Thursday, May 29, 2014

Diego Jourdan Pereira's Bible Scenes

Diego Jourdan Pereira started his blog Jourdan Woodcuts: Journey Into Printmaking! in December. The artist has enjoyed an extensive career in illustration and comics, but is now attempting to more personally express himself through the medium of woodcuts.

His new blog has averaged two posts a month, and the posts are almost entirely photographs documenting both the work and his studio process.

Most of the featured works are part of a series illustrating the artist's favorite Bible scenes, particularly stories from the New Testament and centered around Jesus Christ.

Full disclosure: I don't typically read the Bible and I'm about the farthest thing from a Christian as is possible. But I found this series of images tremendously moving, and powerful in a way that transcends literal, personal belief. Images and stories connected with Christianity have dominated Western civilization for centuries, and thus, often carry profound meaning for non-Christians. In Context and Crucifixes, Morgan Meis writes about the use of Christ imagery by Jewish painter Marc Chagall: 

He saw Jesus on the Cross as a universally recognizable symbol of human suffering. Chagall hoped that Jews and non-Jews alike would be able to relate to this symbol.

The first image I've posted here is a depiction from Luke 24: 30-32, when Jesus appears to some of his disciples after his resurrection from the dead: 

When He had reclined at the table with them, He took the bread and blessed it, and breaking it, He began giving it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized Him; and He vanished from their sight. They said to one another, 'Were not our hearts burning within us while He was speaking to us on the road, while He was explaining the Scriptures to us?'

What I was immediately struck by in this image was how alien the three figures appear, while at the same time expressing complex and unmistakably human emotions. The eyes more resemble those of a chameleon. The sharp angles and geometric shapes found in the faces and hands give an almost robotic feel. And yet I can almost hear the figures in the bottom corners gasp in amazement. The face of Christ is most dynamic and even disturbing. One eye focuses on the disciples, while the other eye, cast in shadow, arches up to directly confront the viewer as he assertively presents the two halves of the bread. A row of white streaks read as teeth clenched and bared. Streaks of carved wood rise up from the table like steam, and fall from the ring in the center as if it is a rising halo. 

This is a moment of profound revelation. Moments when one person who has has endured an excruciating and deeply profound experience discovers a way to share that experience with others. I am reminded of great story tellers and a rapt audience gathered around a fire, or an inspired teacher who has brought an entire classroom of students to stunned silence. 

Most of the images of Jesus in Diego Jourdan Pereira's Bible woodcuts are of the divine Christ revealing himself to others. In fact the very first image posted in December is of the Magi presenting their gifts to the Christ child (second image in this post). This scene is probably the most recognizable as a Bible story. It has the star of Bethlehem, the three Kings donning halos, and of course a baby. 

In a shift from more conventional illustrations of this scene, we view the three Kings from just above where the baby lay (Mary's view, perhaps?) The baby's two, chubby arms rise up from the bottom of the frame, gesturing signs of perfection and benediction. The bright light emanating from the child seems to slice apart or dissolve the Kings. Instead of bugging-out eyes, their eyes are barely visible, turned down in reverence. As a mother, I cannot help but be moved to contemplate the impact a new baby has on the adults in that child's world. Indeed, adults bring gifts and fawn over the child, in awe at the sudden appearance of a whole, new person. A person who seems flawless, like a pristine canvas on which the story of their life has yet to be painted. A person who brings whole new depth and joy to those who love him. 

The third image shown here is from John 4, when Jesus speaks with a Samaritan woman at a well and convinces her that he is the Messiah. And the fourth is from Acts 9:5 when a blinding vision of Christ appears to Paul - the one who will spread the faith. These were the two I had the most difficulty with because while I find the imagery stunning and mysterious, they depict Biblical stories that are more typically an affront to my personal values of skepticism and pluralism. In both images, the figure of Christ is made to seem powerful  in his radiance, and mystifying as we cannot see his face. In the first, Christ's halo even shoots out to fix the gaze of the Samaritan woman on him. In the second, the artist incorporates the knot in the wood to give the appearance of Christ as a burning pillar with arms outstretched. In both instances is a bit terrifying, and I cannot say I am comfortable with the embodiment of so much power in the form of a man. I feel the Samaritan woman has been seduced or manipulated, and Paul has been intimidated into subservience. Surely such power and control is wielded every day in the world, for better or for worse. 

My favorite print from this series is the which depicts Luke 19: 41-44. Jesus is on his own in this image in a state of bittersweet contemplation over his fate as he nears the end of his days on earth. 

When He approached Jerusalem, He saw the city and wept over it, saying, 'If you had known in this day, even you, the things which make for peace! But now they have been hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you when your enemies will throw up a barricade against you, and surround you and hem you in on every side, and they will level you to the ground and your children within you, and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not recognize the time of your visitation.'
Here the face of Jesus is made anonymous. A smooth, curved surface, like a mask with no features. Two small knots which resemble a pair of eyes appear in the sky facing a third, larger and more ominous black blotch of a knot. He has a vision beyond that of the mundane world and moves forward, rather steadily, though the head of his steed hangs low.

It is like a desperate longing for peace in a time of unavoidable war. Finding the courage to do the right thing, knowing one will be met with punishment, not reward. What I see in this image is both the futility and undying hope of the human condition.

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