Annibale Carracci, The Holy Family with the Infant Saint John the Baptist ('The Montalto Madonna'), about 1600 (National Gallery, London)

Annibale Carracci,
The Holy Family with the Infant Saint John the Baptist, about 1600
(National Gallery, London)

I’m just back from London, where I spent many delightful hours at the National Gallery. This little painting caught my eye, which is little wonder because Carracci does that.

The motif is the Holy Family—the mother Mary, the baby Jesus, and Saint Joseph. It’s a traditional theme in Christian art, typically used to promote modeling one’s own family after this mostly divine one. Here, though, John the Baptist is included as well. That’s not unusual and he does fit the theme (we was a cousin of Mary and Jesus), but it does shift the meaning of the motif, especially in this painting.

The first thing I notice is how the figures of Mary and Jesus are so tightly tied together. They are turned toward each other and their heads are gently touching. Mary’s arm and Jesus’ arm and leg make a strong rectilinear shape emphasizing their unity, and their garments, particularly Mary’s robe, enclose them. We instantly understand that these two are lovingly bonded.

Both, however, glance to the outside. Jesus looks over his shoulder toward his earthly father, Joseph. What is happening between them is hard to identify—the way Joseph leans in is not playful or even loving exactly, but it’s not threatening either. He looks curious, like he is puzzling over this baby, maybe because of something he just read in that book. Jesus, for his part, looks a little wary.

Mary’s glance is much easier to identify. It seems like the infant John has tugged on her robe, causing her to look back. She is very much aware of what John represents, which is the knowledge that her baby—this Jesus—will be the Messiah. Carracci underscores this by putting the characteristic cruciform staff in John’s hand. Instinctively, Mary turns away from John, shielding Jesus from that message, that cross. Who can blame her?

This pair seems pushed from both sides. The sweet bond between mother and son seems disrupted by indications of what is to come. Both the traditional Jewish scriptures and the soon-to-be prophet John foreshadow how this is all going to end.

Yes, we should all be thrilled that the Messiah is come, but at the moment he’s just a baby. Can’t all the prophecy just wait a little?

But, no. Here’s Ash Wednesday.


Lent … Look Up!

March 23, 2015

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Weimar Altarpiece, 1553-55 (The City Church of Saints Peter and Paul, Weimar, Germany)

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Weimar Altarpiece, 1553-55
(The City Church of Saints Peter and Paul, Weimar, Germany)

I feel the need for a big dose of theology today. Lucas Cranach the Elder will do it. In fact, where do we start?

This painting could be a visual treatise on the doctrine of salvation—with a Reformation emphasis on salvation by grace for all who believe. Very simply, John the Baptist (the third man from the right) points up to the crucified Christ to indicate that one only needs to look up to Christ to be saved. That’s grace. This simple message is repeated and expanded throughout the rest of the image.

Cranach-Weimar-det1In the background, for example, the scene with all the tents shows the story from the Old Testament (Numbers 21) when God’s people spoke against God and he rebuked them by sending poisonous snakes. Moses called out to God on their behalf and God told him to make a bronze snake and put it on a pole so anyone who was bitten could look up to it and live. He did and they were. In other words, they could be saved by merely looking up to the symbol of God’s power and grace. It’s an Old Testament prefiguration of the crucifixion—when Christ is put up on a pole and people are saved by looking to him. Here, that connection is made obvious because both John the Baptist and Moses point up—LOOK UP and LIVE!

Others look up in the background. Right beside all the tents is the scene from the gospel of Luke when an angel appeared to the shepherds after Jesus was born and told them, “Today … a Savior has been born to you!” Instead of announcing the Messiah’s birth to religious folk who would seem to be the most deserving, God chose to tell those who would appear to be the least deserving of all. Grace again.

Back to the foreground, John the Baptist not only gestures up, but also points downward to the sheep. This references the gospel story when John saw Jesus coming and declared, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!” It’s an astonishing thing to claim. When sin became a prominent aspect of human nature (it didn’t take long), God instituted a religious practice that included sacrificing animals to acknowledge one’s wrong-doing and “cover it,” at least temporarily. Because sin is perpetual, the sacrifices were too. But John seemed to know immediately that Jesus would become an ultimate sacrifice—just like the animals, he would die, but this sacrifice would be complete, permanent, and inclusive. In Christian theology, one only has to accept his sacrifice in order for it to be the ultimate sacrifice. Thus, LOOK UP and be forgiven … be saved.

Cranach-Weimar-det2Cranach seems to want to emphasis that we are saved by grace and not by simply being good, for he tucks a counter example behind the cross. There we see a nearly naked man, who symbolizes humanity, being chased into hell (the flames) by Satan (the monstrous figure) and Death (the skeleton). He’s destined to burn not because he’s been bad, exactly, but because he has tried so hard to live by the law (here upheld by members of the clergy and Moses himself). The point: If you seek salvation by being a good person, it just ain’t gonna work because no matter how hard you try, you’re going to screw up, which, according to the law, means death. Try to live by the law, you’re going to die by the law.

The alternative? Look up to Christ. If you do, you will not only be saved from eternal damnation, but you will witness victory over sin and death. That’s the resurrected Christ on the left trampling Death and Sin. Needless to say, you want to be on his side.

Up to this point, the bits of iconography are pretty standard. But then we get to the two men on the right.

Cranach-Weimar-det3The one on the outside is none other than Martin Luther. He points to an open book which has three biblical passages from his own German translation of the Bible—I John 1:7b, Hebrews 4:16, and John 3:14-15)—which point to the various themes of the painting and underscore the main point. Believe that Christ’s sacrifice saves you and it will.

The man with the white beard is Lucas Cranach the Elder himself. Apparently, the painting was finished by Lucas Cranach the Younger, so I’m not sure if this should be considered a self-portrait or a commemorative portrait. Either way, the important thing is the stream of blood that gushes from Jesus’ side and splashes on top of Cranach’s head. While somewhat gruesome, Cranach testifies here that he has allowed the blood of Christ to “cleanse him from all sin” (I John 1:7). His faith has saved him.

Interesting … he doesn’t actually look up to Christ, even though that seems to be such an important message in this painting. Instead, he looks out at us directly. Making eye contact, it is almost as if he is pleading with the viewer to take all of this seriously, maybe even follow his example. Look up, believe, and be saved.

I’m Protestant by habit, so the churches I’ve gone to don’t have crucifixes, they have empty crosses. I was told that this (a) prevents us from idolatry (no praying to a craved god, even if it is Jesus) and (b) allows us to celebrate the empty cross, the risen Christ. Okay, fine. But I am a little jealous of my Catholic friends who can practice looking up to the crucified Christ every time they go to church. That seems important.

Maybe I’ll head over to Saint Al’s this week.


Lent … A Battle Scene

February 23, 2015

Pieter Brueghel the Elder, The Battle between Carnival and Lent, c. 1559 (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

Pieter Brueghel the Elder, The Battle between Carnival and Lent, c. 1559 (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

This week we marked the passage into the holy season of Lent. I used to make much of Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent, but I haven’t had ashes on my forehead for years now. It’s complicated. Which is why this painting came to mind.

This is a typical Brueghel painting in that it is crammed full of stuff. Your eye wonders around a bit until you finally hone in on the action at the bottom center. Two characters are riding make-shift contraptions toward each other, both carrying “lances” as if they are about to joust. The one on the left (riding a beer barrel) symbolizes Carnival—the season that runs up to the beginning of Lent and is characterized by indulgence, especially in the areas of food and drink. The character on the right (being pulled on a cart) symbolizes Lent—the period leading up to Easter during which Christians practice abstinence as a way to remember Christ’s sacrifice and prepare for the holiest of Holy-Days.


The two figures personify the two seasons in many ways. One is well-fed; the other is lean. One fights with skewer full of meat, the other with board of fish. For helmets, one has a meat pie, the other a bee hive. One is followed by a table of bread and waffles (the starch of Carnival), while the other brings pretzels and biscuits (the starch of Lent). The contrast extends beyond the two figures. The people on the left crowd into taverns, parade around in masks, and imbibe; the people on the right, many having crosses imposed on their foreheads, prepare themselves for Lent, including giving alms to the poor and disabled.

Scholars have offered varying interpretations of this painting. For some it’s a straightforward picture of the perennial triumph of Lent. Others point to the historical context and suggest that the painting is an allegory for the religious tensions between Catholics (for whom Lent was a deeply held tradition) and Protestants (who had abolished Lent, but still observed Carnival). Still other scholars point to the ridiculousness of both sides of the battle and argue that Brueghel is commenting about just how superficial all these religious practices have become—it’s all a show.

Looking at it today, and from a personal perspective, I wonder if this reflects a conflict that many of us feel. We know we should be engaged in the practices long associated with Lent—abstinence, generosity, penitence, contemplation. Those are all very good and worthy things. But it’s complicated.

It’s convenient to suggest that Brueghel may be commenting about the superficiality of all religious practices. It lets us off the hook—just like when we (okay, I) dismiss another’s practice just because he announces that he can’t have the chocolate cake because he gave sweets up for Lent. Such displays of piety have a tendency to make me want to steer clear of acts of piety altogether. Thus, to arrive at this kind of interpretation of the painting makes me suspicious. Interpretations can reveal a lot about the interpreter, after all.

This doesn’t mean I’m going to run out to find a pastor who will put ashes on my forehead ex post facto, but I am going to commit to thinking differently about these Lenten traditions that (frankly) have seemed at times to be more show than soul-shaping. My motives will never be pure and a little alms-giving, and a little abstinence will likely do my spirit good.

(And now I’m wondering if this whole blog entry is a show of piety. Ha. Of course it is.)

I’ll be honest and say that I don’t “get” Dürer. I understand that he was a master draughtsman, painter, and printmaker. His works really do blow his contemporaries out of the water, but they seem to be all flash and no substance. Maybe I’m just a skeptical viewer because I know how commercially minded he was. He wanted to sell his stuff and so he made stuff that sold. But clearly there’s got to be more to it than that. So …

Albrecht Dürer, Last Supper from the Small Passion, 1509-11 (Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York)

Albrecht Durer, Last Supper from the Small Passion, 1510 (Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York)

This little woodcut comes from a series he did called the “Small Passion”—36 very small illustrations that were bound together as a devotional book. It’s teeny and almost every scene is rendered in a way that is dramatically different from the way other artists had been doing it. It had wow-factor.

Jesus is obviously the focal point with the rays of light emanating from his head in an otherwise dark space. He cocks his head to the side as if to accentuate the dynamic diagonal line made by his arm and John the Younger, who leans against him somewhat awkwardly.

The disciples surround the table and turn to one another as if engaging in private conversations. The informed viewer might guess that they are reacting to Jesus’s revelation that one of them was going to betray him. “What’d he say?” … “Did you hear that?” … “What could he mean by that?” … “One of us!?!”

Most of them are confused, but one in particular is not—Judas, of course. He is sitting across from Christ, clutching the bag of silver that was his payment for turning Jesus over to the authorities. Instead of turning to his neighbor, he looks directly at Jesus who seems to be meeting his gaze. He knows that Jesus knows that he’s the one. More on that in a minute …

The stuff on the table are all symbols for the “rest of the story.” Judas’s act of betrayal is suggested by the knife directly in front of him, which points back toward the Passover lamb on the platter (yes, it’s a lamb). Jesus will be “the Lamb of God” who will be killed as a sacrifice to cover the sins of all. The cup and the half-eaten loaf are reminders of Jesus’s words during the same meal—“this wine is my blood, shed for you; this bread is my body, broken for you.” This is story and the theology of salvation all rolled into one.

To me, the most interesting part of the image is the knowing look shared by Jesus and Judas. Dürer draws this in such a way that suggests that there might be more going on here than accusation and obstinacy. Jesus tilted head conveys compassion and Judas leans in and looks up to Jesus. Judas does not seem to be the angry, evil character we’re used to.

I wonder if Dürer is trying to get us to see Judas’s point of view. He’s been a dedicated follower of Jesus, he knows Jesus is the Messiah, and he’s zealous. He’s heard Jesus talk about coming to Jerusalem to be arrested, tried, and killed. Maybe he thinks the time has come. Why not speed things along a little? And now, sitting at this table, Jesus has just said it. Judas looks at Jesus. Jesus looks back with a somber gaze. Is this confirmation? Is this the signal?

The thing is that it was a signal. Jesus knew. And Judas did put the plan into action. We condemn Judas, but what he did ultimately led to exactly what he thought it would lead to. Jesus was arrested, tried, and brought to a cross. And he became the Messiah—the savior of the Jews, the savior of the world. He finally revealed the true extent of his power and his glory, perhaps just as Judas had anticipated.

How often we take matters into our own hands. We think we know what God wants to happen and we decide to make it happen. On the one hand, this is attitude is rather arrogant and probably self-serving. But, on the other hand, I wonder how often God has used this very human inclination (especially in the Type-A folks) to bring certain things to pass. Seems a little complicated and potentially really messy, but I guess it’s a factor he has to consider anyway.

Honestly, I’m not sure what to do with this, but there it is.


I feel compelled to add that I do not have evidence to support that Dürer meant to cast Judas in a sympathetic light. That’s my own reading.

Fra Angelico, Resurrection of Christ and the Women at the Tomb, 1438-45 (Convent of San Marco, Florence)

I’ve picked such quiet paintings for Lent this year, it seems only fitting that I pick a quiet one for Easter too. This fresco by Fra Angelico seems like the perfect thing.

Fra Angelico packs a lot into this image. The women have come on Sunday morning to anoint the body of Christ, but instead they are greeted by a “man in white”—here, depicted clearly as an angel. He imparts his message with two gestures. He points downward into the empty tomb (“Jesus is not here”) and upward toward a vision of the risen Christ (“because he is risen.”). The women, still clutching their jars of ointment, react with dismay and maybe disbelief.

Jesus appears in all his risen glory in an aureole above the women. Fra Angelico is careful to stick to scripture here. According to the biblical account, Jesus wasn’t present at this point of the story, but Fra Angelico still wants to include the reality and wonder of Christ’s resurrection even as he meditates on the very human experience of the women. So, he sets Jesus apart, giving a vision of the risen Christ only to the viewers of the fresco. Us.

And what a vision! It may not be dramatic—Fra Angelico is always understated—but Christ is still exalted. With the bright white behind him and rays of light streaming out, it looks like he’s glowing. He carries the palm branch of martyrdom in one hand and the flag of the resurrection in the other—and together those symbols tell the story. He died a martyr’s death and then rose from the grave in order to reconcile us to God and conquer death once and for all. Jesus doesn’t really play the part of a victorious hero here, but he does have a look of confidence about him.

If only the women could see the vision! One of them will meet Christ close to the tomb in a little while, but the others will have to wait. For now, all of them are reeling. And you can see why! They’ve spent the last two days mourning the death of a beloved teacher-friend-son, and now they are told he’s alive again? What!?! Um, could you repeat that? One of the women peers into the tomb as if she wants to see for herself, and he others haven’t yet dried their eyes…

They will, though. And they will become fierce witnesses to this most astonishing of all miracles. I don’t know about you, but I just love these women. Their devotion to Jesus and their strength of character inspires me. They left the tomb, went back to the house where the disciples were hiding out and, even though they knew those men would call them crazy, they were the first to proclaim, “Christ is risen!”

He is risen indeed.

And down in the corner is St. Dominic, kneeling in prayer. He models for us so that we, too, may stop to meditate on the wonder and significance of these events.

Christ is risen. He is risen indeed!

Messina, Christ Crucified, 1475
(National Gallery, London)

I remember the first time I saw this panel at the National Gallery in London almost twenty years ago. It’s a tiny painting, and it still draws me in with its stillness, quietness.

It shows the crucifixion, of course, but without all the usual trappings. There are no guards, no thieves, no crowds. It’s clear that none of that is important to the artist. This is not a history painting of an event as much as a theological meditation on the death of Christ.

The artist Messina has defined two separate worlds here by dividing the painting in half vertically. The lower half, which largely consists of warm tones, is the physical realm. It is occupied by hills and towns and everyday life. The upper half, in which Christ is suspended in an expanse of cool blue sky, is the spiritual realm. It may lie beyond our immediate apprehension, yet it is very real.

Jesus is situated rather high on a cross to completely separate him from the earthly world. He seems small and weightless, and there is little to show of the suffering he has endured, except for the wound in his side and the curl of his fingers around the nails. This is some time after his death, but he does not seem dead. Instead, it looks like he might be gazing down into that physical realm.

The two figures below are Mary (probably the mother of Jesus, but it’s unclear) and John the Younger. They sit on the ground, which ties them more physically to the earthly world. Mary seems lost in thought, but John gazes up with an open palm as if asking some big questions.

By making these two realms remarkably distinct, I think the artist is emphasizing just how difficult it is for us to understand the things of God. John looks up, wanting to understand, but we get the impression that simply he can’t access that information. Even now, from the perspective of two thousand years and with the wisdom of many scholars, the paradox of the death of God still baffles. I don’t think our human minds can really understand.

But Messina consoles us. Remember, Christ seems to look down from the cross. I imagine (and it may be just me) that he wants to say something—maybe a word of comfort, maybe a word of explanation—something to bridge the divide between the spiritual reality and the earthly reality. Can we hear his words? Maybe, maybe not.

But what does bridge the gap is the cross itself. It cuts across the horizontal line with a bold and definitive horizontal band that is then firmly rooted in the soil of the earthly realm.

Honestly, I’m not sure what to make of this. It would be easy to conclude that the crucifixion was the ultimate divine act that broke the barrier between God and humanity. Of course. But, while that may be, I believe that no one can truly grasp the fullness of that truth, and so the spiritual realm should feel just as distant and inaccessible as ever. And there’s the paradox. Thankfully, it’s possible to live in that paradox. And I do this Easter Eve.

Giotto, Triumphal Entry, 1305 (Arena Chapel, Padua, Italy)

Palm Sunday. It’s the day we commemorate Jesus’ final entry into Jerusalem about a week before he was crucified. This painting is one of several panels that Giotto painted for the private Arena Chapel. I’ve looked at it only in passing before because there are other more interesting panels in the chapel, but as I look at it now, I find all sorts of things that get me thinking.

Jesus is prominently figured in the center riding toward the gate on a donkey. The story goes that he had commanded his disciples to go into a town and fetch the first “donkey” or “colt” (depending on the gospel you’re reading) that they saw. He added a key bit of information that would be otherwise unapparent: that the colt would have never been ridden before. By being the first to ride it, he would be claiming a messianic prophecy.

And so here he is, with his disciples trailing after him. They seem to be staring at the people on the other side of the painting who are treating Jesus as a king by waving palm fronds and spreading their own garments on the ground in front of him.

The disciples seem a little dumbfounded by this, as if they think this whole thing is a little crazy. And who could blame them? Until now, Jesus has downplayed his identity, and now, all of a sudden, he not only encourages people to think of him as king and Messiah, but the people are actually responding like he is! The disciples will be confused and even shocked by many of the events of the week ahead. Giotto suggests that their discombobulation started here. Things are beginning to move rather quickly in a direction they weren’t quite expecting.

While the disciples are already playing catch-up, the citizens of Jerusalem are taking it all in stride. I love the way Giotto underscored the eagerness of the people. In the background, two people are putting considerable stress on a couple of trees in order to get a view of the procession. Meanwhile, in the foreground, a woman seems to be struggling to get her robe over her head and a man lunges in front of the donkey to get his cloak in place. Another guy absentmindedly tugs on his sleeve as if he wants to follow suit but simply can’t take his eyes off of Jesus.

Oh, to be so starstruck! These folks are not asking a bunch of questions, trying to sort out the theology, or waiting to see what the experts say. They seem to get it straight away. Jesus is IT. Maybe they were just swept up in that mob mentality that surrounds any new celebrity, but in this case their devotion was absolutely appropriate. Jesus really was IT. Okay, he was not quite the “it” they thought he was—he wasn’t going to liberate them from the oppressive rule of the Romans, for example, but he was going to liberate them from a much greater oppressor—the rule of sin and death. Their enthusiasm was very well-placed.

As for me, I feel stuck somewhere between the disciples and the people. I want to be unabashedly enthusiastic about Jesus’ liberating work, maybe even to the point of making a fool of myself in public. But, honestly, I’m still a little confused by it all. I don’t feel liberated. It doesn’t seem like a new kingdom has been instituted. So, it’s a little hard for me to join this eager bunch.

Maybe I need to walk with the disciples as they follow Jesus around this week in a perpetual state of confusion so that I might better understand the clarity they received as they witnessed the resurrection. It’s a little crowded on that side of the painting, but maybe there’s room for me.

Lent … Breathing

March 19, 2012


Susie Lee, Still Lives: Exposure, 2010

In Seattle last week, I saw a small exhibition of Susie Lee’s work at the Frye Museum. I sat in front of this piece for only five minutes, but it left a deep impression.

At first, it looks like a big photograph mounted in a light box. It glows. It’s gorgeous. The intensity of the immense dark area makes the light illuminating the figure all the more captivating. Your attention quickly focuses on that person—not only because of the light, but also because of the gentle curve of the bed which rocks your attention back and forth until it settles on that soft grey head. And, if you look long enough, you notice that it’s not a photograph at all, but a video.

You’re watching this older woman as she sleeps hunched over beside a bed. All you notice is a subtle movement with each breath—her body moving up and down as she inhales and exhales. In. Out. In … out … She may not look particularly comfortable, but her slumber seems peaceful and deep.

As I sat and watched, I became more and more focused on her gentle breathing and then I became aware of my own inhalations and exhalations. In fact, my own breaths soon matched hers. We breathed together. In … out …

I’ve noticed this phenomenon before. When I lay close to my husband or daughter when they are sleeping, my breathing falls in sync with theirs. It’s like we are sharing a lung, like we are one body, not two. But it’s more than just a feeling of connection. With my breath in unison with theirs, I feel less alone, my concerns seem less important, my thoughts are less busy. Everything is going to be all right.

What astonished me, sitting in front of this image, was the way the same peacefulness crept over me. I didn’t know this woman; I wasn’t lying close to her; I wasn’t even in the same room. And yet, I felt connected to her physically. Across space and time, we were sharing a lung.

What does this have to do with Lent?

I was thinking about the way that we strive toward sympathy with Christ during these forty days. We give up things, we go to extra services, we add new disciplines—all to help us pay attention to his sacrifice for us. This artwork makes me want to take a different approach entirely. I want curl up next to Jesus and let my breath fall in sync with his. In … out … in … out … Perhaps then I would feel more deeply connected to him in body and in mind, even across space and time. If so, I imagine that I could feel his suffering more acutely, but I suspect that the prevailing sensation would be one of profound peacefulness. Everything is going to be all right, after all.

Lent … Being Present

February 28, 2012

Hieronymous Bosch, outside panel of The Temptation of Saint Anthony Triptych, c. 1500-05 (Lisbon, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga)

And so Lent begins. Today, I’ve been thinking about Christ carrying the cross on his way to Golgotha, and I dug up this Bosch image of the scene. I like Bosch because of his unique spin on things.

This painting is actually an outside panel of a winged triptych. When the triptych is open, we see three images from the temptation of Saint Anthony, complete with the crazy composite demon figures we would expect from Bosch. When the triptych is closed, however, we see two scenes from the Passion of Christ: his arrest and this panel.

The main scene above shows Christ carrying his cross up a hill to his place of execution. He has fallen to his knees. Simon of Cyrene leans forward to try to relieve him of his burden, and Veronica falls to her knees to wipe the sweat and blood from Christ’s face. Both are rebuked by the executioner carrying a sickle. He may not be the Grim Reaper himself, but he is a harvester of death.

This is a spectacle. A big crowd has formed a procession from the city out to the execution grounds, including a woman who has brought her two young children. Three others have come ahead in order to find a comfortable spot where they can get a good view of the show.

And all around, there are signs of what this place is. In the foreground, an executed man lies rotting on the ground next to the cross on which he died. In the middle ground, a severed head has been mounted on a stake. Perhaps it is his body that lies in the ditch to the left. In other places, pieces of wood protrude from the ground, leading us to surmise that they were also crosses that held criminals at one time. It’s a bleak scene. And we get a sense of just what a horrible death awaits Christ.

The two little scenes in the middle ground tell the story of the two thieves that will be executed with Christ. On the left, one thief sits close to a friar and leans in—he seems to be listening, maybe even repenting. The book on the ground suggests that his name might be written in the Book of Life after all. The thief on the right is also being counseled by a friar, but he remains bound and blindfolded—physically and also spiritually, it seems.

Of course, the panel is a morality tale. It illustrates that we are all tempted to sin (even as a Saint like Anthony was, as shown in the inside panels), but we have a choice to repent—that is, to turn to Christ and ultimately see Paradise—or be obstinate and be destined for a miserable eternity. The stakes are high, and Bosch made a career of delivering warnings in paint.

But there’s another choice here that resonates a little more deeply. How do we respond to Christ’s suffering? Do we follow Christ through Lent because of some kind of pious mob mentality? Are we interested in finding a good seat for the show? I think this is all too often the case, even among Christians, even for me. Lent is a show—a show to be watched, sure, but also a show to be acted out.

The alternative is to follow the example of Simon and Veronica. They, too, follow the procession, but out of love and concern. They, too, want to be close, but in order to offer support and care. From my spot in history, I cannot ease Christ’s burden or wipe his face, but I can be present with him. That’s my hope. Through these days of Lent, may I be present. Present.

A Fresh Look

October 23, 2011

Emil Nolde, The Life of Christ, 1911-1912 (Nolde Stiftung Seebüll, Neukirchen)

Emil Nolde’s Life of Christ is a powerful group of paintings. He depicts a series of very well-known and oft-imaged scenes from the life of Jesus in ways that are surprising and poignant. In fact, this painting makes me feel sorry for all those Renaissance artists who were stuck with a set of conventions when painting these scenes (Holy Night = baby in a manger). It seems like Nolde ditches all that in the interest of creating images that speak to the humanness of the characters and the transcendence of the events at hand.

Take the Holy Night panel, for instance. This is not your typical manger scene. The only manger here is the one from which the horse is drinking. Instead, Nolde shows Mary and Joseph in a private moment, just before the shepherds arrive (we can seem them coming over the hill). This is Mary’s chance to treasure this precious baby before the visitors start streaming in. She holds up the tiny newborn, all pink and floppy, as if to get a good look at him. Isn’t he so precious? I want to take him, wrap him up in a blanket, and hold him tight to me. This, my Savior.

So then I chuckle with the next scene. Here, the Wise Men are doing exactly what I want to do! Look at those two cooing over the baby. Jesus seems to encourage their doting by giving them a little smile. Meanwhile, Mary (now all covered up) leans back with her hands on her hips. You can almost imagine her rolling her eyes or issuing a big sigh. Glad you came, now would please you go?


In the next episode, we see the 12-year-old Jesus interpreting the scriptures in the temple. Nolde shows Jesus as a toe-headed youngster bent over a bright white book or scroll. The rabbis crowd around him, but they are not peering down at the page. Instead, they look straight at him with broad smiles on their faces. They are so pleased with him! There is one at the back, however, that seems to glower, perhaps suggesting how quickly opinions will change later on. For now, though, Christ is a marvelous prodigy. What none of them seems to notice is the shaft of light behind them. It not-so-subtly implies that Jesus has these extraordinary insights precisely because he has a direct connection to God. Maybe they can’t see it, but we can.

After the tremendously dark and chaotic panel that shows Judas kissing Christ in an ironic act of betrayal, we see the crucifixion scene. Nolde uses garish colors and angular forms to convey the anguish and desolation of the event. Mary collapses into the arms of John, her face smeared and eyes swollen with grief. Nolde here repeats the profile view of Mary, with white dress and loose hair, probably to connect that first panel with this one. What a long road between lifting up her newborn babe and seeing that son lifted up on a cross. Her misery is made more poignant by the care-less attitudes of the men on the right who throw dice to see who will get to keep Christ’s clothes as a souvenir. Two responses to the death of Christ. We do not want to be counted among the latter, do we.

Thankfully, the story doesn’t end there. The first scene on the right side is the resurrection. Nolde paints Jesus with an elongated body in front of a purple explosion, so that it seems like he is being propelled out of the tomb by the sheer power that has brought him back to life. What a contrast to the Christ that hangs on the cross. This is Christ whole and triumphant. It’s no wonder that the same guard who treated his death so lightly before now seems to be running for cover—running right out of the canvas toward us. Look out! He has risen!

In the next to panels, Nolde focuses on the human side of things. He seems to reflect on what it must have been like for the friends of Jesus—the women finding his tomb empty and the disciples trying to wrap their minds around the idea of a risen Jesus. It doesn’t make sense, yet they are asked to believe. So are we, right? And we stand there in the crowd as Jesus makes that one last leap into heaven. They look a little nervous. Me too.