Classic Scenes from the Life of the Savior

by Lowell M. Durham, Jr.

Associate Editor

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    The impact of Jesus Christ on the world has been greater than any other single influence. It is not surprising that most of the great artists through history have chosen him and the events of his ministry as subjects for their artistic endeavors. A few of the many hundreds of individual works are presented here. In this brief examination of his life as seen through the eyes of great masters of the past, we experience the many different views man can have. None of these paintings, engravings, or etchings is presented as being an actual scene or portrayal, but as perspectives of men whose lives were touched and influenced by the life of the Savior.

    In the following pages are scenes from the life of the Savior painted in many different styles by men of different times and from different countries. And although their styles and presentations may differ, at the center of all of their work is the true majesty of the Lord, Jesus Christ.

    Birth of Christ

    C. W. E. Dietrich (1712–1774) was a German painter who learned painting from his father as well as the great masters in Italy and the Netherlands. Dietrich was skilled in the manner of Rembrandt, an artist whom he greatly admired. He had a wonderful feeling for the common people and viewed them with compassion and honesty. He probably felt more at home painting this nativity with the common shepherds expressing their joy at the birth of the Savior than he would have felt with a more splendid scene.

    “And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room in the inn.” (Luke 2:7.)

    “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:11.)

    “And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene.” (Matt. 2:23.)

    “And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, filled with wisdom: and the grace of God was upon him.” (Luke 2:40.)

    Christ as a young child

    Bartolome Esteban Murillo (1617–1682), a Spaniard, learned from the great Velasquez in the mid-1640s and became one of the most respected artists, painting in what is called the Spanish Baroque style. In this painting of Mary, Joseph, and the child Jesus, Murillo produces an idealized view of family life. Murillo’s works followed two routes: although he mostly painted religious topics, he also liked to paint the pastoral scenes of country people and beggar boys.

    Christ learning carpentry

    Gerard von Honthorst (1590–1656) kept the traditions of Dutch artists who used the Italians as their inspiration. He was known by the Italians as “Gherardo della notte,” or “Gerard of the night,” because of his fancy for painting subjects with very dark backgrounds. In this painting of the early life of the Savior, von Honthorst displays his use of dark background and the dramatic effect of light and shade known as chiarascuro.

    Christ teaching

    Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669), the Dutch painter who is probably to art what Beethoven is to music, was a powerful force in molding the future of art. In art he broke every convention of his day and has been vindicated by history as one of the great masters. The etching of Christ teaching is also known as the Hundred Guilder Print because that was the price it supposedly fetched. This etching was done by scratching a coated metal plate and then bathing the plate in acid. The acid eats the metal and causes indentations that are filled with ink, and then paper draws the ink out. The process is called intaglio.

    Christ healing the blind

    Domenico Fiasella (1589–1669) was born in Genoa, the son of a goldsmith. Fiasella spent ten years in Rome studying classical art and the works of Raphael. In this painting of Christ Healing the Blind, one sees this classical influence in the columns and buildings in the picture. This obviously would not have been the kind of architecture found in Palestine during the time of Jesus. Fiasella lived a long and active life and died a respected citizen of Genoa in the same year the world lost Rembrandt van Rijn.

    “And Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all manner of sickness and all manner of disease among the people. (Matt. 4:23.)

    “And there arose a great storm of wind, and the waves beat into the ship, so that it was now full.

    “And he was in the hinder part of the ship, asleep on a pillow: and they awake him, and say unto him, Master, carest thou not that we perish? And he arose, and rebuked the wind, and said unto the sea, Peace, be still. And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.” (Mark 4:37–39.)

    “But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven. And he laid his hands on them.” (Matt. 19:14–15.)

    Christ Blessing the Children

    Carlo Rosa (?–1678) was an Italian painter who grew up during the conflict between the elegant grace of the old masters and the new, more realistic painting of Caracci and his followers. In this painting of Christ Blessing the Children, Rosa shows the influence of both schools. The painting is simple, pure, and gentle, but there is a careful observation of reality and a naturalness of expression.

    storm on the Sea of Galilee

    Rembrandt van Rijn—In this painting of the storm on the Sea of Galilee, Rembrandt departs somewhat from his usual darker hues and paints with lighter colors, still retaining the warm tones that mark his work. The violence of the storm and the outer turmoil is also a departure from his usually quiet and introspective works.

    the storm

    Ferdinand Victor Eugene Delacroix (1798–1863) was a French historical painter and leader of the Romantic School. When he first exhibited his works, he caused a great furor because of his departure from the standard classical art of his time. In Delacroix’s painting of the storm, his presentation is more emotional, his brush strokes are more crude, and his colors more extreme than those in Rembrandt’s depiction of the same incident.

    “And as they did eat, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and brake it, and gave to them and said, take, eat: this is my body. And he took the cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them: and they all drank of it. And he said unto them, This is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many. Verily I say unto you, I will drink no more of the fruit of the vine, until that day that I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” (Mark 14:22–25.)

    “Then saith he unto them, My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death: tarry ye here, and watch with me. And he went a little further, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.” (Matt. 26:38–39.)

    Last Supper

    Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), the great Italian painter, musician, architect, and scientist, painted two of the world’s most revered works of art. His Mona Lisa is probably the most recognizable work of art ever. His great contribution to religious art was his fresco of the Last Supper. This great painting has suffered much through the years, and damage to it is obvious at close inspection. The painting is on the wall of the Milan refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie. This building was used as a stable for many years after the painting was completed. In 1943 an air raid reduced the building to rubble, but miraculously the painting was spared.

    Christ in Gethsemane

    James Joseph Jacques Tissot (1836–1902) was a French painter who began his career designing stained glass windows. Tissot spent 10 years in Palestine studying the colors and moods of the Holy Land to enhance the quality of his religious paintings. In his work Christ in Gethsemane, not only does Tissot capture the mood, but he also seems to catch the color and geography of the garden. Tissot’s works show signs of impressionistic attitudes in the looseness of brushwork and use of color.

    Coup de lance

    Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), the great Flemish master whose name is synonymous with the great Baroque style of painting, was indeed a master at capturing the life and intense action of the human body. In the course of the Renaissance, man discovered more about the nature and beauty of the human form, and Rubens was master at capturing that beauty. In this painting of the crucifixion titled Coup de lance, Rubens displays the tension and agony of the occasion.

    “And when they were come to the place, which is called Calvary, there they crucified him.” (Luke 23:33.)

    “Then said Jesus, Father forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34.)

    “And when Jesus had cried with a loud voice, he said, Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit: and having said thus, he gave up the ghost.” (Luke 23:46.)

    “And it came to pass, as he sat at meat with them, he took bread, and blessed it, and brake, and gave to them. And their eyes were opened, and they knew him; and he vanished out of their sight.” (Luke 23:30–31.)

    “And it came to pass, while he blessed them, he was parted from them, and carried up into heaven.” (Luke 24:51.)

    Christ at Emmaus

    Carl Heinrich Bloch (1834–1890) was a Danish painter born the same year that the Prophet Joseph Smith and the Saints were experiencing persecutions in Missouri. His painting of Christ at Emmaus is realistic, almost photographic, in effect. The colors used by Bloch are dramatic and well chosen.

    Christ at Emmaus

    Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velasquez (1599–1660) was the most eminent painter of the Spanish school. His early religious works are characterized by strongly marked outlines and bold brushwork. It is interesting to contrast this painting of Christ at Emmaus by Velasquez with the same incident in the work of Bloch. Velasquez’s perception of Christ is very Spanish, and the Christ depicted by Bloch has an Aryan presence.


    Gustav Doré (1832–1883) was born in Strasbourg, son of a civil engineer. Doré was a world-renowned engraver who did extensive illustrations for an edition of the Bible, fairy tales, and for the literary work of Dante. Doré’s Ascension shows the beauty and detail that can come from a master of the engraving process.