Bishop Arthur J. Serratelli
In 1506, at the age of 23, Raphael produced a beautiful self-portrait now found in Florence’s Uffizi Gallery. Leonardo da Vinci also gave us a picture of himself in his 1512 Portrait of a Man in Red Chalk. Likewise, Michelangelo left us his portrait by placing his own face on the flayed skin held by St. Bartholomew in the Sistine Chapel’s Last Judgment. And then there is Van Gogh. He painted 37 self-portraits between 1886 and 1889. Ever since the Renaissance, artists have been depicting themselves in their own works.
Self-portraits are about status. They spring from the desire to remain important and famous in future generations. With the advent of better mirrors in the Renaissance, it became easier for an artist to leave us his own image. As Dr. Terri Apter, psychology lecturer at Cambridge University has remarked, “People who had access to self-representations were keen to make use of them. In this way, people could control the image projected, and, of course, the fact that the image was on display marked the importance and status of the person represented.”
It is not by chance that self-portraits developed during the Renaissance. The revived interest in classical Greece and Rome gave birth to a humanism that placed great emphasis on the individual. Promoting the uniqueness of each person paved the way for artists to ply their art to produce portraits of famous people as well as themselves. Likewise, it is not by chance that, today, the art of self-portraits has exploded into “the culture of selfies.” This is an age of undiminished individualism.
In America, the turmoil of the 1960s broke down respect for political institutions and authority. It made people less idealistic about improving society and more concerned with their own lives and happiness. Tom Wolfe had his finger on the pulse of this changing culture. In the Aug. 23, 1976 cover story of New York magazine, he baptized the 1970s as the “me generation.” The individual had taken center stage.
More than a generation later, individualism still reigns supreme. The lack of political consensus, the social upheaval of wars and immigration and the ever-present threat of terrorism have done little to move society away from its individualistic self-reference. For many, self-fulfillment takes precedence over social responsibility. Not surprisingly, in such an individual-centered culture, the “selfie” is becoming ever more popular.
From Pope Francis to President Obama, everyone is taking selfies. There are more photos taken every three minutes than in the entire 19th century! People pop up to snap a selfie at any occasion: social, political, personal and religious, even at funerals. No moment is too sacred; none, too serious. What matters most is capturing one’s own presence with someone famous or at some important event for others to see.
It would be all too easy simply to say that selfies are the sure sign of a narcissistic generation. Me, me, me! Too easy and not too accurate. For sure, there are individuals who are so self-important that they need to record their every moment in selfies and on Twitter. But, deep down, there is something else that leads individuals to share their lives with others through selfies.
God created us in his own image and likeness. God is Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, a divine communion of life and love. Made in God’s image, we are made to live not as isolated individuals but as persons related to one another. We are made to be with others. Selfies project, in some fashion, this deep-seated orientation that draws us to each other.
Paradoxically, however, selfies cannot bring us the communion for which we are made. When we center on ourselves, we turn inward and away from others. But, it is only in pointing our lives toward God and in opening ourselves in love to others that we mirror the God in whose image we are made and thus find fulfillment.
Selfies taken with famous people further reveal our desire to be seen as important. These photos point to our craving for recognition, for fame, for being considered special. But a casual association with someone of prestige or power never guarantees us the specialness that we desire. Our real worth is found at a much deeper level.
Already, in Christ, we have been given an importance and worth that goes beyond the flashing lights of paparazzi or the snap of a smartphone. In the mystery of the Incarnation, God himself has come among us. Jesus is the very image of God in our midst (cf. Col 1:15). No need for selfies to associate ourselves with the great. The Greatest has placed the perfect image of himself, of his goodness and grace, not next to us, but deep within us. In Christ, we have immortal value. Once we realize that, in taking our human nature, God has given us a share in his divine glory, we suddenly discover, in faith, our true self-worth.