One of my favorite pieces of visual art is Fritz Eichenberg’s wood-cutting from 1951 called The Christ of the Breadlines. I have a print of it framed and hanging on the wall in my house. It depicts Jesus Christ standing in line at a soup kitchen, waiting with the rest of the down-and-outers for His turn to be served. In front of Him and behind Him are other raggedy people, hands in their pockets, wrapped up in shawls, anxiously waiting for food, a meal they couldn’t prepare for themselves. They’re all together nomads, riff-raff, vagrants, human dreck, homeless.
I like this piece simply because it’s not a very typical depiction of Jesus. Other artists, Peter Paul Reubens for example, who portrayed Jesus’ death and resurrection on more than one occasion, gleefully inserted muscle upon muscle into the Jesuses of their paintings. Doing so achieves a certain effect: Jesus, the All Powerful One, retains His strength even at the most vulnerable point in His life. What can keep Him down? Not even the Cross. Reubens’ canvases are also very busy with action and motion, with the twisting, straining bodies of Jesus’ friends and family, Roman guards and servants. The same could be said for Michelangelo or any number of other Renaissance painters. But Eichenberg’s Jesus is weak. He’s wrapped in rags. He’s entirely in shadow. No bulging abs, no mountainous biceps. And the figures in the painting with Him are still. They stand, with the Lord of the universe in their midst, motionless in their deep poverty and hunger, wanting the same thing He wants—rest, fulfillment, an end to suffering.
The wood-cutting is very dark. In fact, Eichenberg’s only light source in the entire image is Jesus’ halo, central to the composition. By it and only by it does Eichenberg permit us to see that there are even any figures in the etching at all. Whereas artists like Reubens composed their paintings so the figures and action draw the eye to Christ, whether He is on the Cross or on the ground just after His death, Eichenberg gives us a different kind of composition. The figure of Jesus is literally in the middle of the piece, but the details—the stuff that Eichenberg pays such close attention to—are of those in the soup kitchen line with Jesus and not Jesus Himself. However, they can only be seen by the light of His crown.