Jonathan Byrne is a professional mid-career artist who lives in the coastal town of Blackrock in Dublin, Ireland. After many years of making images and exhibiting at home and abroad, he returned to a subject that has always enthralled him, the Face of Christ. The images, of which there are over 30 in different colours, are being assembled into an exhibition that will go on tour in Europe in 2018. I interviewed him via email over the past week.
Melanie: How would you describe yourself?
JB: I would describe myself as a servant to a thought that a life should be spent in crafting a decorative, and, hopefully, a more beautiful world around you. This can be done with prayer devotions or parenthood or building nice roads or colourful gardens but in my case, the images are the thing. I believe that there is an appetite amongst a new generation for a relationship with Christ and I hope that my images, being both modern and traditional, can be part of the language of those new relationships
Melanie: Why did you choose to work on an image of The Face of Christ?
JB: I think the image chose me, Melanie. And I don’t mean to say that I was so favoured, what I mean is that the image was in my blood. Being Catholic in Ireland has always meant having a feeling of being near to the Church, it’s like having a next-door neighbour with that acceptance of a presence being close by. I drew many things as a kid and amongst the drawings would be sketches of the Face of Christ that were part of the normality of a child imagining the significant things in my world and placing lines on a page to represent them. The question, I guess, at the time was whether I had any aptitude, whether the lines were any good….
Melanie: And when did you know that the lines were good?
JB: I think an artist is born when a mother looks at her child’s scribbles and tells the child that the scribbles are magnificent; it sets a formula for the kid to try to impress more and more. And drawing is a quiet process, the wise parent in a busy house will soon see that a parental request for a drawing can guarantee an hour of peace; all that is needed is to supply the paper and pens and, most of all, the encouragement. When I was six, my mother submitted one of my drawings to a National Children’s Art Competition. It was a drawing of my father’s face and I won a prize and that was an independent endorsement that I had a level of skill.
Melanie: So you knew from early on that you wanted to become an artist..?
JB: Not really, Melanie, I knew that I was good but didn’t know if I could be very good. My schoolteachers, the De La Salle brothers, were great encouragers of talent, they contrived regular art competitions so that I would win and so that they could give me more art materials. Also, at the age of twelve, my parents applied for me to attend full day Saturday Art Classes at a very good Art College. It wasn’t classes for children, there were adults there and I learned from them. The course content covered not only drawing and painting studies, there were also sculpture sessions where we made clay maquettes of the human form and faces. It is in that tactile way of working that a young artist can get a sense of the three-dimensionality of objects. However, it’s also a practice of working with your hands and mind combined in a concentrated mode that is quite like a contemplation; you don’t notice the hours passing and then the work reaches a point of finality and that is a kind of awakening.
Melanie: And your preferred medium is oil paints?
JB: Yes, oil painting offers translucency, it allows the creation of inner depths of field, it has famous qualities of refraction where light is reflected from the oil surface. A colour can sit on top of another colour and allow the colour beneath to peep through. That is where the depth can come from in an oil painting. Many of the Renaissance artists used to apply green paint in their first renderings of the body and then they would layer the pinkish flesh colours on top of that green. That is why you will see a greenish tinge to the shading of the flesh in many Rennaissance paintings.
Melanie: And is your image based on the Shroud of Turin?
JB: That’s a great question, Melanie. The answer is No. However, let me try to elaborate because I did want to make a veiled image. I had developed an oil painting technique that allowed me to comb a thick new layer of paint on top of an opposing combed layer beneath, a new horizontal comb dragging across a vertical comb that had previously dried. The resulting texture resembled a rough cloth, like a coarse linen or hemp. And, with that base texture, combined with the translucency of the oils, I wondered if it might be possible to create a simulated cloth in which a faint image would reside, to create, in effect, the ghost of an image in a cloth. My goal was to create an indeterminate image, a face that could be seen and unseen in the same moment. It is like the Benedictine saying that ‘.. the consecrated life is a pilgrimage of the spirit in quest of a Face that is sometimes revealed and sometimes veiled.’
Melanie: Like a Veronica… a square section of cloth that wiped the living Face of Jesus and that retained the image of The Holy Face…?
JB: Yes, an obvious parallel exists with both the notion of a shroud and, also with the idea of a Veronica, such as the Cloth of Manoppello. There is great resonance to these famous images as the means of their creation has never been satisfactorily explained, and, hence, they carry a sense of mystery. They also reflect a need to have some visual representation of the physical embodiment of Christ in his time on Earth amongst people. And I have that need also. So, I set out to make an image that would appear and disappear. There was no magic to it, I would strengthen the details of the Face image in dark colour so that it could be seen and then I would paint over it with white or cream paint and the image would disappear for a while and then the paint would dry and the faint image would re-appear. A lot of artists using oil paints try to cover up mistakes only to find that after the paint has dried, the mistake is still visible. I wanted to use that stubborn quality of the paint to see what kind of image would appear from under the paint after painting it over.
Melanie: That sounds fascinating, waiting for an image to make itself manifest?
JB: Well, it was more than fascinating, Melanie, because, in a modern age, painting can be combined with digital photography to achieve new effects. I was taking photos of the evolving painting just using my smartphone camera as I went along. And there is a technology in digital renderings called Edge Detection, it was devised originally more than 50 years ago to try to sharpen the images of the NASA moon landings. After taking a photo of my rather indistinct painting, the photo-processing software on my phone assumed that I was a very bad photographer and it asked me if I would like to ‘Enhance’ the image to make it more visible. I pressed Yes and this remarkable new image appeared. I’m not claiming any miracles but I am fondly celebrating that unexpected moment of seeing the unseen.
Melanie: So….are you saying that you have found The Face?
JB: No, I am saying that I have found a Face. My image is just one more in a long line of images and, hopefully, it is a resonant image. What I like about it is that it has a sense of power without my trying to ascribe character to it; without, for example, having the eyes open. I think that we can know that Christ was upon Earth and that he had a human face but we can never know the eyes. The eyes tell too much about a character. They are, after all, the windows to the soul and I don’t think that we can ever presume to know the soul of Christ. We can experience Christ’s presence in our lives and we can have a sense of that presence but I think an artist must respect that the image of Christ remains a great mystery and not to try to be too overfamiliar. I think that my image maintains an appropriate sense of presence and awareness. The viewer can imbue the image with an overlay of their feeling for Christ. They may find that the image comes and goes, just as it does for all of us when we try to remember the face of an absent or departed loved one. It is in that space between portrait and indeterminate image that the artist can try to deliver a useful vision.
Melanie: I understand what you are saying but is not normal to love Christ so much that we believe he is standing in front of us?
JB: Yes, you are right, Melanie, it is normal, it reminds me of the quote in the Psalms where 27.8 says: Faciem tuam, Domine requiram, “Your face, Lord, do I seek.”
It is an eternal quest. And it is in that intermediate space between being seeing and being unseeing that true belief is called upon. It is faith that will fashion the Face for you. And the artist’s job is to provide the space for that faith; the artist’s job is to allow the room for that great contemplation.
Melanie: So, what’s next for the Image?
JB: I believe that I must find out if it is a good image that meets with the approval of a wide Christian audience. That will take time. There are ways to short-circuit that and I had been sponsored in 2016 by a German Art Institute with a strong social conscience to create a provocative public display that might have gained a lot of publicity. The idea was that we would erect a large poster on a billboard
in Berlin and it would show a series of images of the Face of Christ in an array like a passport strip and it would ask ‘Is this an Immigrant?’ I moved to Berlin for a month in July 2016 and began the preparations but during the first fortnight that I was there, there were several high-profile terrorist incidents that led to some calls to curb immigration. So, I felt that it would be wrong to proceed if my poster was a provocation in the midst of a recent and very raw set of incidents.
Melanie: Well, yes, I can see how that would have been controversial. Is it not possible to promote the image without being controversial?
JB: You are right, of course, Melanie. But there is also a view that Christ on Earth was a controversial, indeed, a political figure who did not shy away from addressing the issues of the day. However, I think that we can leave it to the courage of Pope Francis to negotiate the correct path for a social conscience. For my part, I began to call around to some of the churches in Berlin and I told them the story of the image and I had a slide presentation that showed the progression of the image over the years of making it. The churches invited me to be a guest speaker for an after-mass session on Sundays that was publicised in advance. We did that, I brought along some handouts, made the presentation, and it worked very well. And, the following week, I ended up speaking on a Sunday evening in the Marienkirche in Alexander Platz which is a beautiful old cathedral that I had visited as a tourist in the first week of my arrival to Berlin.
My ambition, I guess, would be to have the images in every church throughout the world. Maybe from there, the image may permeate the next generation of Christians. There is even a digital version that changes colour very slowly. I would love to see that inside cafe and outside churches.
Your article can help me with that. Thanks for inviting me to talk about it. And may I also send particular thanks back through time to my parents and my teachers.
Jonathan’s website is www.faceofchrist.co.uk