Most artists do one thing well and focus primarily on that one thing as their avenue to fame and fortune. Renaissance men like Leonardo and Michelangelo may be exceptions to this rule, although each of these had their particular artistic focuses through which they channeled most of their genius. For Michelangelo, that was clearly sculpture. (Leonardo was a genius at everything he did, but his problem was focus. It is said that he left more works undone than he finished!)
French society painter, Jacques Joseph “James” Tissot (1836 –1902), was also an exception to the rule. He had an amazing level of artistic genius that spanned two distinct realms: secular paintings (portrait and scenery) and religious art. There was some overlap between the two realms, but not much until Tissot had a spiritual conversion back to his Catholic faith that caused him to dedicate the last years of his life to painting nothing but religious art. (Please read the story of Tissot’s conversion and full body of religious works here.)
Vibrancy and Dimensions
The 365 watercolor paintings that make up Tissot’s collection, “The Life of Our Lord Jesus Christ,” are breathtaking in their detail and in their accurate depictions of the cultural-religious milieu of the Middle East in the late 19th century. Some of his paintings are very vibrant in color but most have a somewhat subdued tone owing to the medium he painted in (gouache, a type of watercolor) as well as the reality of aging. His paintings are well over a century old now, and watercolor doesn’t age as well as oil.
It’s not possible to pick a favorite image out of the hundreds in this collection. They are all unique wonders in themselves. Yet, one stands out as perhaps a summary of Tissot’s style and artistic gifts. The piece entitled “What Our Lord Saw from the Cross” was one of Tissot’s vibrant-color paintings, which makes it a pleasure to view. But more important than its pleasing presentation is its theological astuteness.
At first glance, it appears to be a very large painting, the type that could decorate the whole side wall of a chapel or church. Yet, it is only 9 ¾-inches tall by 9-inches wide, almost a square, and I believe the aspect ratio was carefully chosen by Tissot for what he wanted to convey.
It takes the unique view of Calvary from the vantage point of Christ looking down from the Cross at the people standing around. If the canvas was too tall (portrait mode) he would not have been able to show the full range of characters standing around. If it was too wide (landscape mode), he would not have been able to convince us that it was a view “from above”. The dimensions of the canvas are brilliant and well-chosen.
A View from Above
The very concept of depicting a Crucifixion scene from the Cross is artistic genius at its finest. First let’s have a look at the marvelous painting, and then I’ll offer a few points of perspective about it below.