Essays, Theology

Holy Fools and Clowns: Artistic Re-imaginings of the Humbled-Exalted Christ

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God descended into the world to overcome what it had become by the fall of human beings; by this descent into creation, the Son—all powerful God, all knowing Divine—humbled himself so to be made empty according to the human condition he assumed. The biblical source of early Christian reflection on the kenoticism of Christ, likely in the medium of a creedal hymn, is found in Paul’s letter to the Philippians.

The apostle instructs the Christian community at Philippi to imitate Jesus Christ by remaining ever in the very same mind (φρονεῖτε) as that of “Christ Jesus. . .

. . . who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (Phil 2:5–1)[1]

There is within Christ’s self-emptying the very means of his exaltation and thus his glorification before the Father. As Paul instructs, this is not only a Christological statement of belief, but a way to be imitated, that is, imaged.

This imaging of Christ—the assimilating way of the Body of Christ—is the way through total humiliation to divine glorification. According to Paul, this is the way of the foolish. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul states admonishingly that while the Corinthians live in riches and honor, the apostles share in Christ’s disrepute as “fools” for his sake:

We are fools for the sake of Christ. . . . To the present hour we are hungry and thirsty, we are poorly clothed and beaten and homeless, and we grow weary from the work of our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we speak kindly. We have become like the rubbish of the world, the dregs of all things, to this very day. (1 Cor 10–13)

Even while the Corinthian community need be “imitators” (1 Cor 4:16) of Paul and therefore image the foolish Christ, those who have been called by the One on the Cross necessarily live according to the message that seems utter “foolishness to those who are perishing, but to [those] who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor 1:18). According to Paul, God has overturned the wisdom of human beings by means of the lowly and despised:

God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1 Cor 27–31)

Therefore, the foolishness of Christ Jesus is the very wisdom of God; those who seem foolish and pitiable to the world and who walk the way of shame according to the Cross are in a hidden fashion the very imago Dei reclaimed by means of imitating the totality of worldly renunciation articulated and imaged in the Cross.

Imaging Christ is the way to exaltation for his disciples—that is, his fools—who follow the path of self-emptying obedience to the Father. This dialectic of humiliation-exaltation is the paradoxical icon of the Christian life. This Christological antinomy is imaged by those who are conformed—transfigured—by the wisdom of the Cross. The life of a disciple in its depth of paradox is a key witness to Jesus Christ who has died, has risen, and will come again. The question arises, though, as to how this imaging might be expressed (or impressed) in a culture that often rejects foolishness for Christ as mere sham, as spectacle. In a context in which many do not believe that Christ has risen, the image that the disciple-fool provides is likely to be disfigured into something to be pitied most of all (1 Cor 15:14). If those who image the emptied and exalted One are rejected, how can the antinomous way of Truth and Life be imaged otherwise?

Icon of the Holy Face; courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In a time when information is so overwhelmingly produced and consumed by means of images that are arguably formative (e.g., social media and advertising), the ecclesial tradition of iconography, writing of images (εικονογραφία) in its most essential character, has the potential to transfigure the entirety of the human person towards sanctification—the paradoxical way of the humiliated-exalted One. As the Russian iconographer Leonid Ouspensky states, the icon “addresses itself to us and gives guidance and instruction as to how we should comport ourselves in our prayer, our communion with God.”[2] The icon of the Holy Face or the icon made without hands (άχειροποίητος) is a primary example of the incarnative reality of icons as holy images. The Son of God, in his self-emptying Incarnation, became visible in human history—he became image-able not only in the hearts of his disciples but also, according to John of Damascus, in iconography, i.e., the human imagination incarnated in holy images.[3] In this re-presentation of the Incarnation the iconographer images the face of Jesus which is at once humiliated and exalted, “the impassivity of an absolutely pure human nature, which excludes sin, but remains open to all the sorrows of the fallen world.”[4]

Yet, the icon of the Holy Face is an image that may seem too pietistic for the contemporary secular context even while it speaks to something most particularly essential to the wisdom of the world. It is necessary, then, to examine alternative ‘holy’ images that speak the essentiality of humiliation-exaltation—artistic reimaginings that speak cultural and personal transfiguration while implicitly, and perhaps even subconsciously, remaining approximate to the ecclesial traditions of imaging the way of Christ. Two possible avenues are found in the creative rendering of theological aesthetics employed by author Fyodor Dostoevsky and visual artist Georges Rouault. By the artists’ respective aesthetic symbols of the holy fool and the clown, the antinomical, transfigurative way of Jesus is re-presented to the audience—the viewer—the one imaged to—who is asked to read and see in the visage of the suffering and pitiable the very face of Christ who beckons a response. Perhaps it is this kind of imagining that the world can read, and see, and ultimately die to self so to be made anew in God’s own life, imaged according to God’s own image rather than its own distorted unimaginings. And perhaps in this renewed imaging the Christ Hymn above will become the medium by which the world turns.

Dostoevsky and Holy Foolishness

The nineteenth century Russian novelist and philosopher Fyodor Dostoevsky consistently employs ‘holy fools’ (юродивый) as heroic symbols to showcase the opposition between the enlightened, rationalistic (and deadly) worldview of the West and the simplistic, wholly Christian spirit of the Russian people.[5] The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment, Devils, and The Idiot each demonstrate a particularly dramatic portrayal of the holy fool whose startling, maddening contributions function to question and accuse the nihilistic cultural fabric that surrounds them. As critics have noted, Dostoevsky himself, by employing these holy fools to state his own case against society, functioned as an authorial “madman,” that is, a holy fool.[6]

Dostoevsky’s task as a novelist is to portray the self-sacrifice of the holy fool in such a way that readers will recognize its beauty and want to participate in it.

Dostoevsky’s employment of holy foolishness functions as the theological aesthetic of the Christological kenoticism inherent in the radical Christian witness and message which the author wishes to portray. Harriet Murav states that it is the vocation of the holy fool (leading back to the ecclesial hagiographies of Russia’s storied “fools for Christ’s sake”) not merely to play the clown or buffoon as a purely literary aesthetic but to invert another’s outlook so that she might see rightly the Kingdom of God present, though perhaps hidden, in the culture before her:

In the world of the holy fool we see reversal not for its own sake. The holy fool turns the world upside down, but in order to show it the kingdom of heaven. In the hagiography, instances of trickery, indecency, and obscenity are only seemingly so, performed in order to confound the world, to damn those who are already damned, and who therefore see only the saint’s outward appearance. . . . The writing of a saint’s Life . . . or the painting of an icon, reduces difference and assimilates the holy fool into a framework imbued with the central values of the religious culture, in which the imitation of Christ is paramount.[7]

Georges Rouault, The Crucifixion (ca. 1920s); Photo: Sharon Mollerus; CC-BY-2.0.

The self-humiliating witness of the Cross in the face of a world that demands rationalistic, scientific, empirical answers (or that has rejected all answers as equally meaningless) is the sanctifying practice of Dostoevsky’s holy fools. In Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Alesha Karamazov functions as a holy fool in relationship to the novel’s other characters, many of whom could rightly be characterized as ‘mad,’ though not according to the positive Dostoevskian use of the fool’s isolating, prophetic behavior. The marginalization of the protagonist Alesha, who is emotionally and spiritually abused by his rationalist brother Ivan, who receives the gift of hope from a prostitute, who patterns his life on that of a monastery’s elder whose sanctity is rejected by the community, and who is called a “little holy fool” by the manipulative Katerina Ivanovna, is, according to Murav, the very theological aesthetic which “helps us transform the love of the self that animates our misguided quest for uniqueness into a self-sacrificing love of others. He [Alesha] does so by means of the example provided by his own . . . self-humiliation.”[8]

Alesha the holy fool’s own example is none other than Christ whose humiliating sacrifice on the Cross exists as the exalted icon of the heart, and it is this witness, Murav notes, to which the critiqued Dostoevsky points as holy fool:

This is the role that the holy fool is to play in Dostoevsky’s great project of universal reconciliation. His task as a novelist is to portray the self-sacrifice of the holy fool in such a way that readers will recognize its beauty and want to participate in it.[9]

While Alesha functions in the novel as the holy fool exemplar, The Brothers Karamazov as a whole exemplifies in a more general way the model that is to be followed not only by the other characters, but by the audience, the reader, as well. According to the ‘Author’ in the note that precedes Part I of the novel,

Not only is an odd man ‘not always’ a particular and isolated case, but, on the contrary, it sometimes happens that it is precisely he, perhaps, who bears within himself the heart of the whole, while the other people of his epoch have all for some reason been torn away from it for a time by some kind of flooding wind.[10]

“I saw quite clearly that the ‘Clown’ was me, was us, nearly all of us.”

Even prior to this note, the reader is given the insight needed to unlock Dostoevsky’s theo-literary purpose. The text that lies below the dedicatory inscription to Fyodor’s wife, Anna—the first words following the title page—seems to function as a hermeneutical key to the whole of Dostoevsky’s work as well as an explicit articulation of the theological aesthetic he employs:

Verily, verily, I say unto you, [e]xcept a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. John 12:24[.][11]

These words of Christ are foolishness to the world, wisdom for the fools of God. From the beginning, the very programmatic of Dostoevsky is a reimaginitive articulation of the paradoxical way of Jesus, and it serves as a model for the how the ecclesial tradition of image-making might engage the current culture.

Rouault’s Masque and Christ as Clown

The twentieth century French philosopher Jacques Maritain noted of his fellow countryman and friend Georges Rouault’s revolutionary artwork, “All usual canons of beauty are shattered.”[12] Maritain finds in Rouault an inner, violent reaction towards Rembrandt’s influential aesthetics, “spurned by a descent into the inferno of brutal and ugly, desperately laid bare forms.”[13] Franco Mormando traces Rouault’s aesthetic descent back to a pivotal moment in the artist’s life in which he seems to have located himself within the very Inferno of Dante:

While out walking one day, the artist happened to come across a “nomad caravan, parked by the roadside.” It was a circus, preparing for its next public performance. Rouault’s eye fell upon on one of the figures: an “old clown sitting in a corner of his caravan in the process of mending his sparkling and gaudy costume.” It was then that Rouault had a piercing flash of insight, one that was to affect his vision of life and art. The artist was utterly struck by the jarring contrast between the clown’s external garb . . . and the wretchedness of his condition as an impoverished, vagabond laborer living on the fringes of society, enduring a “life of infinite sadness. . . .”[14]

Rouault’s experience of this extreme dichotomy impacted his worldview substantially. Mormando notes a particularly acute realization of the artist: “I saw quite clearly that the ‘Clown’ was me, was us, nearly all of us. . . . This rich and glittering costume, it is given to us by life itself, we are all more or less clowns. . . .”[15]

Georges Rouault, Head of Christ (c. 1932–1938); Photo: Thomas Hawk; CC-BY-NC-2.0.

Nearly all people, Rouault states, wear the masque that hides beneath it the internal, privatized, and pitiable state of the soul; however, a very important distinction must be made between the bourgeoise who seek power and prestige, taunting others by the very arrogance they wear, and the humiliated poor who, in their abject deformity as response to the world’s cruelty, seem to image the very face of Christ to others.[16] It is this visage, the Holy Face, which Rouault takes up in the greater course of his work as a visual artist who finds in the abject suffering of the human being the accompanying light and glory of “a compassionate nature” that has “assumed and purified” even the darkened landscapes of the artist’s series of 58 etchings, Miserere et Guerre.[17] Maritain finds in Rouault’s Passion paintings a “majesty” of suffering that “comes from the very will of the Lamb of God offering Himself by love,” that overtakes the hellish deformity of the artist’s early works; it is the innately redemptive depth of Christ’s self-emptying descent:

The imprint of Christ’s face on Veronica’s veil, which Rouault never tires of depicting, seems to mean for him the imprint of divine mercy on the human art. . . . Let us stress this significant fact: it is through the inspiration of his faith, and of the contemplative promptings which are his hidden treasure, that the abiding poetry, the flash of poetic intuition which quicken the art of Rouault have reached full freedom and full scope, in a painting which, more than ever, remains strictly painting. Thus it is that “the most humanly and moral pathetic art of our time” was raised to hieratic grandeur.[18]

​Maritain finds in Rouault’s Passion paintings a “majesty” of suffering that “comes from the very will of the Lamb of God offering Himself by love.”

Rouault’s patheticism shames the wise, the bourgeoisie, by means of his own kenoticism in “obedience” to the Christian vision.[19]

Rouault, ascending from darkness, carried with him the masque of humanity so that he might place it at the foot of the Cross where Christ most explicitly puts on this deformity as one whose countenance is mocked and pitied before all others (Is 52:14)—he is the clown whose glittering ‘costume’ is naked flesh and the crown of thorns.[20] While Rouault thought that “all genuine art was religious art” and that ‘sacred art’ gave no further explication of any such religious essence, it is clear that the artist employs a definite articulation of the theological aesthetic of Christological kenoticism. This articulation as image seems to address the viewer, the one whose masque Christ wears on the Cross, who is spoken to—transfigured—according to the Holy Face.[21]

Conclusion: Theological Re-imaginings of the Essential Truth and Life

The dialectic of humiliation-exaltation of the way of Jesus Christ, witnessed primarily by Paul’s epistles, asks the world to image the self-emptying One so as to be glorified in the very life of God. Fools for the sake of Christ image this dialectic in the world, but the world may not see this imaging clearly; perhaps it appears—due to a deformed vision—distorted, unimaginative. The ecclesial tradition of iconography calls out to the world once more by means of an incarnated imagination: the Holy Face of Jesus, the Mother of God, the saints—all rendered by wood and paint and asceticism—which speaks to the world the essential Truth and Life of the way. When pietism appears to many as drab sham, there is a need to render this message in a new way, and the artistic re-imaginings expressed in the theological aesthetics of Dostoevsky’s holy fool and Rouault’s clown speak anew. These theological re-imaginings of the reality of the self-emptying God-man who speaks wisdom to ‘fools’ and foolishness to the ‘wise’ function as mediums of the Christ Hymn which voices a uniquely realized paradox by which every knee should bend, every tongue confess—the Incarnation of the Son of God who has died, has risen, and who will come again.

Featured Image: Christ and the Apostles (1937–38); Photo: Ben Sutherland; CC-BY-2.0.

[1] All biblical citations are from the New Revised Standard Version unless quoted by authors of referenced source material in which case the biblical translation has been chosen by the author(s).

[2] Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky, The Meaning of Icons (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1982), 39.

[3] John of Damascus, On Holy Images, trans. Mary H. Allies (London: Thomas Baker, 1898) [Internet Medieval Source Book: http://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/johndamascus-images.asp#PART I].

[4] Ouspensky and Lossky, 72.

[5] Harriet Murav, Holy Foolishness: Dostoevsky’s Novels and the Poetics of Cultural Critique (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992), 12, 14. For an accounting of the figures who portray the ‘holy fool’ in the novels of Dostoevsky listed in this essay, see Murav, 7.

[6] Murav, 123.

[7] Murav, 10. For Murav’s argument against the understanding of the ‘holy fool’ as purely literary aesthetic, as expressed by Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of carnival and “joyful relativity,” see Murav, 9–10. For a summary history of Russian religious culture and iurodivyi, see Murav, 17–31.

[8] Murav, 160. Murav traces the various characters and events listed above as central to the conversion of Alesha in terms of “recapitulation” present in the novel (cf. 153–160).

[9] Ibid. Murav locates in the author the very programmatic of the holy fool within the text: “Dostoevsky’s rhetoric and narrative strategies serve his theology. . . . The discourse of the holy fool makes the categories and models of the dominant culture problematic and points beyond what is immediately given. The same holy-foolish qualities characterize Dostoevsky’s writing” (13).

[10] Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. R. Pevear and L. Volokhonsky (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992), 3.

[11] Ibid., 1.

[12] Jacques Maritain, Georges Rouault (New York: H.N. Abrams, 1954), 4.

[13] Ibid., 5.

[14] Franco Mormando, “Of Clowns And Christian Conscience: The art of Georges Rouault” in America: The National Catholic Review (November 24, 2008).

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.; Maritain, 12.

[17] Maritain, 16, 18.

[18] Ibid., 20.

[19] Richard Harries, The Image of Christ in Modern Art (Burlington: Ashgate, 2013), 27.

[20] As Harries notes, throughout Rouault’s work there is “a fundamental similarity between the way Christ is shown and suffering humans in other paintings” (The Image of Christ in Modern Art, 29).

[21] Harries, The Image of Christ in Modern Art, 27–28.

Christopher Gattis

Chris Gattis is a Master of Divinity candidate at the University of Notre Dame; his academic and pastoral interests include the intersection of narrative, imagination, and catechesis in terms of the New Evangelization.