Salvator Mundi: I Can’t Imagine it!

Salvator Mundi: I Can’t Imagine it!

The Apostle John pleads with believers to keep themselves from idols (I John 5:21) as well as reminds us that when he is revealed we will see him as he is (I John 3:2). Let’s throw off images, cling to what is confessional, biblical, and good—and know that there will come a day when you will see him face to face.

In 1978, art historian Joanne Snow-Smith quietly began a movement. She argued that a dark and ominous painting of Jesus Christ called Salvator Mundi was a long lost Leonardo Di Vinci. Through the normal media of scholarly debate, provenance building, and good old-fashioned marketing, the painting would make its way to the famous Christie’s auction block. Christie’s describes itself as “a world-leading art and luxury business.” A painting that, at its last sale (in 2005) was highly doubted among the art world as a Leonardo, sold in 2017 as “the last Leonardo” for a spectacular $450 million. It is the highest price ever paid for a single piece of art sold at auction.

An image of Jesus sold for $450 million.
Well, not really an image of Jesus.

Reformed believers have always been opposed to the making and use of images of Jesus. This prohibition is rooted in the second commandment. Jesus, as the second person of the Trinity, is not to be imagined, drawn, sculpted, painted, etc. The Puritan Thomas Vincent said: “It is not lawful to have pictures of Jesus Christ, because his divine nature cannot be pictured at all; and because his body, as it is now glorified, cannot be pictured as it is; and because, if it does not stir up devotion, it is in vain—if it does stir up devotion, it is a worshipping by an image or picture, and so a palpable breach of the second commandment.”

And that is not merely his private opinion, it is the confessional position of the Reformed and Presbyterian world.

Surely you know the exception to the rule. It is widely debated, even among church officers. Some will say that it is a “trendy exception” among ministerial candidates in a larger reformed denomination to take exception to the image prohibition. Well-meaning brothers and sisters will argue that since Jesus took on flesh, we are able to portray him. Others will say that images of Jesus are fine as long as we do not worship them or they stay out of the churches. Many will argue that images of Jesus are fine as long as they are only used for teaching rather than worship—think flannel-graphs and children’s books. But surely these are not the norm, but the exception. Every person that argues from these positions argues contra our confessional position and contra historic reformed Christianity.

The rule, rather than one’s personal exception is that images of God are forbidden—and that is all three persons of the godhead. (See Westminster Larger Catechism 109.)

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