11 In our culture, for almost twenty centuries, the principle subject and motif chosen by artists and writers has indisputably been a Jewish prophet named Jesus of Nazareth (referring to his geographical origin). He was the founder of Christianity, and believers prefer to call him Jesus Christ to signify the divine mission of the Savior of the world, which he claimed as his own. The “life” and the message of this Jesus have been handed down to us mainly by four distinct accounts collected under the name of the Gospels. The great geniuses whose masterpieces this book presents for your admiration had a deep, even intimate knowledge of the Gospels. Moreover, most of them faithfully practiced the Christian religion and maintained with this historical personage a relation of veneration and love. In our post-modern era, knowledge about Jesus and his message has generally become superficial, or insignificant. It seems necessary therefore to revisit rapidly his “story,” his deeds, and the essentials of his teaching before getting to the mysteries that the artworks reproduced in this book present for our contemplation. Jesus was born around the year 6 before the Common Era1 in the heart of the Greco-Roman Orient, specifically in the kingdom of Judea, during the reign of Herod I, called the Great. At that time, Herod was nearing the end of a brilliant reign that had started around thirty years earlier. He suffered from an incurable ailment that would soon carry him off. The question about his succession obsessed him, and he strove to frustrate intrigues and plots, real or imagined, hatched by those close to him. His work left its mark on his era: did he not go so far as to restore the Olympic Games that had fallen into disuse, so as to be named their president for life? As a stern, sensible monarch, and often at the expense of sacrificing some subjects of his kingdom, he contributed decisively to the passage of the land of the Jewish nation to Greco-Romanmodernity. Its language and administration had become Greek, and many new or rebuilt towns rivaled the Hellenic cities in splendor: paved roads for communication, porticos and aqueducts, theaters and palaces, hippodromes and circuses, even amphitheaters testified to an accelerated transition to the pagan civilization. The Roman Empire, ruled then by Augustus, appreciated the unfailing “friendship” of Herod the Great. The Jewishmemory of him preserves above all the image of the one who rebuilt the grandiose Temple in Jerusalem, their ancestral capital, which then performed the duties of the royal shrine. According to the Gospel accounts, this was the context in which Mary, the wife of Joseph, brought into the world her first-born son in Bethlehem, in Judea, a few kilometers south of Jerusalem. Following the Jewish tradition, eight days later, on the occasion of his circumcision, his parents gave the newborn the name of Jesus, Yéshûâ inAramaic (the local Semitic language), which means “God saves.” After a short exile imposed by the persecutions of Herod, which the Gospel situates in Egypt, Joseph and Mary returned to live in northern Palestine, in Nazareth of Galilee, their town of origin. The unassuming market town is located six kilometers from the mighty, sumptuous Sepphoris which Herod Antipas, succeeding his father in a.d. 4, had decided to rebuild so as to make it his first capital. Thus the child Jesus would be an eyewitness to how this second-generation Herod pursued his father’s policy of openness to the GrecoRoman culture. We know little about the acts and deeds of the child Jesus. He followed the developments of growing up like all other children. In a land imbued with the Greek, so-called “Hellenistic” culture, he was raised according to the traditions of the popular Jewish milieu to which he belonged, which nourished him with the ancestral sap of his family tree. 1 Our era, also referred to as “A.D.,” anno Domini, “the year of Our Lord,” begins on the presumed date of Jesus’ birth, as it was fixed, with accuracy to within a few years, by a learned monk in the 6th century. Today historians date the birth of Jesus somewhere between the year 9 and the year 3 b.c.