Jesus Christ was honoured in many notable ways during the year 2000, including a number of major Vatican celebrations, various evangelical outreaches, several media presentations, and the final official worldwide March for Jesus. But arguably the most spectacular homage to Christ was offered by a low-profile Canadian institution not associated with religion.
Running from October 7 to January 7, the Provincial Museum of Alberta in Edmonton presented ‘,’ a multi-media extravaganza exploring the many ways the life and ministry of Jesus have been understood and depicted. Timed to bridge the end of the second Christian millennium and the beginning of the third, ‘Anno Domini’ (a Latin term, now out of favour, meaning ‘In the Year of Our Lord’) was given $350,000 by the federal government’s Canadian Millennium Partnership Program. The project also received $550,000 from the Province of Alberta; corporate partners included CBC Radio-Canada, the Canadian Tourism Corporation, Pattison Outdoor, Edmonton Tourism, the Alberta Motor Association, the Edmonton Journal, WestJet Airlines, and the West Edmonton Mall.
The exhibit featured and extraordinary selection of some 325 art works in a variety of media, from almost 60 collections in 13 countries; donors included the National Gallery of Canada, the Musee d’Orsay in Paris, the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, and the Benaki Museum in Athens. Some of the show’s more renowned artists included Auguste Rodin, Fra Angelico, Gustave Dore, William Blake, Albrecht Durer, Marc Chagall, Raphael and Rembrandt. There was also a portrayal of Saint George and the Dragon, from the workshop of Peter Paul Rubens; and a painting attributed to Hieronymus Bosch, entitled Temptation of Saint Anthony.
Outstanding works by lesser-known artists included: Jesus at the Temple Among the Teachers, by Hermann Clementz; Christ and Peter, by Simeon Solomon; Palma il Giovane’s Dead Christ Supported by Three Angels; Resurrection: Rejoicing, by Stanley Spencer; Ecce Homo, by Antoine-Sebastien Plamondon; Bruce Herman’s Pieta; Christ Before the People, by Thomas Saunders Nash; Ford Madox Brown’s Expulsion from the Garden of Eden; Our Lady Protecting Quebec, by Jean-Paul Lemieux; Gethsemane, by Edward Knippers; Suffer Little Children to Come Unto Me, by Edward Coley Burne-Jones; Warner Sallman’s Road to Emmaus; Legend of John Brown, by Jacob Lawrence; Henry George Glyde’s Agony in the Garden; Jesus with Five Wounds Adored and Mourned by an Angel, by Sister Anastasia de la Visitation; and Fritz Eichenberg’s Christ of the Breadlines.
Special features included The Illumined Cosmos, a chamber containing stained glass commentaries on modern life by German master Johannes Schreiter; and The Dome in Praise of Creation, done in the Eastern Orthodox tradition by Canadian iconographer Heiko Schlieper, and permanently installed in the museum. Events related to the show’s theme were scheduled at the museum — including films, concerts and dramas.
Various sections of the exhibit were accompanied by intricately-designed ‘soundscapes.’ The music augmenting the images included rock and roll, Eastern Orthodox and Gregorian chant, Black Gospel, English hymns and American spirituals, as well as Celtic, Hawaiian, Cree and African music; composers included J.S. Bach, Michael Praetorius, Hildegard von Bingen, Felix Mendelssohn, George Frederic Handel, Franz Schubert and Thomas Tallis — as well as 20th century figures such as Igor Stravinsky, Benjamin Britten, John Tavener and Leonard Bernstein. The influence of Jesus on 20th century thought was represented by ‘listening posts’ featuring recordings of notables such as Elie Wiesel and Paul Robeson, and banners featuring quotations from Albert Einstein, T.S. Eliot, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jean Vanier, G. K. Chesterton, and several others.
‘Anno Domini’ was covered by a wide variety of secular media, including CBC-TV, CTV, The National Post, The Edmonton Journal, The Ottawa Citizen, and The Globe and Mail; the coverage was prominently featured, and overwhelmingly positive. The one notable exception was Canada’s most well-known national magazine; Maclean’s did not feature even a small news item about the exhibit — indicating either that they were not aware of it, or simply chose to ignore it.
Attendance at ‘Anno Domini’ more than exceeded expectations — no doubt helped by advertising that reached beyond Alberta, and packages offered by travel specialists and hotels. Organizers had hoped for 100,000 spectators; in the end, more than 113,000 people attended. On the final two days, the Museum stayed open several more hours than usual, to accommodate huge line-ups.
The exhibit’s organizers had originally hoped that Anno Domini would travel to several cities worldwide after its tenure in Edmonton; unfortunately, it proved to be too logistically complicated for them to make the proper arrangements with all the contributing institutions. However, the Museum still has a special website featuring dozens of images, and exploring 18 different philosophical and historical concepts of Christ.
‘Anno Domini’ featured an introductory video entitled Jesus in the Age of Television. It provided contemporary interpretations of the Beatitudes from Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, as reflected in events such as the Montreal Massacre; the Taber, Alberta, school shooting; the fall of the Berlin Wall; the American civil rights movement; the assassination of Oscar Romero; and the Holocaust. It also featured footage of significant personages, such as Mohandas Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Billy Graham, Pope John Paul, Stephen Biko, Tommy Douglas, Ernest Manning and Aimee Semple McPherson.
The video triggered the only negative publicity involving the exhibit, when its depiction of the concept of mercy drew the ire of some disabled-rights advocates. The controversy was prompted by the inclusion of a segment featuring the Robert Latimer case. Critics — including the conservative Christian activist organization, Focus on the Family — decried what they saw as a blatant endorsement of the idea that Latimer’s 1993 killing of his handicapped daughter was an act of mercy.
The video’s ‘Blessed are the Merciful’ segment, however, did not present Latimer’s justification for his act uncritically; it also showed clips of a pro-life activist opposing his actions. In addition, the segment also depicted the controversy over the execution of repentant murderer Karla Faye Tucker, making the point that her plea for mercy was denied by Texas governor George W. Bush.
The Museum’s assistant director, Tim Willis, asserted that the video’s purpose was simply to “stimulate thought.” The Latimer material was not meant, he said, as “a judgment on the subject [of euthanasia].” Furthermore, “the fundamental purpose of the video is to talk about the fact that the questions and themes at work in Jesus’ time are still at work today.”
‘Anno Domini’ curator David Goa defended the video, maintaining that it had been misunderstood. He told the BC Catholic: “All the video does in 15 minutes is show the public… that the themes of the Beatitudes are present in the six o’clock news today. It does not suggest that Robert Latimer is a merciful person… but that the theme of mercy is active.”
The Museum at first refused to change the video, but then relented and altered it to exclude Latimer’s image; but the Latimer case remained part of the video.
‘Anno Domini’ was inspired by a book by scholar Jaroslav Pelikan, entitled Jesus Through the Centuries. Pelikan has written: “During the past 2,000 years, few issues — if any — have so persistently brought out the fundamental assumptions of each epoch as has the attempt to come to terms with the meaning of the figure of Jesus of Nazareth … For each age, the life and teachings of Jesus represented an answer (or, more often, the answer) to the most fundamental questions of human existence and human destiny — and it was to the figure of Jesus as set forth in the Gospels that those questions were addressed.”
The exhibit incorporated many of Pelikan’s ideas, presenting Jesus as The Turning Point of History, The Divine and Human Model, The True Image, The Light of the Gentiles, The Cosmic Christ, The Teacher of Common Sense, The Universal Man, The Mirror of the Eternal, The Monk Who Rules the World, The Bridegroom of the Soul, The Poet of the Spirit, The Man Who Belongs to the World, and six other concepts. The total effect of all the various thematic interpretations was summed up by a statement in the exhibit’s video: “There is more in Him than is dreamt of in our philosophy.”
Having worked since 1994 to bring the project to fruition, David Goa was delighted with the public turnout. “It was a terrific response, and it’s very gratifying. There have been a lot of people, and an enormous number of group tours. But the key questions are: How long have they spent in the exhibit, and how deeply did they engage its ideas and imagery? A high percentage spent two to four hours, and returned two or three times.” A lot of universities sent groups, he said, “perhaps because they could see a Rodin, a Jacob Lawrence, a Cranach or a Rembrandt.”
While the project was not intended as overt evangelism, Goa was nevertheless partly motivated by his own faith. “I was raised as a Lutheran, and influenced by the pietist ‘inner life’ movement. When I was 30, I began to worship in a Roman Catholic church. I’ve also done much study of Eastern Orthodox traditions. All three of these wings of the church are precious to me.”
Over the past several years, he said, he had become alarmed by contemporary society’s “culture of amnesia.” He saw direct evidence of this at the University of Alberta, where he teaches religious studies. Until 10 years ago, he said, “if I would refer to Moses, or the Apostle Paul, there was in the students enough knowledge to recognize that these were from the Bible. Most of the students I now teach have never held a Bible.” From this, he concluded: “It’s so apparent to me that the capital of Christian culture is exhausted.” ‘Anno Domini’ was, in part, an attempt to counteract this phenomenon; to some extent, Goa felt, it succeeded. “Many serious, well-educated non-believers have found it to be very provocative.”
One of the challenges of mounting the exhibit, he said, was the fact that many in the art world were uncomfortable with the spiritual content of his project. “I had to argue why galleries should loan items to an exhibit on a theme that was ‘off limits.’ It took a fair bit of work to be clear with them that this was not an evangelical pitch, an attempt to convert the public. I had to convince them that it was reasonable and legitimate to explore the meaning of this theme for 2,000 years of Western culture.” The resulting exhibit, he asserted, was “a watershed in the museum world. It signals something new — that we need to take aspects of the dominant culture as seriously as minority cultures.”
He stressed that the exhibit was not simply a portrait of Jesus; its primary purpose, he said, was to illustrate the ways Jesus and his teachings have been interpreted. “The key word is incarnation — not just the incarnation of Jesus, but how men and women have had their hearts laid ahold of by the Gospel and then helped work for the transformation of their own time.” In addition to portraying social transformation brought about by Christians, he said he hoped the exhibit would reflect spiritual transformations wrought in people down through the centuries. “We are called to recover our own being as the image and likeness of God. That is part of the power of the Christian tradition, and why it is so enduring.”
Another key purpose, Goa declared, was to emphasize the absolute uniqueness of Christ’s character. “Jesus affirmed the dignity of the people he met, and did it in such a profound way. That’s why Tolstoy loved him; that’s why Gandhi spoke about him as he spoke of nobody else.”
‘Anno Domini’ drew people with a wide variety of spiritual and aesthetic perspectives. BCCN spoke with several Albertans at the exhibit.
Vivian Auger, an Edmonton nurse, attended the display with her son, an 8th grade student. In addition to giving her child an encapsulation of Christ’s significance, the exhibit aided her own exploration of beliefs. “Spiritually, I don’t know exactly where I am now. I wanted to get caught up on my knowledge of the Christian religion.” The exhibit, she added, reminded her “that it’s never too late to learn something new about Jesus. People think mainly of Christ in connection with the church. But this is more an expression of how artists and philosophers see him — and how they portray him, so that other people can understand him better.” Among other things, ‘Anno Domini’ demonstrated “how you can relate Christ’s life to things that happen in your own life — and how you can respond the way he did.”
George Hodgson, a retired individual from St. Albert, was also very impressed with the display. “I’ve done a lot of reading — and this exhibition has been put together in such a way that I don’t have to find or read dozens of books; I can see it now all in one place.” The exhibit reinforced Hodgson’s view of Jesus: “Christ, to me, is a man — not a god. But as a man, he shaped our society; and he taught us to learn to love.”
His daughter Arin echoed his views. For her, Jesus was not necessarily divine. “I don’t believe in there being just one God. I think there are many different forms of God.” For her, ‘Anno Domini’ was an excellent showcase for some of Christ’s most important teachings. “He told us that this is the only way all our cultures come together: through love, through trust and through learning. That’s how the human race will become one.”
Asked why she came to the exhibit, Audrey Smale — a retired banker from Sherwood Park — responded: “I can’t imagine anybody whose life has affected history any more than Jesus — can you? The fascination I feel with Christ is how much one man — whoever Jesus really was — could affect so many people in so many different ways. He’s an exotic figure to me — because we have no true image of him. You don’t get so much about him from the exhibit, but about how these artists were inspired to create all of this art because of this good man.”
Lisa McDermid — a photographer from Edmonton, and an adherent of the Mormon faith — came to the exhibit because “religion plays a large part in my life.” Also, she said, “I was just curious to see how Jesus was portrayed by the world.” ‘Anno Domini’ reinforced that fact that, “even 2,000 years after his birth, he’s still celebrated. His life is like the meridian of time.”
Rose Pisatchy, an evangelical artist from Grande Prairie, was impressed by “the fact that people cared enough to do this — and the fact that the exhibit is representing more than one denomination. It’s wonderful that there’s such an interest.” She felt, however, that much of the art was unnecessarily elaborate, and that several of the themes were pointlessly esoteric. “To me, the portrayal seems very complex. My view is very simple: Jesus died for my sins — it’s not complex.” She added: “I don’t see a salvation message here — but that’s okay. If the display can do something to get people thinking of something good for a change, that’s fine.”
Pisatchy’s husband Bob concurred: “It’s really really interesting to see how Jesus has been depicted from 300 AD to 2000. But I don’t think this exhibit would touch the heart of a non-believer, enough to draw them to Christ.”