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The Human Face in the History of Western Art
Every face is an icon of individuality and uniqueness. An IMAGO lecture on the human face in Western art will be held in Toronto, November 5, 2008.

Perhaps nothing is more personal than a face. It is the primary locus for our relationships with others. And so the face is both the icon of our individuality and uniqueness as well as essential for community. This claim of course may be challenged in an age where the internet offers a kind of community – which despite Facebook – is very much a faceless network.   I say essential for community because so much of who we are is found in the face, and it is through the face that we most often represent ourselves to others.

It is in face to face encounter that we are able to enter into deeper relationship and to come to know one another more intimately. But hiding is also possible. The face can be employed as an instrument of deception, covering the truth about who we are, professing instead pretense and falsehood.   Whether it is deeper relationship or deception, each is possible because of the communicative power of the human face

We live at time when the face is more a matter of an image at a distance than a personal encounter. Faces are everywhere, billboards, movies, magazines, television and the virtual world of the internet, but none of these can replace the face to face encounter where we are called upon to engage with another. The face connects us with the 'other.' Theologian David Ford declares; “Each face is an interrupting summons to justice and peace, with endless ramifications for economics, politics, institutions and other structures.”

Our consumerist society plays out its themes drawing on the power of the face to propagate its message. But more importantly the face is a common component of both personal and cultural memory. When one thinks of cultural memory it is art that provides glimpses into the lives of those from centuries past. The human face has had a prominent role in the history of Western art. The sculptures of ancient Greece and Rome, the icons of early Christianity, the portrait in the Renaissance, the faces of bourgeois patrons of the arts or the distorted and troubled faces that appear in 20th century art all speak to the centrality of face for understanding our humanity and expressing our identity. 

Imago is hosting a lecture by Roberta Green Ahmanson on the theme Till We Have Faces: The Human Face in the History of Western Art, Wednesday November 5, 2008, 7:30 p.m. (Sam Sorbara Auditorium, Brennan Hall, St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto, 81 St. Mary's Street). A panel discussion will precede the event at 6:30 p.m. on November 4, 2008 (Charbonnel Lounge, 81 St. Mary Street). Mary Street is two blocks south of Bloor, and west off Bay Street. Parking: three blocks south of Bloor and west off Bay Street on St. Joseph Street. For more information and for a map, visit the Imago website:

This event is organized in collaboration with Toronto School of Theology. An art show will be held there from October 28, 2008 to November 14, 2008. 

John Franklin is the executive director of Imago.

Originally published in the Imago Newsletter, Fall 2008.




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