The artistic representation of Jesus in Hermann Cohen’s aesthetics

Ezio Gamba

A question dealt with by Cohen in his aesthetical writings (above all in the chapters about sculpture and painting of Ästhetik des reinen Gefühls) is the one about the possibility of the artistic representation of the divine in figurative arts. Cohen deals with this question considering three different ways to think the divine: Greek polytheism, Jewish monotheism and Christianity. About the first two Cohen’s thought is clear: the gods of Greek sculpture aren’t but idealized men. The monotheistic God of Judaism, on the contrary, is not a possible object for figurative representation.

The question of the figurative representation of Jesus is more complex; Jesus is a man, but, according to Christians, he is the monotheistic God. In some works written before Ästhetik des reinen Gefühls, Cohen has a favourable attitude to the opportunity, given to both art and religion by Christianity, to represent the monotheistic God in art. In Ästhetik des reinen Gefühls, on the contrary, Cohen’s attitude is less favourable: arts, and above all sculpture, have man, not God, as their main object; Jesus, so, is a suitable object for sculpture only if he is considered merely as a man (but perhaps the same statement is not so categorical for painting).