Imago Christi

How art formed my understanding of Jesus.

PJ Whittington
4 min readSep 11, 2020


“Isenheim Altarpiece,” Matthias Grünewald, 1512–1516. Oil on panel.

When I reflect upon my image of Christ, stripped of the theological jargon that I have become so accustomed to, I often return to the same image from my early years. When I was a child, I spent much of my time in the church I grew up in and, even into my adolescence, I quite literally grew up in the church. Every Sunday morning, and often many other days during the week, I passed by the same bust on my way into the sanctuary. It was small, cast in bronze, and rested upon a flimsy wooden pillar. The image was simple, a softly smiling Christ with long, curly hair — holding a small lamb over his shoulders with both of his strong yet gentle hands. His demeanor is quiet, and his gaze is inviting. My imagination of Jesus in my early years bore a striking resemblance to this nostalgic Good Shepherd. Jesus was a friend who was always there for me, a helper that I could be confident in, and an inviting host to a sanctuary where I could be nourished. If I saw the world as some angry drunk, Jesus was the older brother that would defend me and hold me while I wept and trembled. He was no longer touched by the problems I faced and had become for me, my comforter.

As I began to be formed into a more mature thinker in my high school years, I encountered an image of Christ from Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece. In this famed work, the artist depicts Christ as the bearer of the cross, but also as the bearer of a disease familiar to the devotees worshipping with it. Jesus’s mangled green body was mused after a disease contracted by those that were under the care of the monastery it rested in. This image became so profound for me because of it’s gruesome reality, I began to internalize the Christ who suffered my pains and burdens in his own body. The deep depressions that began to wash over as I grew older, the offense I took when I was rejected by a friend, the aches and pains I felt in sickness and weariness — Christ bore the very same pain and all the pains that will be worse in this life, so that I may have eternal life free from pain. Now, Jesus was not only my Good Shepherd and friend, he was the bearer of all my shame and agony, all of my guilt and pain. This Jesus, though enthroned above all beings, did not transcend my hurt. I learned to find comfort in Jesus who knew what it was like to be so tired as to not even shed a tear, to feign a smile, to bear immense physical pain. This image of Christ strengthened me to face the burdens of this earthly life, come what may because I have come to know that he conquered every pain on my behalf, even the sting of death.

As I am finishing my studies at Moody Bible Institute, it is difficult to conclude an image of Christ that has been the most impactful on this stage of my life. I have recalled the images above during many dark nights of the soul, yet not always found comfort in them as if I had grown callous to the care of our Savior. A place I have often visited for reflection is Holy Name Cathedral, just a few minutes walk from Moody’s campus. Apart from the rich imagery of Christ painted up and down the walls and in the very architecture of the historic building, I have always been enamored with the crucifix that hangs suspended above the altar. I don’t recall every historical detail, but the wooden crucifix was commissioned recently to an Italian artist and is titled The Resurrection Crucifix. The corpus can hardly be called such, but is better described as the risen Christ with outstretched arms, bearing the marks of past sufferings but clearly suffering no longer. His figure is placed within the cross and the two separate carvings looking as if they had initially been one as if to say that Jesus was united to suffering in more than just his hands and feet. As I have spent many hours reflecting upon this image of Jesus, and as time went has gone by, I have also learned to see myself with him in that cross. In this earthly life, I bear the marks of suffering, yet am able to stand with arms outstretched in the strength of the conquered cross. Amidst the hardships I have faced during my time at Moody, my constant comfort is my union to Christ in my very body, where he united himself to my suffering in order that I may be united to his resurrection. My two images of Christ met together on this tree, bound in the inseparable tension of Christ in pain and Christ free from pain.