The meaning of the selfie

I’ve a piece published in the Church Times on the selfie and its Christian origins. A taster:

THE precursors to the selfie are part of what is now called art. Take the haunting Fayum mummy portraits: these naturalist likenesses, painted on the wooden panels of coffins, have been found across Egypt. They date from the turn of the first millennium. The realism of the ancient faces with their large, dark eyes that stare out is striking. Their gaze holds our gaze as we look on.

It is thought that the ancient funerary portraits were, in part, a product of a growing appreciation of the value of the individual. It was becoming clear that ordinary people deserved to be remembered in death, as well as pharaohs, monarchs, and people of social standing. The portraits indicate a democratising impulse. They can be considered not only beautiful, but good.

Leap across the centuries, and think about 17th-century Amsterdam. Here, we find dozens of self-portraits being painted by Rembrandt. He shows himself sideways on, or lost in shadows, or wearing various types of exotic dress. They are now regarded as masterpieces, because they enabled the artist to capture his inner life. They are so widely celebrated because Rembrandt’s capacity to see more in his face enables us to see more in other faces. The self-portraits train us to appreciate someone’s humanity. They nurture our empathy. Again, they are a force for what is good.

Here is a third case. I am a friend of a contemporary sculptor, Guy Reid. He, too, often uses himself as a subject for his work. One example is a life-size crucifix, recently displayed in St Peter ad Vincula, in the Tower of London. It received some criticism because Reid, in using his own image, was accused of being egoistic, or disrespectful. What was missed, though, is a theological point, as well as the spiritual practice behind the creation of the work. To make it, Reid imaginatively stood in Christ’s shoes. In doing so, he was echoing the biblical injunction to take up your cross, besides putting himself in a position freshly to understand the power of the image…

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