Tears, Veils, Thickets: Odilon Redon’s Representations of Christ
by Sedona Heidinger
This article delves into the incarnations of Christ in the Symbolist movement. Odilon Redon is the primary focus; his Christs are imbued with a complex empathy that conveys simultaneous comfort and pain. The article discusses works by Gustave Moreau and James Ensor, who shared Redon’s artistic filtration of suffering through dreams. With a further comparison with the Byzantine tradition of the Man of Sorrows, the author asks the question that continues to draw her to religious art: what would a divine being look like in the throes of anguish inflicted by those he loves and for whom he is prepared to die? The article's thesis is that through an emphasis on the portrayal of complicated emotions, a uniquely mysterious conception of the nature of the divine, and the reoccurrence of facial expressions that suggest a dreamlike state, Redon illuminates an idea of Christ that is at once unsettlingly human and insurmountably remote.
Religious Art
19th Century
European Art
Modern Art
Odilon Redon
The inner life of Christ is a unique artistic subject; despite the incalculable number of attempts that have been made at portraying it accurately, we are doomed to never knowing if we have ever come close. The psychology of Christ is so compelling perhaps precisely because it is something we can never be privy to. Christ’s suffering as artistic subject significantly predates Odilon Redon, James Ensor, and Gustave Moreau, but their mercurial positions within the Symbolist movement and their focus on depicting dreamlike states reveal new facets to the mind and experience of Christ. What would a divine being look like in the throes of anguish inflicted by those he loves and for whom he is prepared to die? I will argue that through a comparison with the masks of James Ensor and the somnolent quality of Gustave Moreau, along with the Byzantine tradition of the Man of Sorrows, Redon is singularly remarkable in his empathetic representation of Christ. Through an emphasis on the portrayal of complicated emotions, a uniquely mysterious conception of the nature of the divine, and the reoccurrence of facial expressions that suggest a dreamlike state, Odilon Redon illuminates an idea of Christ that is at once unsettlingly human and insurmountably remote.
Redon frequently returns to a moment of acute suffering in his depictions of Christ, but their expressions of pain are curious in that they do not betray recognizable signs of agony. Christ (1878-1880) (fig. 1)
Odilon Redon, Christ (1887), Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris, lithograph, 33 x 27 cm. Photo: The Athenaeum. Lithograph after Odilon Redon, Christ (1878 or 1880), Royal Museums of Fine Arts, Belgium charcoal and black chalk on paper, 34.2 x 27.2 cm.
and Head of Christ wearing the Crown of Thorns (1895) (fig. 2)
Odilon Redon, Head of Christ wearing the Crown of Thorns (1895), British Museum, London, Charcoal, black pastel and black crayon heightened with white on buff paper, 52.2 x 37.9 cm. Photo: The Athenaeum. © Trustees of the British Museum.
seem to be physical manifestations of the God/human hybridity that defined Jesus, emotionally charged figures that remind us of the true nature of Christ as the divine incarnated as man. These images both exhibit an extreme tilt of the head, frequently an indication of curiosity and rapt attention. They appear to experience deep sympathy mixed in with, and perhaps inextricable from, their pain. The intense pathos of their eyes is unnerving, and they are the overwhelming sources of emotion in faces that otherwise come across as wooden and masklike. Christ’s eyes are gigantic and tremulous, with a large milky tear trailing down his cheek. Their focus is lifted upwards, hinting at ascension and perhaps direct engagement with God. Head of Christ’s gaze is fixed quietly on the viewer, without any traces of anger or blame that would be undeniably justified and expected in any other human (emphasizing that Christ is, of course, more than human). The thorns that compose the crowns in both pieces seem gratuitous, unnecessarily vicious, extending beyond the shadows of the charcoal and glinting like so many blades. In Christ, a painful and almost distracting diagonal seems to go through his face, spearing the left side of his forehead and exiting underneath his right ear; the imaginative impact of this skewering of Christ is the most dynamic element of the otherwise softly-rendered work. Head of Christ seems to possess less of a crown and more of a thicket, threatening and animate, snaking down to cover his chest with its barbs. Christ and Head of Christ each have half of their faces veiled in darkness, distancing us further and preventing our clouded understanding from reaching resolution. This underscores the importance of their masklike appearance; the suffering and emotion of Christ have been dimmed by Redon though layers of attempted concealment. The ultimate unknowability of Jesus, God’s conduit, who clearly empathizes with us and with whom we can empathize through our art, is an obstacle we are not supposed to be able to conquer.
Redon’s use of the mask in depicting Jesus was echoed in the works of James Ensor, who made it a more deliberate and prominent feature in the faces of his Christs. Ensor interestingly avoided religious subjects in his art until the mid-1880s, upon his exposure to Redon; Christ thereafter became a frequent subject. Ensor
clearly understood the mask’s role in both disguising individuals and revealing inner truths about them, both extending or enlarging a person’s character and serving as psychological Other. This race of constructed faces, as endlessly individual as the human one, imposed no limit on the pictorial permutations Ensor’s imagination could devise.1
The masked quality of Redon’s works is suggested with more subtlety and less immediacy, relying more on the combined effects of shadows and gentle allusions to the Byzantine. Ensor, in his painting Man of Sorrows (L’homme des douleurs, 1891) (fig. 3),
James Ensor, Man of Sorrows (L’homme des douleurs, 1891), Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp, oil on panel, 20 cm x 15.5 cm. Photo: The Athenaeum.
uses a Japanese Noh mask as a template, creating the disturbing dichotomy of the evidence of his outward suffering grievously displayed on a frozen and inhuman face.
Ensor’s Man of Sorrows conveys emotions of similar intensity to the Christs of Redon, but with entirely different manifestations of these emotions and their effects. Despite the violence of the thorns in Redon’s works, we are spared exposure to any bodily harm they would have inflicted upon Christ. Man of Sorrows, however, is dominated by a savage red, and blood pours down Christ’s face instead of tears. The crown of thorns Ensor’s Christ wears, though certainly tamer in comparison with Redon’s crowns, has made deep gashes on his forehead and sends streams down his head. His hair appears stringy and matted with blood, blending with the unevenness of the background. The agony experienced by Ensor’s Christ is much more apparent; the forehead bulges in excruciating distortions, and the skin between his eyes is impossibly tensed and folded. The streaks of blue over his eyes and running down his cheeks recall veins, and it is as if he has been flayed and the veins and capillaries are pulsing on the surface of his skin. The transmission of his torment is halted, however, by the unchanging caricature of his masklike face, and therefore our ability to have empathy for his experience of it is similarly interrupted. His grimace appears unseemly in this face that is supposed to be holy, and the glassiness of the eyes is in direct contrast to the sensitive eyes that Redon gives his Christs. There is an uneasy ambiguity surrounding the concept of the mask; it comes in part from the knowledge that its effect is the same regardless of the wearer’s intent. It is difficult to tell whether it is armor for the vulnerable or protection for the wicked, and when a mask is given to Christ, the unease intensifies. His sacrifice, which we were already incapable of understanding fully through the separation of the divine from his flawed creations, becomes more obscure through the perceived action of Christ donning a mask to die. Despite the initial sense of alarm this could inspire in a viewer, the fact that Christ’s nature is hidden from us does not have to be ominous or depressing. Redon and Ensor’s decision to create masklike features for Christ could perhaps be representative of God taking on a human face.
Ensor took Christ’s masks further than Redon did, and he also added another facet to his depiction of Jesus: Christ as a means for self-representation.
Gustave Moreau, Christ Between the Two Thieves (c. 1870), oil on canvas, 210 x 120 cm, Musée Gustave Moreau, Paris, France. Photo: Giraudon/Bridgeman Images.
In Ensor’s Man of Sorrows, his facial features are clearly distinguishable within the restraints imposed by a Noh mask structure. The decision to impose one’s own face on that of Christ, to depict oneself undergoing the trials of humanity’s eternal savior, is a daring and potentially problematic one, but it was not an uncommon idea among artists. Christ’s sufferings were often taken as metaphors for the pain and alienation that so often accompanied artistic genius. Gustave Moreau, one of Redon’s Symbolist contemporaries, felt that crucifixions in particular were “clear statements of the dilemma of the creative artist,” and added the personal dimension of self-sacrifice to one of his paintings of Jesus, entitled Christ Between the Two Thieves (1870) (fig. 4).2
Gustave Moreau, Christ Between the Two Thieves (c. 1870), oil on canvas, 210 x 120 cm, Musée Gustave Moreau, Paris, France. Photo: Giraudon/Bridgeman Images.
The dramatic placement of the passive and unmoving Christ amidst the tensed and writhing thieves stresses the beauty and the nobility of Christ’s position, thereby elevating the artist to a kind of aesthetic divinity.
Redon had no interest in associating his image or his talent with Christ, but I am not trying to muddle the intentions of Ensor and Moreau by claiming they created with self-aggrandizing agendas. Moreau was in awe of the ability of Renaissance artists to convey the duality of Christ, a nature he did not claim to possess himself but sought to emulate in his own works:
What gravity, what sadness, what mystery in nature… The intense life, the intimate life of the being with his passions, his manner of being completely human, completely earthly and, nonetheless, always completely ideal and very often divine and meditative beyond expression—it is very moving… The soul—that hyphen between man and God—this refound virginity is truly very beautiful, very holy.3
Moreau, rather than utilizing masks, incorporated a stasis composed of elements he referred to as la belle intertie (beautiful inertia) and le rêve fixé (the fixed dream). He sought to portray a sort of somnambulism in his Christ, similar to that found in some of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel figures. We are shown more of Christ’s body in Moreau’s painting, whereas in Redon’s charcoals and Ensor’s painting we are limited to the head and the expressions of the face. Moreau’s Christ is hanging limply but gracefully, his head gently tilted and his hands and feet hazily defined, obscuring the fact that he is nailed by them to the cross. The cloth wrapped around him is bright and apparently completely unstained, lifted by a gentle breeze that would be incongruous with the heavy and threatening clouds above. The agony and emotion we have come to expect are mysteriously absent, and this is purposeful. Once again, we are reminded that the inner experience of the divine is something we are forbidden access to, but instead of hidden behind masks Christ’s nature is ensconced in a realm we can connect with through our sight alone. Moreau ruminates further on the effect this state of ideal sleep has on us, and where our imaginations take us in our attempts to empathize:
What acts are they carrying out? What are they thinking? Whither are they bound? In the grip of what feelings are they acting? The divine idea, immaterial. The idea of an otherworldly sphere to which they seem to belong. For everything in them is a mystery to us. We do not walk, we do not act, we do not rest, we do not ponder, we do not weep, we do not think in that way on this planet, in this our world.4
The vacancy of Christ’s expression underscores the idea that we are maybe too quick in our attempts to empathize with him; his thoughts and the way he expresses them are completely different to what we would be able to identify and to replicate in ourselves. This could perhaps be an admonishment, then, a warning to reconsider our plays at empathy; are they foolish, even arrogant? We are given deliberately incomplete experiences of Christ by each of these artists: apparent physical suffering confronts the impenetrability of masks and of sleepwalking, and emotional engagement battles the barrier of psychological detachment.
Odilon Redon added another element of empathetic involvement to Christ and Head of Christ wearing the Crown of Thorns through their evocation of the Man of Sorrows from Christian Byzantium. A hunger for pathos had awakened within the Byzantine consciousness, and the demand for the experience of potentially crippling emotion was answered in the depictions of Christ. A theology developed that centered on Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, designed to focus the attention of the worshipper on the intensity of Christ’s pain and rouse their sympathy for the savagery he experienced at the hands of his tormentors. The scenes of the Passion images were thus “made more engaging to the devout viewer by representing the punishment and humiliation visited on Christ as extremely brutal.”5 The gaze of Christ is instrumental in the imagery of compassion, to which the Man of Sorrows was central.
As we have seen, Redon’s Christs are depicted with extraordinarily expressive eyes, and the fact that it is only Christ’s head that is depicted in either work invites comparison to depictions of the Veil of Saint Veronica, or simply the Veronica. A relic believed to have been created by the action of wiping sweat off of Christ’s face, its significance comes from its ability to present the “true likeness” of Jesus, an actual record of “the anguished appearance of Christ” as he approached death.6 Two representations of the Veronica that appear to be quite similar to Redon’s works, both in the facial characteristics of Jesus and in the emotional quality they possess, are by 17th-century artists: Claude Mellan’s engraving The Veil of Saint Veronica (1649) (fig. 5)
Claude Mellan, The Veil of Saint Veronica (1649), The Strange Print Room, University College, engraving, 43 x 30.6 cm. Photo: The British Museum. © The Trustees of the British Museum.
and Francisco de Zurbarán’s painting The Veil of Saint Veronica (about 1635) (fig. 6).
Francisco de Zurbarán, The Veil of Saint Veronica (about 1635), Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, oil on canvas, 70 x 51 cm. Photo: Nationalmuseum.
Zurbarán’s work is presented as though it is the actual cloth nailed on a wall, and the slant of the head is echoed (at more intense angles) in Christ and Head of Christ. Mellan’s Veil has both the elements of the painful crown of thorns and the presence of Christ’s tears. Despite the potentiality for veracity the Veronica possesses in showing us the true face of Jesus Christ, we are still haunted by the concept of the mask. It is almost ironic to note that the Veil of Veronica—the only object we have that claims to faithfully portray Christ—is also the only object to physically cover his face, to literally mask him in the moment it becomes sacred. This could perhaps be discouraging to Redon, Ensor, and Moreau, but they relied on other methods—ones central to their artistic talents and philosophies—to convey religious meaning.
The use of color and the mystical properties of the dream—so important to the Symbolists—were essential components of Redon’s work. He eschewed color in favor of black chalk and charcoal for these works, and many of his other pieces, because “one must respect black. Nothing prostitutes it. It does not please the eye or awaken another sense. It is the agent of the mind even more than the beautiful color of the palette or the prism…”7 Shadows and twilight became tools of the supernatural to elevate their subject (Christ in this case) to their proper divine and dreamlike state. This is an unusual concept because it goes against our tradition—and perhaps, therefore, our first impulse—to represent the Son of God with light. In both of Redon’s pieces, Christ is lit only enough to keep him from being swallowed up by shadows; he is not bathed in glorious heavenly rays, nor does he emit a sacred glow that belies his internal divinity. These were not sufficiently mysterious enough for Redon to use in his depictions of Jesus; he boldly claimed that “I have a feeling only for shadows,” and he bemoaned the Impressionists because they did not pay enough attention to
everything that surpasses, illuminates, or amplifies the object, and elevates the mind into the region of the mystery, the anxiety of the unresolved… all that our art contains in the way of the unexpected, the vague and the indefinable, and that gives it an appearance that verges on the enigma…8
Redon’s refusal of color to distract from the holiness of Christ, combined with the focus on only his face, allowed the intensity of the emotion in Christ’s eyes to captivate the viewer and introduce them to the realm of the artist’s dream.
Redon’s divergence from cultural expectations in the pursuit of his elusive dream was shared by Moreau, though through very different means. It was perhaps also a burden felt more heavily for the artist of Christ Between the Two Thieves; although he prided himself on his work’s ability to “always give to those who love reverie and thought something to think about for a long time,” he recognized that the gestures of his figures “have little that is stereotyped and conventional,” and he hoped ardently that “a day will come when the eloquence of this mute art is understood.”9 Moreau did not share Redon’s minimalist approach to color, either. His Christ is surrounded by flamboyant and tempestuous color, brilliant gold against the deep grey of the approaching storm. Moreau felt that “a particular way of using composition and color could awaken responses similar to those felt during a religious experience,” and the way the light falls on Christ’s skin could be another way to reinforce that he is a divine being in human form.10These works are both deeply affecting in their mysterious and emotional representation of Christ, but fellow Symbolist Gauguin took the efforts of Moreau to be superficial and ineffective, while revering the style of Redon. On Redon, Gauguin remarked, “in all his work I see only the language of the heart, very human and not at all monstrous,” while he claimed that Moreau’s “impulsive movement is very far from the heart and he loves the richness of material wealth. He puts it everywhere. Of every human being he makes a piece of jewelry covered with jewelry…”11 Gauguin’s estimation of the higher religious appeal of Redon’s art, despite being at Moreau’s expense, is still indicative of Redon’s transcendent artistic aims.
The emotional empathy conveyed by Redon’s Christ and Head of Christ are perhaps partially derived from the universality of Redon’s religious views. His Christs did not reserve their love for Christians, they recognized and understood that their sacrifice was as much for people who would love and worship him as it was for those would despise him or never once hear his name. Redon utilized imagery from many religions; he did not restrict his subjects to Christianity, despite his personal Catholic identity. He painted Buddha as well, and figures that looked like Christ-Buddha intermediaries are common in his paintings and drawings. Redon believed that demonstrating the unity among all kinds of spirituality throughout human history was one of the highest functions of art: he saw it as “…the much awaited and glorious fusion between what comes from Christian patrimony and what will survive of our modern truths.”12 Through this, he believed he could prove the immortality of the soul, a goal that neither Moreau nor Ensor pursued.
Redon’s deeply mystical nature could have been significantly developed by his miraculous recovery from a mysterious illness that mimicked the symptoms of epilepsy when he was six years old. The wonder of his complete recovery, combined with the rarity of seeking religious intervention in “that age of both Romantic devotion and enlightened skepticism,” could have irrevocably changed Redon’s conception of the world and the presence of the divine within it.13 Were he to believe from an early age that he had been touched by God, singled out and cured so that he could serve a higher purpose, he could have forever associated his artistic talent with the grace of God. His Christs, then, would possess a holiness that would not need realistically human features or evidence of divine light in order to ascend to his world of dreams.
1 Anna Swinbourne, James Ensor (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2009), 22.
2 Julius Kaplan, Gustave Moreau (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1974), 43.
3 Julius Kaplan, The Art of Gustave Moreau: Theory, Style, and Content (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1982), 14.
4 Geneviève Lacambre, Gustave Moreau: Between Epic and Dream (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), 10.
5 Gabriele Finaldi, The Image of Christ (London: National Gallery Company Limited, 2000), 106.
6 Finaldi, Image of Christ, 106-107.
7 John Rewald, “Odilon Redon,” in Odilon Redon, Gustave Moreau, Rodolphe Bresdin, ed. John Rewald (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1961), 22.
8 Jean Selz, Odilon Redon, trans. Eileen B. Hennessy (New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1978), 29.
9 Kaplan, Art of Gustave Moreau, 13.
10 Kaplan, Gustave Moreau, 44.
11 Rewald, “Odilon Redon,” 36-37.
12 Douglas W. Druick, Odilon Redon: Prince of Dreams (1840-1916) (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, 1994), 228.
13 Nancy Davenport, “Odilon Redon, Armand Clavaud, and Benedict Spinoza: Nature as God,” Religion and the Arts 10 (2006): 3.
Davenport, Nancy. “Odilon Redon, Armand Clavaud, and Benedict Spinoza: Nature as God.”Religion and the Arts 10 (2006): 1-38.
Druick, Douglas W. Odilon Redon: Prince of Dreams (1840-1916). New York: Harry N.  Abrams, Inc., Publishers, 1994.
Finaldi, Gabriele. The Image of Christ. London: National Gallery Company Limited, 2000.
Kaplan, Julius. The Art of Gustave Moreau: Theory, Style, and Content. Ann Arbor: UMI  Research Press, 1982.
Kaplan, Julius. Gustave Moreau. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1974.
Lacambre, Geneviève. Gustave Moreau: Between Epic and Dream. Princeton: PrincetonUniversity Press, 1999.
Rewald, John. “Odilon Redon.” In Odilon Redon, Gustave Moreau, Rodolphe Bresdin, edited byJohn Rewald, 9-93. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1961.
Selz, Jean. Odilon Redon. Translated by Eileen B. Hennessy. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc.,   1978.
Swinbourne, Anna. James Ensor. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2009.
Sedona Heidinger
Art History, B.A. (2015), Arizona State University

Sedona is an aspiring art historian from Barrett, the Honors College at Arizona State University. She will graduate in Spring 2015 with her B.A. in Art History and French. She is in the process of writing her honors thesis on Victor Hugo and his relationship with architecture. She is passionate about art and literature, and is committed to several publications that showcase the talents of her fellow students; she serves as the Art Editor for Lux, the Undergraduate Creative Review, and has written features for The Normal School Review. She has worked and interned for various arts organizations, including the Musical Instrument Museum, the Phoenix Art Museum, and the Arizona Commission on the Arts. She spends her free time reading and singing with the Barrett Choir.

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