Painter of Christ, Heinrich Hofmann ~ SRF magazine excerpts

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Heinrich Hofmann painter of Christ, By Rosemarie Müller

Excerpts from Self-Realization magazine Winter 2004

 

In his Introduction to The Second Coming of Christ, Paramahansa Yogananda gives a wonderful description, from his own divine experiences, of what Jesus looked like.  He then writes:

“Of all the pictures I have seen of him in the West, the rendering by Hofmann comes closest to showing the accurate features of the incarnate Jesus.” ….

See ~ Christ Appears to Yogananda ~ The Second Coming of Christ

I had always loved the picture of Christ chosen by Paramahansaji for Self-Realization Fellowship altars.  I knew it was derived from one of Hofmann’s works called “Christ and the Rich Young Ruler.”   I also knew that this painting and three other works by the artist (“Christ in the Temple,” “Christ Image,” and “Christ in Gethsemane”) were in the possession of the Riverside Church in New York City.  And I often asked myself: Who was this artist?  Did he create any other artwork?   But I never dreamed where these idle wonderings would one day lead.

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It all began several years ago when I learned that Self-Realization Fellowship was making plans to publish The Second Coming of Christ, and that illustrations would be needed.  Right away my dormant interest in Hofmann reawakened, and with great enthusiasm I started my quest for answers about the German artist who had so impressed my Guru. …

In the reading room of a large university library I found my first clues in hundred-year-old reference books — including a list of his artwork…from the list I learned that among other works he had created three portfolios of pencil drawings depicting the life of Christ.  The names of the portfolios were: Come Unto Me, Remember Me, and Peace Unto You. ….

I finally held the portfolios in my hands…I don’t know how to describe what happened to me then.  It was as if two thousand years simply melted away and I was transported into the life of the blessed Master of Galilee.  In the most beautiful drawings I saw Christ healing the sick, raising the dead, staying with Mary and Martha, being tempted by the devil, driving out the money changers, and celebrating the Last Supper.  I beheld his crucifixion and his glorious resurrection and many other scenes from his life.  I was there and it was always him — in each picture was the same Christ I had come to love so dearly over the years through his picture on our SRF altars.  It was instantly obvious that in all the drawings there was a continuity — the features of the man were visible in the boy Jesus and could be anticipated in the baby.

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With tears in my eyes I closed the last portfolio. I had seen many works of art — masterpieces in European churches and museums — but never anything that looked so authentic, that radiated such divine beauty, and that conveyed such a presence of Jesus Christ.  “I must send this to the Mother Center,” was my next thought. …

The monastics engaged in the preparation of Paramahansaji’s commentaries on the life and teachings of Jesus were thrilled with the prospect of using the drawings in The Second Coming of Christ. ….

 Heinrich Hofmann (1824-1911)

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Heinrich Hofmann (1824-1911), Self Portrait

From the evidence found in old magazines and other publications written during his lifetime, and in the very precious letters and diaries written by Hofmann himself, there is no doubt that he was highly revered in his time.

Johann Michael Ferdinand Heinrich Hofmann was born on March 19, 1824, in Darmstadt, Germany.  He was the eldest son of Heinrich Karl Hofmann, an advocate of the High Court of Justice, and his wife Sophie.  Heinrich and his four brothers grew up in a household that was very much devoted to art. …

Though all the children showed artistic talent, only Heinrich had the desire to make art his profession.  His early career produced many portraits of wealthy and influential persons of the time.   A turning point came, however, in 1854, when his dear mother died.  It was in trying to overcome his deep sorrow that he began his first large religious painting, “The Burial of Christ.”

The next year he traveled to Italy…and from that time it became Hofmann’s lifework to depict the life and work of Christ, although he did not then realize this fully.

In Rome he was introduced to the famous German painter Peter von Cornelius (1783 – 1867), who supported Hofmann lovingly when he began his great work, “The Arrest of Christ,” which you find in The Second Coming of Christ. ….

The image of Hofmann I garnered from his unpublished letters and diaries is of an intensely religious man.  Before he painted any scene from the life of Christ he deeply studied the Gospel.  Often he would copy out in his own hand a whole passage from the Bible that inspired him.  He not only read the Scriptures, but did his best to follow them.  Many of his letters confirm that he gave financial support to needy persons.  And his heart would deeply feel with those who suffered from loss of a dear one or from diseases.  Of one of his paintings, he wrote: “Originally I had painted it for myself. I wanted it to hang over my bed, so that at night, before I would go to sleep, Christ’s eyes would ask me: ‘Have you lived this day according to my commandments?’ ” .

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His portfolios Remember Me, Come Unto Me, and Peace Unto You are spread among Christians everywhere — more so than any of the modern creations….This is all the more impressive because Heinrich Hofmann himself never worked on spreading his fame — as is so common today — on the contrary, he was a very simple person with a noble character and he never aspired to be the center of attention.  In his great humility he always found any publication about his person or his artwork embarrassing.

Often Hofmann was asked to write something about his paintings, to interpret the figures and the scenes.  When he sensed that people were only curious, he refused to talk about his inspiration; but when someone expressed genuine interest he did answer — though often reluctantly.

Mrs. Elise Drexler, for instance, an American woman from San Francisco, had bought “Christ and the Rich Young Man” from Hofmann (page 1086 in The Second Coming of Christ). In a letter to him, she expressed the wish to know more about his concept of the painting.  Hofmann replied …

“What always interested me deeply in my art was the expression in the faces of men and women because that expression reveals the inner life of a person….The face of the rich young ruler, for example, shows clearly that he is ashamed for he rejected what the Lord had asked of him. But a far greater challenge was the expression in the face of the Savior: His keen eyes should fathom the innermost recesses of the young man’s soul and at the same time they should express deep sympathy, for it is written that ‘He loved him.”

Because of the remarkable continuity of Jesus’ appearance throughout Hofmann’s body of work, the author of the article about Hofmann in The Strand, Kathleen Schlesinger, assumed “that Hofmann must have had, as a living model, someone he had known both as boy and man.”   She wrote to Hofmann asking about this.  In one of his letter draft books in the State Archives, I found the answer from the pen of the artist himself: “It is my pleasure to answer the question you wrote to me.  In my pictures I have never used a model for the face of the Savior — where on earth should I find one?   When I read about Christ in the Bible there arises quite spontaneously in my mind’s eye a picture of his countenance — that is what I try to retain and reproduce.”

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In another very interesting letter about “Christ in the Temple” (page 190 in The Second Coming of Christ) Hofmann writes: “Referring to your kind request I would like to note down a few comments on the figures in the painting ‘Christ in the Temple.’  In the old man who sits to the right I thought to depict someone who firmly clings to the authority of the law and who is amazed by the new interpretations that the boy gives, while the sophist loves to raise captious objections…and the white-haired gentleman only shows good-natured delight in the wise boy.  On the left you see the only one who really allows the divine words to flow into his heart (perhaps it is Nicodemus who later visited the Savior at night), and finally we have in the background the beardless man who turns away with contempt from the conversation his colleagues have with a child.   About my conception of Jesus, the boy, I cannot talk — I believe that the way I have painted him expresses everything I tried to convey.”

The 1912 article on Hofmann quoted earlier from Die Kunst unserer Zeit ends on a prophetic note — one with which readers of The Second Coming of Christ will surely agree:

“Art history calls him a painter of historical paintings — if he is mentioned at all. But a future generation will pay him due respect as one of the few men and artists who helped to inspire the Christian communities when destructive thinking reigned everywhere.”

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*Footnote~ The painting was later acquired by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who bequeathed it to the Riverside Church in New York, where it hangs today. Rockefeller also donated “Christ in Gethsemane” to the church — reputed to be the most copied religious painting in the world.

Christ Appears to Yogananda ~ The Second Coming of Christ

Heinrich Hofmann painter of Christ, By Rosemarie Müller

The Second Coming of Christ

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The Second Coming of Christ, SRF

The Second Coming of Christ, YSS

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