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Cultural depictions of Jesus

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Jesus has inspired artistic and cultural works for nearly two millennia. The following lists cover various media to include items of historic interest, enduring works of high art, and recent representations in popular culture. The entries represent portrayals that a reader has a reasonable chance of encountering rather than a complete catalog. Lesser known works are not included.

For purposes of classification, popular culture music is a separate section from operas and oratorios. Television covers live action series, TV movies, miniseries, and North American animation but not Japanese anime, which appears with manga and graphic novels.

Art

There has been a long tradition of featuring Jesus in paintings and sculpture, ranging from the Roman catacombs and the conservative icon tradition of the Orthodox world through medieval altarpieces to modern acrylics. Many images depict the Life and Passion of Christ, especially the Crucifixion of Christ, whilst others show the infant Christ with his mother (Madonna and Child) or Christ in Majesty. Many of the most famous paintings in Western art feature Christ. The tradition continues in professional and folk art in many countries, as well as popular commercial imagery. Most images, whatever their origins, (as left) keep fairly close to the conventional appearance (and clothing) of Christ established in Byzantine art by about 400AD, which is now instantly recognisable.

Protestant Christians (following reformers such as John Calvin and Zwingli) frequently reject many depictions of Jesus as a form of idolatry (cf the Ten Commandments).

Books

Music

Gospel music has remained a strong pop element in the music of religious America, of which Jesus is a frequent topic.

There have been significant (and successful) attempts to incorporate Jesus in current popular music trends, from rock to hip-hop. This incorporation happens on three different levels:

  • Bands or artists who focus almost entirely on Jesus/Christianity. Most of these bands are in support of it, and their music will almost always deal with spiritual themes. A few detractors may critique, attack, or ridicule Christianity and Jesus.
  • Songs that deal with Jesus/Christianity. Bands or artists may not be religious at all, but they will still produce a song (or songs) in reference to Jesus. The songs may deal with Jesus/Christianity in a positive light (e.g., "Have A Talk With God" by Stevie Wonder), a negative light (e.g., "Heresy" by Nine Inch Nails or the logan used by the Anarcho-punk band Crass who used the slogan "Jesus died for his own sins, not mine"), or just as a tool to help provide commentary on modern society (e.g., "Jesusland" by Ben Folds).
  • A simple reference to Jesus in a song. Many artists/bands will use a line in a song to show that they are Christian, but the song will have nothing to do with religion. Hip-hop artists will often give a "shout-out" to "the LORD", "Jesus", and other aspects of Christianity as well.

During the 1970s, the "Jesus Movement" produced many songs on the theme, and there have been many bands since then, both Christian and secular, which have done likewise.

Not to mention thousands upon thousands of classical works written by composers of all time periods.

Film

The religious or biblical epic was a popular genre in the 1950s usually accompanied by towering budgets and names such as Charlton Heston, Robert Taylor, Deborah Kerr, or Yul Brynner.

The ensuing decade brought an attempt by a major studio to produce a religious epic in which the Christ Event was its singular focus. MGM released King of Kings in 1961, inspired by Cecil B. DeMille`s 1927 film The King of Kings. Critics suggested the film should have been titled I Was a Teenage Jesus, due to Jeffrey Hunter's youthful appearance in the film.

Four years later, The Greatest Story Ever Told, directed by George Stevens, was completed for $25 million. Though Max von Sydow's performance as Christ was praised, the film fared poorly at the box office. Franco Zeffirelli's 1979 film Jesus of Nazareth was a highly praised television miniseries, but stood as the last major Hollywood production of Christ's life for nearly a decade.

It wasn’t until 1988 that another major studio took a gamble on a movie involving the life of Jesus, but this one involved a new wrinkle. Universal released The Last Temptation of Christ amidst protests. The pre-release publicity centered around demonstrations taking place outside of Universal after celebrated figures in the evangelical media began speaking about heretical content in the film. Theater managers across the USA were reluctant to screen the movie and no major video chain would carry it.

Screenwriter Paul Schrader adapted The Last Temptation from the Nikos Kazantzakis novel which engages in a fictional exploration between the two natures of Christ - divine and human. The film was not intended to be a Gospel portrait. The fictional aspect, which apparently provoked opponents of its release, centered around a vision presented by the devil to the Jesus of the film while on the cross. In this vision, Jesus is shown what it would have been like to marry, have a family, live until an old age, and die a natural death. The struggle for the Jesus of the film is the torment between his human wishes for a normal Jewish life and his longing to accomplish the divine mission set before him. In the film is that Jesus conquers these temptations and carries out his sacrificial death by crucifixion.

In 2004, Academy Award winning director Mel Gibson made the blockbuster film The Passion of the Christ which became one of the highest grossing movies of 2004 and of all time. Jim Caviezel was cast as Jesus.

Date Title Country Notes IMDB
1898 The Passion Play of Oberammergau USA early black and white silent film, directed by Henry C. Vincent, starring Frank Russell as Jesus [1]
1911 Jésus de Nazareth France early black and white silent film, directed by André Calmettes and Henri Desfontaines [2]
1914 The Last Supper USA black and white silent film, directed by Lorimer Johnston, and starring Sydney Ayres as Jesus [3]
1915 The Birth of a Nation USA directed by D.W. Griffith, Jesus appears toward the end of the film [4]
1916 Intolerance USA directed by D.W. Griffith, Jesus is portrayed by Howard Gaye [5]
1927 The King of Kings USA silent film [6]
1928 Jesus of Nazareth USA black and white silent film, Jesus is portrayed by Philip Van Loan [7]
1942 Jesús de Nazareth Mexico black and white film, directed by José Díaz Morales, and starring José Cibrián as Jesus [8]
1946 María Magdalena Mexico black and white film directed by Miguel Contreras Torres, Jesus is portrayed by Luis Alcoriza [9]
1953 The Robe USA Jesus appears off-screen [10]
1959 Ben-Hur USA Jesus does not speak in the movie, he is seen only from behind or in partial view [11]
1959 El Redentor (The Redeemer) Spain Jesus, played by Luis Álvarez, is always shown from behind. Macdonald Carey provides the voice in the English version. [12]
1961 King of Kings USA directed by Nicholas Ray, starring Jeffrey Hunter as Jesus [13]
1964 Il vangelo secondo Matteo Italy / France directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini, starring Enrique Irazoqui as Jesus [14]
1965 The Greatest Story Ever Told USA directed by George Stevens, David Lean, and Jean Negulesco, starring Max von Sydow as Jesus [15]
1967 The Gospel Road: A Story of Jesus USA Robert Elfstrom was both the director and the actor portraying Jesus, Johnny Cash provided the music for the film [16]
1971 Johnny Got His Gun USA Donald Sutherland portrays Jesus in a dream sequence [17]
1973 Godspell USA directed by David Greene, Jesus is portrayed by Victor Garber [18]
1973 Jesus Christ Superstar USA film based on Andrew Lloyd Webber's opera, with Ted Neeley as Jesus [19]
1979 Monty Python's Life of Brian UK The story of Jesus is parodied by parallel in this movie. Jesus only appears briefly. [20]
1979 Mary and Joseph: A Story of Faith Canada directed by Eric Till, starring Jeff East as Joseph [21]
1979 Jesus USA directed by John Krish and Peter Sykes, starring Brian Deacon as Jesus [22]
1980 White 'Pop' Jesus Italy directed by Luigi Petrini, Jesus is portrayed by Awana Gana [23]
1981 History of the World, Part I USA directed by Mel Brooks, Jesus is portrayed by John Hurt [24]
1985 Hail Mary France / Switzerland / UK a modern-day retelling of the Virgin Birth [25]
1986 Jesus - The Film Germany Epic film in 35 episodes, shot on Super8. The individual episodes were made by a total of 22 filmmakers from East and West Germany, directed by Michael Brynntrup [26]
1988 The Last Temptation of Christ USA directed by Martin Scorsese, starring Willem Dafoe as Jesus [27]
1988 The Seventh Sign USA directed by Carl Schultz Jürgen Prochnow as Jesus [28]
1989 Jesus of Montreal Canada / France directed by Denys Arcand [29]
1992 Bad Lieutenant USA directed by Abel Ferrara, starring Paul Hipp [30]
1996 Kristo Philippines directed by Ben Yalung starring Mat Ranillo III as Jesus. The costumes, music, design and overall feel are all adapted to a local setting in Malay-influenced, pre- Hispanic Philippines. [31]
1997 Matthew USA/South Africa directed by Reghardt van den Bergh starring Bruce Marchiano as Jesus. All narration and dialogue is taken word-for-word from the New International Version of the New Testament Gospel of Matthew. [32]
1997 Orgazmo USA Jesus is seen cheering the lead character on at the end of the film [33]
1998 The Book of Life France / USA directed by Hal Hartley, starring Martin Donovan as Jesus [34]
1999 Superstar USA directed by Bruce McCulloch, Jesus is portrayed by Will Ferrell [35]
1999 South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut USA Jesus can be seen as part of the American army marching in front of Kyle's house [36]
1999 Dogma USA Buddy Christ is created as an icon to help revitalize the Catholic Church. [37]
2000 The Miracle Maker UK stop-motion animated film with Ralph Fiennes as the voice of Jesus [38]
2001 Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter Canada directed by Lee Demarbre, Jesus is called upon to aid humanity against a vampire scourge [39]
2003 The Gospel of John Canada / UK directed by Philip Saville, starring Henry Ian Cusick as Jesus [40]
2004 The Passion of the Christ USA directed by Mel Gibson, starring Jim Caviezel, portrays the final days in the life of Jesus. [41]
2006 World Trade Center USA Jesus is seen in the vision of a New York City firefighter in the film [42]
2006 The Nativity Story USA Retells the Biblical account of the nativity of Jesus, following the story of Mary and Joseph until the birth of Jesus occurs. [43]
2006 Color of the Cross USA Jean-Claude La Marre both directs the film and stars as Jesus [44]
2006 Son of Man South Africa directed by Mark Dornford-May [45]
2006 The Nativity Story USA directed by Catherine Hardwicke [46]
2008 The Messiah Iran Retells the Islamic view of Jesus. A film directed by Nader Talebzadeh, and starring Rennie Schembri as Ahmad Soleimani Nia [47]
2008 Anno Domini XXXIII Malta Retells the Biblical account of the passion of Jesus Christ. A film directed by Melvin Schembri and starring Rennie Schembri as Jesus

Television

Date Title Country Notes IMDB
2006 The Book of Daniel USA cancelled due to low ratings [48]

Television movies

Date Title Country Notes IMDB
1980 The Day Christ Died USA directed by James Cellan Jones, starring Chris Sarandon as Jesus [49]
2003 Ben Hur USA animated TV movie [50]
2004 Judas USA TV Movie [51]
1999 Mary, Mother of Jesus USA TV movie [52]
2007 The Lost Tomb of Jesus USA Simcha Jacobovici stars in this documentary about the supposed findings of the Jesus family tomb. The film dramatizes certain scenes in the Bible to depict Jesus both as a husband and a father.

Miniseries

Date Title Country Notes IMDB
1999 Jesus Czech Republic / Italy / Germany / USA TV miniseries, starring Jeremy Sisto as Jesus [53]
1977 Jesus of Nazareth Italy / UK TV miniseries [54]

Theatre

Audio dramas

Miscellaneous

File:JesusActionFigure.jpg
  • The popular clothing line Urban Outfitters has launched numerous Jesus-themed apparel, their most popular being 2004's "Jesus is my Homeboy" T-shirts, which were publicized by the Hip-Hop artist Kanye West.
  • The Jesus action figure has become somewhat of a meme of American culture. The action figure made an appearance in Sum 41's music video for The Hell Song. It also made an appearance in Smosh's video of the Pokemon theme song.
  • John Lennon in 1966 compared his group, The Beatles to Jesus in a remark that sparked outrage and controversy particularly in the US South: "We're more popular than Jesus now." He later retracted the remark and apologized to anyone who had been offended by it.
  • Many adult-oriented cartoons, such as South Park and Family Guy, use Jesus Christ as a character, in unusual situations such as a talk show host. Common associations made (e.g. The Simpsons) are of Christ as a hippie or rock n' roller, due to his popular image as a peaceful man with long hair and a beard.
  • The Channel 102 series Jesus Christ Supercop featured Christ as a renegade police officer who bears a grudge against the man who killed his father, 19th century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.
  • In the Spawn comic book series, The Man of Miracles appeared to humans in the form of Jesus Christ to spread a message of peace and tolerance so that armageddon could be prevented. Unfortunately, this message became corrupted by humanity, thus making armageddon inevitable.
  • A Christian Mexican campaign called "Vive lo Rojo" (Live the Red) puts big signals of Jesus in a very modern and friendly way. Together with Christian messages, Jesus is portrayed with modern things such as a skater, a car or himself hearing music from an iPod.


References

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