We are saddened by the passing of LDS artist James C. Christensen on January 8, 2017. He was a longtime BYU faculty member and a contributor to BYU Studies. Issue 28 no. 2 (1988) of BYU Studies included a collection of fourteen of his works. And in 2000, he wrote an article for BYU Studies, "That's Not My Jesus: An Artist's Personal Perspective on Images of Christ," in which he described his struggle in trying to paint the Savior. Part of this article describes the story behind his powerful painting Gethsemane, completed in 1984. Here is an excerpt of that article.
Some years ago, I felt drawn to paint the Savior in Gethsemane. Typical paintings of the Atonement look too serene, too much like evening prayer. They are very unsatisfactory for me. On the other hand, I am not a subscriber to crucifixes with bleeding knees and thorns and scrapes and lashes—I do not think we need that. But for me there was no satisfactory painting describing or even alluding to what we believe the Savior experienced in the Garden.
I considered painting the Savior in the most extreme agony. Collapsed, face down, hands in the dirt. Were he to lift up his head, his face would be covered with dust and sweat. But I have not painted that image because he is still our God. It would be unseemly to depict him in an undignified way—even if that image might be historically or pictorially accurate.
So I looked for a balance: showing the agony and passion and yet being careful to not portray Christ in an undignified, disrespectful way. I found a clue in Luke 22:43: "And there appeared an angel unto him from heaven, strengthening him." That passage resonated with me. I considered the idea of the angel strengthening him by giving him a blessing. In subsequent reading, I found that Elder Bruce R. McConkie suggested that the angel could be Adam. In a beautiful symmetry, the two gardens come together. Both beings are present in both gardens. Adam helped bring about the Fall; Jesus saves us from it: "For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive" (1 Cor. 15:22).
In Gethsemane I hoped to capture Christ's burden and agony in a way that people could see and feel to some degree. The light comes across his back, so we see these broad shoulders being pressed down with the weight of our sins. His face is in shadow. His hair is wet from sweat or blood and is messy, not coifed. He has sunk to his knees, not arranged himself in a formal manner of prayer. I have tried to capture a meaningful gesture, but it was not an accident that I picked a moment where his hands go to his face. In a sense, with so much of the Savior's face hidden, the viewers can create and identify with "their" Jesus.