That’s Not MY Jesus

Excerpted from James C. Christensen, That’s Not MY Jesus, An Artist’s Personal Perspective on Images of Christ.

Gethsemane by James C. Christensen
“Gethsemane” by James C. Christensen. Click to enlarge.
Many years ago I had occasion to visit with Elder Boyd K. Packer about a painting I had done for a Deseret Book cover. It was a portrait of Jesus. We discussed various aspects of the painting for a while and then I said, “You know, Elder Packer, when one is in the presence of one of the Twelve with a picture like this it’s very tempting to ask how close did I get.” He smiled, shook his head for a moment, turned to me and said,”How do you think BYU’s basketball team is going to do this year?” The message was there: if through revelation an individual does know the Savior it is a supremely sacred experience, much too personal for conversation.

…I had the opportunity to visit with President Kimball at his home. I had painted a portrait of him and his wife and when I brought up the fact that I was working on a picture of Christ we were invited to come to his house with reference material and notes to discuss the painting. My wife and I sat around the kitchen table eating milk and cookies with the prophet and his wife. All the pictures of Jesus I could find were laid out on the table. Sister Kimball had opinions on several of the pictures but the prophet said nothing. Finally I said, “Look, President, I have been around (I was very young and just thought I had been around) enough to know that we’re not going to be given a detailed physical description of the Savior but if you were going to hang a painting of the Savior in your office what would you want that picture to be like?” He took off his glasses and put his face about a foot away from mine and said, “I love people. That’s my gift. I truly love people. Can you see anything in my eyes that tells you that I love people? In that picture I would like to see in the Savior’s eyes that he truly loves people. It is not affected, it is not his job, he truly loves all people.” Well, that was an overwhelming challenge for me. I felt his unconditional love and I think I understood what he said. But to translate that feeling into the eyes of a painting was more than I was capable of. I threw away dozens of subsequent drawings of the savior and did not do another Christ painting for many years. I did not want to do it until I had the image right. Years later when I painted Gethsemane I skirted the problem by painting the Savior with his head down.

More recently within the last couple of years I said to Elder Packer, “I need to be painting for the Church. What shall I do?” He looked me in the eye, stuck his finger close to my face and said, “Paint the Savior.” I told him the whole President Kimball story and complained, “It’s too hard.” He said, “No, it’s not. You have the training the artistic talent and the sensitivity. You can do it.” So I agreed I would. How many hints does a person need? As members of the church we always pray, “Lord tell me what you want me to do,” so when the President of the Twelve points his finger at you and says, “Do this,” you do not go home and whine in your prayers, “I need a little better direction.”