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Christ the Lightgiver
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The Arts

The Jesus in Art Quiz

By Bill Dodds
How much do you know about art depicting Christ throughout the ages? -

The image we have of Jesus—how we imagine He looked—often depends on how we’ve seen Him depicted in art. From the canvases of the masters to local parish calendars, Christ has been drawn in a variety of ways during the past 2000 years. Take our quiz and find out just how "art smart" you are.

Begin with No. 1 and then just follow the directions.

1. Early Christians were known for using symbols for Christ. Among the most popular ones was a fish, because the Greek word for fish formed the acronym for "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior." They relied on this method because:

a) Most people couldn't read. (Move to 20.)

b) What they were doing was illegal. (Head for 40.)

2. No, although we can assume Mary and Joseph pampered Jesus. Return to 13.

3. Right. In any icon, the eyes are often large to symbolize spiritual intensity. Mouths are small as a reminder of the importance of fasting. Those are just two of the "rules" or guidelines iconographers use when painting Jesus, Mary, or the saints. Now go to 15.

4. Yes! Archaeologists say it isn't until the fifth century that the cross appears as a Christian symbol. Some scholars interpret those findings to mean that Jesus' followers didn't use it before then. Others pooh-pooh that idea. Now move to 11.

5. Correct. Ever wonder where Mary got them, in that stable? Scripture scholars say she brought them with her, even as now mothers-to-be have layettes ready and waiting. Now go to 26.

6. Of course. The earliest mosaics in St. Mark's date back to the 11th and 12th centuries. More "recent" ones are from the 16th. Now head for 27.

7. Since the term has come up, what is a "fresco"?

a) A painting done on wet plaster. (Move to 12.)

b) Commonly used to refer to early paintings done on wet plaster, technically it's any style of artwork considered new. (Head for 37.)

8. It's important to remember that images of Jesus in art weren't developing just in the West, but in the East, too. Byzantine art (which gets its name from the city of Byzantium, later known as Constantinople and now Istanbul, Turkey) is noted for its:

a) Icons. (Go to 38.)

b) Mosaics. (Move to 41.)

9. No. Return to 27.

10. Wouldn't that be nice? But no. Return to 26.

11. There was one place in those early centuries where Christian art could be displayed. It was:

a) In the catacombs. (Go to 14.)

b) In Constantinople. (Move to 25.)

12. Correct. Some of the most famous paintings from the Renaissance used this method—Michelangelo's work on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel being among the most readily recognized. Now go to 35.

13. A description of Christ's birth was often poorly reflected by Renaissance artists who failed to show the newborn in "swaddling clothes." Just what are "swaddling clothes"?

a) What we would call diapers. (Go to 2.)

b) Bands of cloth. (Move to 5.)

14. Yes. If you'd like to see an example, check out one of the larger-size copies of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It includes a scene from a fresco found in the Roman catacomb of Sts. Marcellinus and Peter, dating back to the beginning of the fourth century. It's Jesus healing the woman with the hemorrhage (Mark 5:25-34). Now head for 7.

15. Some of the early art from the East is lost forever because:

a) It was on the Titanic. (Head for 19.)

b) It was declared illegal. (Go to 31.)

16. No, but this was a hard one. Return to 35.

17. Artists have used the dove to symbolize the Holy Spirit, not Jesus. Return to 23.

18. No, that's his painting on the wall of the Sistine Chapel. Return to 21.

19. Incorrect. Return to 15.

20. No. Return to 35.

21. All right, no more cartoons. We should keep in mind that Jesus wasn't portrayed only in paintings and mosaics but in carvings, too. When a panel of Catholic historians was recently asked to name the single work of art (other than the Bible) over the past 2,000 years that best captures or illuminates Christ's message, the panel chose Michelangelo's Pieta. Located in St. Peter's Basilica and carved five centuries ago, this marble sculpture shows:

a) The Last Judgment. (Head for 18.)

b) Mary holding the dead Christ across her lap. (Go to 29.)

22. No. Pentecost—when the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles—might have a dove and tongues of fire, but it was after Jesus ascended into heaven. He wouldn't be shown at that event. Return to 30.

23. An anchor and different kinds of christograms—the first letters of Jesus Christ in Greek imposed on one another—were also popular symbols. Notably absent, some scholars have recently said, was:

a) A cross. (Head for 4.)

b) A dove. (Go to 17.)

24. Icons—the paintings not the computer graphics—have enjoyed a recent resurgence in popularity. An image of Jesus in an icon will typically show him with:

a) Big eyes and a small mouth. (Move to 3.)

b) Small eyes and a big mouth. (Head for 32.)

25. No. And there was no "Constantinople" before Constantine (d. 337). Return to 11.

26. Many children today are familiar with the names Michelangelo, Donatello, Leonardo, and Raphael because:

a) Grade schools typically have computer software programs on art history. (Move to 10.)

b) Those are the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. (Head for 33.)

27. Some art historians call Byzantine icons the "grandparents" of the easel-painting tradition that has dominated art since the Italian Renaissance. During those golden years in Italy, scenes from Jesus' life on earth were extremely popular. In depictions of the Annunciation, Christ was often represented by:

a) A small bird. (Move to 9.)

b) A jewel. (Head for 34.)

28. Yes, the god of wine was often depicted with grapes, an image that became symbolic of the Blood of Christ. Now move to 8.

29. Yes. And, without a doubt, it will be a "must see" for pilgrims going to Rome during the Holy Year 2000. Now move to 43.

30. Jesus is often shown with a bird in paintings of:

a) Pentecost. (Head for 22.)

b) His baptism. (Go to 39.)

31. Yes. Any portrayal of Jesus—of God the Father or the Holy Spirit, of Mary or the saints—was considered a "graven image." The "iconoclasts"—meaning "breakers of images"—gained so much influence in the East, all images were declared false idols, and many were destroyed. The so-called "Iconoclastic Controversy" or "Iconoclasm" was a part of the Byzantine Empire from around 736 to 842. Now move to 42.

32. No. Return to 24.

33. You have young kids or grandkids, don't you? Now go to your last question, 21.

34. That's right. Not surprisingly, artists chose a gem to indicate the unborn Messiah. Now go to 30.

35. The Renaissance? We're getting a bit ahead of ourselves here. Let's return to the early years of Christianity, and try a question that involves Roman mythology. The very early style of Christian art looked a lot like late classical Roman art, and borrowed symbols from it. For example, an image often used with the Roman god Bacchus became associated with the sacrament of:

a) Baptism. (Head for 16.)

b) Eucharist. (Go to 28.)

36. A really big canal, but no gondolas. Return to 42.

37. Technically … no. Return to 7.

38. Both answers are correct. (To make up for that Bacchus question.) Now head for 24.

39. Yes. Artists relied on Scripture for the image. Mark wrote, "On coming up out of the water, He [Jesus] saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit like a dove, descending on Him" (Mark 1:10). Now move to 13.

40. Right. Until the early part of the fourth century, all Christians were outlaws. There were no large paintings of Jesus on display in public, but some Christians did carry small devotional objects carved from wood or ivory. Now go to 23.

41. Both answers are correct. (To make up for that Bacchus question.) Now head for 24.

42. How about an easy one? Some critics say the best examples of the art of mosaic are in St. Mark's Basilica, located in a place famous for its canals and gondolas. That would be:

a) Venice. (Go to 6.)

b) Panama. (Move to 36.)

43. Let's end with a quote from the Second Vatican Council's document on the liturgy:

All artists who, in view of their talents, desire to serve God's glory in holy Church should ever bear in mind that they are engaged in a kind of sacred imitation of God the Creator, and are concerned with works destined for use in Catholic worship and for the edification, devotion, and religious instruction of the faithful.

Anyone who has ever been moved by an image of Jesus knows how true that is.

Copyright © 2000 Bill Dodds

Bill Dodds is a national columnist, a full-time freelance writer and the author of 20 books. His latest books are Your One-Stop Guide to How Saints Are Made (Servant Publications) and What You Don't Know About Retirement: A Funny Retirement Quiz (Meadowbrook Press). For more information about his writing, visit

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