Paul writes of ‘the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ’ (2 Corinthians 4:6). How might divine glory be seen in a human face?
Albrecht Dürer’s portrait of himself aged 28 is one of the masterpieces of German Renaissance art. The power of the portrait is built on a paradox of identity. The frontal pose and the compositional structure of the face and hair is predicated on a long history of images of iconic, ‘true’ portraits of Jesus, deriving from miracle narratives such as the St Veronica legend and the Mandylion of Edessa. The face, from the top of the head to the v-point of the robe at the base of the neck, is governed by a perfect equilateral triangle, circle, and square, superimposed on each other, with their central intersecting lines crossing just beneath the nose. The application of sacred geometry to the construction of the face, connects it with divine beauty.
But the portrait is unmistakably of Dürer, not Jesus. The paradox of the figure’s identity is further heightened by a moral paradox: the portrait is both glorious and vainglorious. Dürer’s virtuoso talent as a painter is unashamedly celebrated. His curly hair is lavishly depicted. His right hand pinches the expensive fur trim of his robe to remind us of his professional success. Dürer omits his left hand at the bottom edge of the panel as a subtle reminder that his painting hand was not at rest in making the image. On the left, the date 1500 is emblazoned with the monogram ‘AD’, referring not only to ‘Albrecht Dürer’ but also to ‘Anno Domini,’ the ‘year of the Lord’. On the right, the Latin inscription states how the artist has portrayed himself with ‘indelible colours’. Dürer clearly desired immortality as a painter.
Dürer’s self-promotion may not make him the best exponent of Paul’s claim ‘what we preach is not ourselves’ (4:5). But might he also illustrate—if only in parody—the powerful attraction of Christian transformation, ‘being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another’ (3:18)?
Koerner, Joseph Leo. 1993. The Moment of Self-Portraiture in German Renaissance Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press)
12 Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, 13 not like Moses, who put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not see the end of the fading splendor. 14 But their minds were hardened; for to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. 15 Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their minds; 16 but when a man turns to the Lord the veil is removed. 17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18 And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.
4 Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. 2 We have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways; we refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. 3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing. 4 In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the likeness of God. 5 For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. 6 For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.
7 But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us. 8 We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. 11 For while we live we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh. 12 So death is at work in us, but life in you.
13 Since we have the same spirit of faith as he had who wrote, “I believed, and so I spoke,” we too believe, and so we speak, 14 knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence. 15 For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.
16 So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day. 17 For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 because we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.