbed by the casual museum stroller looking for Old Masters; it requires a deal of study and care. But it's a remarkable exploration for the Kimbell deep and thoughtful.

By the way, the wise men do appear. All three of them can be glimpsed on a 4th century sarcophagus, crowned as kings and carrying their gifts.