I offer this afternoon a few pieces of art for contemplation, instead of the usual trappings of my happiness lists. These efforts have invited me into the drama, depth, and grace of Holy Week in a new way this year, for which I am grateful.
1. Above, an oil painting from the very late 1800’s by a man named Nikolai Ge–of whom I’d never heard. I discovered it this morning trolling through one of my favorite volumes, a little book that depicts dozens of artists’ renderings of the crucifixion throughout time (mostly Western).
I used to think that paintings were just what people did before photographs were possible–depicting events to the best of her or his ability while waiting for something more accurate and “perfect” to come along. Some of my college-student friends feel this way about poetry–it’s just not as clear as prose, why bother?
This painting convinces me again that art (visual, aural, literary, dramatic) reaches a different part of humanity–excellent art reaches toward our souls, communicating truths too deep for prose or black and white.
2. A translation of one of Paul Claudel’s collection of poetic meditations on the Stations of the Cross; one I discussed with aforementioned college students during our lunchtime Bible study yesterday (we took a break from Scripture proper and considered a few of the 14 poems in this collection as prayerful exercise).
Jesus Is Made To Bear His Cross.
They clothe Him once again. To Him the cross is brought.
“All hail”, cries Jesus Christ, “Long have I longed for thee.”
O see, my soul, and fear! Pregnant the solemn hour
When the eternal wood first pressed the Son of God.
Then Eden’s tree full-grown bore fruit in Paradise.
Behold, O sinful soul, the end thy sin has served.
God triumphs over crime; on every cross hangs Christ.
The sin of man is great; but we are silent, mute.
Heaven’s conquering God debates not, but fulfills.
Jesus accepts the cross as we receive Himself.
As Jeremiah said we give Him wood for food.
How huge that awful cross; how cumbersome and large;
Unyielding, painful, hard, a senseless sinner’s weight.
To bear it step by step till one shall die thereon!
Dost Thou go forth to bear it, Saviour Christ, alone?
With patience may I bear what share Thou givest me.
Each one must bear the cross ere cross his comfort be.
3. Some music; Psalm 51 sung in a hundreds’-year-old tune. This tune was written for worship in the Sistine Chapel on Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday. Till Mozart came along and heard it–having the gift of transcribing anything he’d heard–this work was only ever heard three times yearly and in one place (the Vatican made sure of it). Now prayed throughout the world, especially on penitential occasions, I hope you’ll take the 15 minutes to let its haunting, lamenting tune wash over your soul this most significant afternoon (text reprinted below, in English).
Miserere mei, Deus
- Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving-kindness; *
in your great compassion blot out my offenses.
- Wash me through and through from my wickedness *
and cleanse me from my sin.
- For I know my transgressions, *
and my sin is ever before me.
- Against you only have I sinned *
and done what is evil in your sight.
- And so you are justified when you speak *
and upright in your judgment.
- Indeed, I have been wicked from my birth, *
a sinner from my mother’s womb.
- For behold, you look for truth deep within me, *
and will make me understand wisdom secretly.
- Purge me from my sin, and I shall be pure; *
wash me, and I shall be clean indeed.
- Make me hear of joy and gladness, *
that the body you have broken may rejoice.
- Hide your face from my sins *
and blot out all my iniquities.
- Create in me a clean heart, O God, *
and renew a right spirit within me.
- Cast me not away from your presence *
and take not your holy Spirit from me.
- Give me the joy of your saving help again *
and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit.
- I shall teach your ways to the wicked, *
and sinners shall return to you.
- Deliver me from death, O God, *
and my tongue shall sing of your righteousness,
O God of my salvation.
- Open my lips, O Lord, *
and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.
- Had you desired it, I would have offered sacrifice, *
but you take no delight in burnt-offerings.
- The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit; *
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
- Be favorable and gracious to Zion, *
and rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.
- Then you will be pleased with the appointed sacrifices,
with burnt-offerings and oblations; *
then shall they offer young bullocks upon your altar.
In the oil, Ge seems to be reaching to depict the actual moment of his death when the muscles become so weak they can no longer support the body. The flailing legs and the face twisted in agony aptly depict the last anguish of the body as it gives up the soul.
I was also struck by the depiction of another of his agonies, suffered prior to the actual crucifixion, during the scourging in “The Passion of the Christ” a cinematic production by producer/director Mel Gibson. While the film may not represent serious scholarship or accurate history it does serve to illustrate a point. It shows Pilate giving the order to have Jesus beaten, in an attempt to appease the Jewish leaders, only to have the Roman soldiers take the order as license to express their bitter hatred of the Jewish people and go way beyond a beating and almost to the point of robing the crucifix of its prize. How ironic that the hatred of the Romans toward Jesus because, he is a Jew, is mirrored by the Jewish leaders hatred of him because of his supposed blasphemy in claiming to be the actual son of God therefore making him not a Jew. A further irony, of the real life sort, appeared when the producer/director of the film Mr.Gibson, imitated his own art and hurled racial epithets at a black police officer thereby demonstrating something we all tend to do which is to compartmentalize our faith and only express it “selectively”. P.N .
Pingback: quotation of the day | hope of things not seen