Christian Living

A Tale of Two Paintings: Reformation vs. Deconstruction

Author Tim Barnett Published on 02/01/2024

[Editor’s Note: The following article is adapted from the chapter titled “Reformation” in The Deconstruction of Christianity: What It Is, Why It’s Destructive, and How to Respond by Tim Barnett and Alisa Childers—©2024 Tyndale Elevate. Used with permission.]

In my previous article describing three fundamental problems with deconstruction, I explained why I now urge Christians to reform rather than deconstruct their faith. To better understand the distinction between reformation and deconstruction, consider stories about two different paintings. Both paintings are of Jesus, and both are now famous—but for different reasons.

Reformation: Salvator Mundi

The first painting is called Salvator Mundi, Latin for “Savior of the World.” It depicts Jesus wearing a Renaissance-era robe while holding a transparent orb in his left hand and giving a blessing with his right. Art experts long believed it was a copy of a lost original by Leonardo da Vinci. Widely regarded as one of the greatest artists who ever lived, da Vinci is best known for the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper. Fewer than twenty of his paintings are known to still exist.

When Salvator Mundi was sold at auction in the late 1950s for under $100, it was in pretty rough shape. It had been painted on a wood panel, and natural expansion and contraction caused severe damage. Though it had received crude touch-ups and overpainting along the way, it desperately needed extensive repair. Armed with solvents, cotton, varnish, and a few tools, respected art restorer Dianne Dwyer Modestini began the slow, meticulous process of restoration.

After removing layers of caked-on varnish and overpainting, Modestini discovered something odd about Salvator Mundi. Jesus had two right thumbs. Art experts call this a pentimento, which means “repentance” or “second thought.” In this case, the artist drew one thumb, but reconsidered the position and painted over it with another thumb. Because significant revisions like this one are most often made by the artist and not a copyist, this discovery suggested to many in the art world that Salvator Mundi wasn’t a da Vinci copy. It was a da Vinci original.

News of the “lost Leonardo” made headlines. People lined up for hours at museums in New York and London to catch a glimpse of what some in the art world were calling the “male Mona Lisa.” In 2017, Salvator Mundi went to auction in New York. After an exciting bidding war, the painting sold for $450,000,000, setting a record for the most expensive work of art ever sold.

Deconstruction: Ecce Homo

Our second story begins in a small town in northeastern Spain. On the wall of a small Roman Catholic church is a fresco depicting Jesus before his crucifixion, staring off to the side while wearing a crown of thorns. The artist, Elías García Martínez, painted the fresco in the 1930s. The name of the piece, Ecce Homo, comes from John 19:5 where Jesus was paraded by Pilate before the murderous mob after being flogged, mocked, and forced to wear a crown of thorns and a purple robe. Hoping he’d done enough to satisfy the crowd, Pilate declared, “Behold the man!”—“Ecce homo,” in Latin.

Enter Cecilia Giménez, an 80-year-old amateur art restorer. Upset that the painting had deteriorated, Giménez took it upon herself to restore it. Here the story takes a twist. In her attempt to restore the painting, she butchered it. The “restored” painting looked nothing like the original. When a picture of it was posted on the internet, it became a viral sensation. If you’ve never seen it, look it up online. It’s guaranteed to make you laugh.

Things didn’t turn out the way this elderly artist expected. She didn’t have the skills required to restore the sacred portrait. Instead, she made an unholy mess. Rather than what you might expect from an accomplished artist, Ecce Homo looks more like Picasso got drunk and painted a proboscis monkey with his left hand.

Since news broke about the botched restoration, thousands of tourists have flocked to the small town to see the art abomination for themselves, spending their money on mugs, T-shirts, and other Ecce Homo souvenirs, all featuring the deformed face. The painting is valuable only as a faddish joke, and that kind of value is shallow and fleeting.

Here's how these two paintings relate to reforming and deconstructing. Both paintings needed work, but different approaches to restoration led to very different outcomes.

Salvator Mundi is an example of a reformation approach, with the goal being to restore the work to its original glory. In this case, a skilled expert facilitated the restoration, revealing something valuable underneath—what many believe to be an authentic da Vinci. The overpainting and deterioration concealing the painting’s true identity needed to be stripped away so the painting could be restored to its original state.

An internationally renowned expert with impressive credentials, ample experience, and a long history of impeccable restorations spent six years carefully restoring the Salvator Mundi with vigilant patience and attention to detail. When she returned it, she suffered, as one put it, “separation anxiety and depression over losing the painting, and with it her connection to the enigmatic painter who was its author.”

The value of Salvator Mundi went beyond mere dollars, and the weight of its significance remains a topic of discussion among da Vinci scholars and art aficionados to this day.

Ecce Homo is an example of a deconstruction approach. When an amateur painter took matters into her own hands, the result was a haphazard and embarrassing rendition that bore no resemblance to the original. As a result, the process didn’t restore the original; it ruined it.

Here’s the point. When it comes to rethinking faith, the process matters. There’s a life-or-death difference between recovering the original and distorting the original. But because deconstructionists don’t see the value of biblical Christianity, they prefer to “improve” it according to their own personal beliefs and preferences rather than recover the original they feel is harmful or oppressive.

Many leave their community of believers and deconstruct in online spaces, a move that is, in many ways, like handing their faith over to an amateur art restorer. This often leads to an Ecce Homo outcome—a distortion of authentic Christianity or a rejection of it altogether. They may be deconstructing something, but it’s not authentic Christianity.