Sister Wendy junkies--and anyone who loves to drool over gorgeous religious art--will want to set the VCR for "The Face: Jesus in Art," coming soon to a public television station near you.

Partly funded by the Catholic Communication Campaign (and introduced at its Radio City premiere by New York's Cardinal Edward Egan), "The Face" is a two-hour PBS production that will also appear on the PAX network later in the year.

The staples are here: catacomb paintings, the Sistine Chapel, Rembrandt masterpieces, Giotto's frescoes, and the stunning mosaics and icons of St. Catherine's Monastery in the Sinai desert. Stacey Keach, Mel Gibson, and others narrate a script that mixes illustrative phrases from the Nicene Creed and the Bible with historical and art-related factoids. Though it boasts few surprises, "The Face" is an enjoyable overview of Christian art's greatest hits.

MTV historians who remember Michael Jackson's "Black or White" video will recognize the face-morphing technique of the film's opening shot: Jesus' face transforms from Byzantine Pantocrator to mild-featured Dutchman to strong-jawed Latino, and so on. Most of these images are revisited as the film progresses.

The show's first segment spends much time emphasizing that the Incarnation justifies religious art, almost as if the Taliban militia were waiting to pounce on the filmmakers. The next hour is devoted to the greats of European art, including Michelangelo's Last Judgment, Ravenna's mosaics, Fra Angelico's paintings, and light-filled rose windows from massive cathedrals. Craftsmanship scenes abound--an egg yolk plunges dramatically into dry pigments as fresco materials are readied, a workman pushes a tessera into a mosaic--but the chief focus is on the religious value of the artworks and their meaning for believers.

"The Face" then moves on to non-European material, like a rare crucifixion scene done in the Islamic tradition and images from Coptic churches. Ricardo Montalban mellifluously narrates the Latin American segment, which opens with a view of the mountaintop Jesus statue of Rio de Janiero and closes with a graphic, anatomically correct close-up of the Sacred Heart.

Christian art from Asia is given short shrift; viewers may wonder whether beautiful calligraphy on a Chinese church sign is all Asia can offer. Works from the African continent do not appear at all, though African American representations of Jesus are addressed later in the show. The final segment treats contemporary images, ranging from Chagall's powerful "White Crucifixion" to Warner Sallman's well-known "Head of Christ."

In attempting to cover as many styles as possible, the show suffers from a few incongruous juxtapositions. Its uneven segues, which must have been planned with pledge drives in mind, are also distracting. Despite this, the power of the images and the passion of the artists come through. In great part, "The Face" achieves what it set out to do: support Andre Gide's contention that "True art is always a collaboration between God and the artist."

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus