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.



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!

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.

All Saints

November 1, 2011

Fra Angelico, Predella of the Fiesole Altarpiece, c1423-24 (National Gallery, London)

It is getting close to All Saints’ Day. There are not many artworks that try to depict the great cloud of witnesses. Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece is one. The predella of Fra Angelico’s Fiesole Altarpiece is another.

The altarpiece was originally painted for the high altar of San Domenico in Fiesole, Italy, but was later moved and then divided up. The main panel shows a Madonna and Child flanked by Thomas Aquinas and three famous Dominican friars. The predella—the relatively small base of the altarpiece—somehow ended up in London. It shows a crowd of people worshipping a risen Christ. When the altarpiece was all together, it was something of a before-and-after lesson, with the crucifixion being the pivotal unseen event. With the predella now on its own, I think it is actually more powerful because there is nothing stealing our attention. Instead, we can get sucked into the details, into the lives, of the people represented.

At the very center of it all stands Christ dressed in white and holding the traditional banner of resurrection. This is the Risen Christ victorious. Surrounding him are clusters of angels playing every instrument you can imagine. Some seem to be singing; others simply gaze in his direction.

Left-center panel

The two panels on other side of the center contain a whole host of familiar faces, including biblical figures from both the Old and New Testaments, prominent church leaders, theological scholars, and male and female martyrs. Many can be identified through the attributes, like Peter’s key (right side of the top row in the left panel) and John the Baptist’s hairy garment (middle of the top row in the right panel).

The two outermost panels show groups of Dominicans, both men and women. Here again, most are identifiable by their attributes and (just for good measure) their name which is written on them. There is no doubt that this altarpiece was meant to honor the Dominican saints which had gone before.

What I love about these panels is the way Fra Angelico shows a multitude of saints and yet lets them maintain their unique identities. The claims-to-fame of the biblical figures are well-known in our time, but the stories of some of the others are rarely retold anymore, especially in Protestant churches. Here’s just a sampling from the right panel:

Right-center panel

  • Saint Victor of Marseilles (middle row, fifth one, in blue) was a Roman soldier who refused to offer incense to Jupiter and instead destroyed the altar. Consequently, he was crushed by a millstone and beheaded, which is why you can spy a millstone resting beside him.
  • Saint Lawrence (middle row, sixth one, in red) was a deacon in the Roman Church who was known for his generosity toward the poor. Legend says that the Prefect of Rome suspected that the church had great wealth and ordered Lawrence to bring “the church’s treasure” to him. When Lawrence instead brought the poor and declared them to be the church’s treasure, the Prefect condemned Lawrence to die a slow death by being cooked alive on a gridiron. You can see that gridiron here in front of him.
  • Saints Cosmos and Damian (second row, in the middle, matching pink robes) were brothers and both physicians. They were well-known in their day for providing medical care to both rich and poor without any payment, all because of their love for God. When a wave of persecution broke out, a Prefect ordered them to renounce this devotion to God. They refused and were tortured, but remained miraculously unharmed until they were finally and resolutely beheaded.
  • Saint Agnes (bottom row, seventh one, in blue) was a young girl of twelve or thirteen when she was martyred. The facts are unclear, but it seems that she boldly declared her faith in God during a period of intense Roman persecution. She is shown with a lamb that symbolizes her purity.
  • Saint Catherine (bottom row, middle, in pink with crown) was also martyred at a young age—perhaps eighteen—for declaring her faith during a time of persecution under Emperor Maximus. The legend says that she went head-to-head with Maximus himself along with his smartest scholars and prevailed, and in the process, persuaded many to believe in God. He condemned her to die a torturous death by the wheel, but the wheel itself was destroyed upon her first touch. Incensed by this, Maximus had her beheaded, but she became forever associated with the spiked wheel, which can be seen here as well.
  • Saint Helena (bottom row, pink and green, with a staff) was the mother of Constantine, which was her primary claim to fame, but she received sainthood for her piety. The historian Eusebius wrote of her, “She became under his (Constantine’s) influence such a devout servant of God, that one might believe her to have been from her very childhood a disciple of the Redeemer of mankind.” The maternal figurehead of the Roman Empire famous for her commitment to God—that’s a big deal.

Here’s the point. When Fra Angelico painted all these saints, he painted their stories of faith and dedication to God. This is what faith looks like. It looks like serving the poor and the sick out of love for God. It looks like declaring your allegiance to God just when the fire gets hot. It looks like being a model of devotion for a whole empire of new Christians. And for each of these stories of faith that are represented here, there are countless more. I wonder if I would be numbered among the saints. What have I done to demonstrate my love for God? What would my attribute be? How about you?

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.

Eastertide … Emmaus

June 1, 2011

Diego Velazquez, Supper at Emmaus, c. 1618 (National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin)

Diego Velazquez, Supper at Emmaus, c. 1618 (National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin)

It’s a popular story. After the crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus joins two disciples on their journey back to Emmaus. They are confused about all the events that have taken place and Jesus carefully explains it all to them. Only … they don’t realize it’s Jesus. When they get to Emmaus, they invited him in for dinner. He agrees. He sits down, breaks the bread, and (bing!) their eyes are opened and they recognize him. Jesus! Then he vanishes.

Velázquez’s depiction of the Supper at Emmaus is my favorite. I just love early Velázquez (well, late too, but that’s for another day). He wants to show off how good he is at painting any kind of material—here, glazed ceramic, cloth, metal (hammered and cast), woven reeds, the papery skin of a garlic—so he privileges the still life in the foreground. He wants us to marvel, and we do.

But he doesn’t do a still life and leave it at that. A thorough cleaning in 1933 revealed that there is a narrative here—tucked in the background. We see Jesus (with a halo to make sure we get it) and the two disciples, but it’s hard to tell if this is the actual moment when Jesus breaks the bread or some time before. Unlike the foreground, these figures are kind of sketchy and quickly painted and the scene itself is cropped, with one disciple being cut out entirely except for his hand. Even though this famous meal is the big event in this painting, it’s not really the subject. The real subject is the woman.

She is amazing. She is obviously a servant who has prepared the meal and is cleaning up—the counter is clear, everything is clean, and a pitcher and two bowls are turned over to dry. But the rag lies in mid-wipe on the table, suggesting that she has paused in her labors. She stoops over and cocks her head ever so slightly. You can tell that she’s eavesdropping.

The contrast between the dynamic conversation taking place around the table and the stillness of the foreground is telling. She is as still and quiet as the pots and pans around her. While the disciples are animated, she seems to be frozen, not wanting any noise to interfere with hearing what is said next door. What’s more—her posture matches that of the disciple on the right. They both lean in—they both want to hear, they both are engaged.

Here’s the thing, though. Velázquez has chosen to paint the servant as a black young woman. Viewers in 17th-century Spain (Velazquez’s own time) would have immediately thought of her as a Moor—the Islamic immigrants who were despised by the Spanish for their non-Christian ways. It seems like Velázquez is saying that she may be a heathen, but she gets it. How can that be? The disciples don’t even get it!

Velázquez seems to suggest that seeing truth is not necessarily contingent on your religious affiliation. Whether you are deeply devoted to Jesus or not a Christian at all, God still chooses to reveal himself to you. This woman may not be included directly–she is definitely on the fringe–yet she is sensitive enough to the spiritual to sense that something big is happening in the next room. It stops her; it draws her in. She too believes. Would we all were so sensitive to the workings of God.

Eastertide … Doubts

May 20, 2011

Caravaggio, The Incredulity of Thomas, 1601-02 (Sanssouci, Potsdam)

To start off this Eastertide, I’m looking at Caravaggio’s The Incredulity of Thomas. This painting makes me wince.

First, the story. Thomas somehow missed an appearance of the risen Christ and simply would not believe the reports of the other disciples, stating that he would have to see and even feel the wounds before he would believe that Jesus was alive again. It took a week, but Jesus did visit Thomas and invited him to look at and touch the holes in his hands and side. That did it. Thomas believed.

Caravaggio’s take on this event is remarkable. He clearly wants to stir things up.

Let’s consider Thomas. In the biblical account and in many depictions, it seems like Thomas doesn’t take Jesus up on his offer. Simply seeing Christ stand before him is enough for him to declare, “My Lord and my God!” Not in this painting. Thomas hunches over and leans in to investigate and probes the wound with his finger. But no doubt about it–real wounds, real body, real Jesus, real resurrection. To underscore this point, Caravaggio is downright graphic. In that moment, Thomas registers his discovery on his face with his wide eyes and raised eyebrows. I imagine him saying, “Well, I’ll be damned!”

The two other disciples echo Thomas’s posture and expression. They hadn’t doubted, but clearly they are more than casually interested in seeing the proof for themselves. They lean in and peer over Thomas’s shoulder. I get the impression that, like kids in a petting zoo, they want to touch too—only they have too much self-restraint to reach in. Instead, they experience it vicariously. And Thomas is probably more bold than they would have been anyway.

Facing the other direction, Christ mirrors the other three. Like them, he looks down, but not at the wound. He doesn’t need to, after all. Caravaggio emphasizes this contrast in the way he positions the figures. The disciples, in all of their humanness—their doubt, their curiosity, their limited understanding—are slightly off-balance. They seem to be falling toward the center. In contrast, Christ, in all of his divinity, is a balanced and stable presence on the left side of the painting.

Christ is risen! These days, we respond with “Indeed!” as if we are so certain of the fact, but I wonder how many of us harbor doubts. And so, I appreciate the honesty of this painting. Sometimes I can relate to Thomas who just needs some tangible, physical, observable evidence because the idea of a risen Christ who is active and engaged is just too remote. Sometimes I feel more like the other two disciples. Yeah, I’ve believed, but it sure is nice to have a personal encounter with Christ to bolster my faith, to remind me what I’m living for. What I most appreciate, though, is the way that Caravaggio communicates Christ’s patience with all of it. He pulls aside his garment, he takes hold of Thomas’s wrist, he guides his finger to the wound. He knows we need such things. And he’s willing to provide them, if only we ask.

Fontana, Noli Me Tangere, 1581 (Uffizi, Florence)

For this week, a common Easter motif: the noli me tangere.

Titian, Noli Me Tangere, 1514 (National Gallery, London)

It means “Don’t touch me,” and in the Latin Vulgate Bible, those were the words that Jesus spoke to Mary Magdalene when she recognized him after he rose from the dead. So, when artists depicted this scene, they often show Jesus dodging Mary’s touch, like he’s playing Keep-Away with her. Corregio does it. So does Titian. This seems so contrary to Christ’s way of interacting with people, especially his closest circle. He usually engages, invites, steps to them.

This is why I like Lavinia Fontana’s version of the scene. In the upper corner, we get the back story. The gospels are inconsistent, but basically, Mary (with others; here Mary, Jesus’ mother) shows up at the tomb on Sunday morning ready to anoint the body, but they find that the tomb is empty. Mary Magdalene jumps to the conclusion (logically enough) that someone has stolen the body. Fontana shows the moment of despair before Mary hears the angel’s message that Jesus has risen, thus giving us some insight into Mary’s state of mind. She’s desperate to see Jesus.

Then, we move to the foreground. In the story, Mary sees a man, and in her confused and grief-stricken state, she thinks he’s the gardener. But when he speaks her name, she recognizes that it is Jesus. She cries out, “Teacher!”  She must be overjoyed and amazed to see him alive, but  Jesus responds to her excitement with “Don’t touch me.” Ouch. Here’s the thing, though, a better translation of the phrase from the original Greek would be, “Don’t cling to me.”  This helps. We can imagine that she would have wanted to hold on to him and never let him go. She loved him, after all. But, he had places to go and people to see, so no time for long reunions now.

Fontana conveys much of this in her painting. Mary is holding the jar with ointment for the anointing. Jesus looks like a gardener complete with straw hat and shovel. She has fallen to her knees, and seems to be lunging forward to grab hold of his legs, but it doesn’t look like he is trying to avoid her embrace. Instead, he looks at her tenderly and reaches down as if to gently touch her head. He does stride forward—he needs to get going—but he is very present with her in this moment.

Fontana has painted Mary as a model of devotion. Do I look to Christ with such adoration? Would I throw my arms around his legs if I had the chance? Mmmm… doubt it. But the painting encourages me to think about Jesus differently—to think of him as a real human being, a precious friend, a beloved teacher. He is so intentional with Mary. He didn’t have to appear to her there in the garden. But he carves out these few minutes to be with Mary all alone. What a gift.

Easter Sunday

April 28, 2011

El Greco, Resurrection, 1596-1600 (Museo de Prado, Madrid)

When it comes to the resurrection, artists seem to go a lot of different ways. This week, I’m looking at El Greco’s version.

El Greco opted not to take the historically accurate route. Nowhere in any biblical account of the resurrection will you find a description of this scene—a levitating Jesus, a bunch of reeling soldiers, and no tomb. Instead, the artist has chosen to emphasize the spiritual truth and significance of the resurrection.

The canvas is divided in half vertically. The figure of Christ–with his red cloak and white banner–dominates the top half. He hovers several feet off the ground, over the jumble of bodies that fill the bottom half. These are not two separate realms, however. El Greco knits the two together by extending arms, legs, the staff, a sword, and even the tip of the banner from one half into the other. He thereby illustrates that the human and divine, the natural and the supernatural, were powerfully coexistent in the event of the resurrection.

Here is the victorious Christ. While his crossed feet hearken back to the crucifixion, the rest of his body is whole and healed. No wounds can be seen. In fact, he looks solid, steady, and substantial—arguably more substantial than the rest of the figures. I love this because the biblical accounts of the resurrection talk about how his resurrected body was very physical (Thomas touched it!), yet it was also spiritual (he entered locked rooms). El Greco seems to suggest that this resurrected body is more substantial and more concrete than any earthly body. The spiritual realm is more real than the physical realm.

Let’s talk about those other bodies. They reel, fall back, twist, bend and reach. Their contorted bodies slice through the space unpredictably and visually activate the scene. It’s dramatic. Presumably, they represent the Roman soldiers assigned to guard the tomb. They thought the threat would come from the followers of Christ wanting to steal the body, but they never expected to face the once-dead, now-living person of Christ himself. We feel their shock, amazement, and awe.  At least one guard seems to be sleeping, oblivious to the goings-on. His classic pose of melancholy reflects a heart hardened to the miraculous. Meanwhile, another guard brandishes his sword. It looks threatening with the point poking Christ’s thigh, but a closer look suggests that the soldier is simply flailing as he falls backward. Besides, Jesus looks both impenetrable and imperturbable. Still, this sword—like the other held by the soldier on his back—adds to the tension and excitement of the scene. It feels like these men have no idea what to do next. Talk about being caught by surprise.

What makes this painting truly distinctive is the face and hand of Christ. The expression on his face is serene, yet intense. His eyes are piercing as he looks out at the viewer. There’s power in it. But what about that gesture? Other depictions of the scene have Christ raising his hand in judgment or blessing, or to display a wound. El Greco’s Christ seems to point and question and invite, all at the same time. Because he makes eye contact with the viewer, that gesture is addressed to us. Perhaps he is simply asking, “What about you? What do you think of this?” Or, perhaps he is charging us, as witnesses to this incredible event, to go and proclaim what we have seen. Or, perhaps he is inviting us to believe and to rise with him (something like what he did with Peter when they were out on the lake). I don’t know … I have to think more about that one.