Art of the Gospels, Part 12, The Death of Jesus

P1080201At the Last Supper, after Jesus announced that one of his followers would betray him, he instructed Judas to leave and make his arrangements quickly. Judas went to the Jewish leaders, to bargain a price for delivering Jesus to them. As Jesus prayed in Gethsemane, Judas and a band of armed soldiers from the chief priest and Pharisees arrived. His cue to them would be to kiss the one whom they sought.

Jesus spotted Judas in this crowd, and allowed him to act on his signal.  Dirck van Baburen paints an intimate tableau of the event, on view in the Borghese Gallery.  Jesus appears to have just stood up from praying, with his hands clasped.  Judas, places a hand on his chest and leans in to kiss him.  Soldiers surround Jesus in dark armor.  In contrast, Jesus’ red rob catches the strong light, and a man whose shirt is pulled open, exposing his muscular chest and shoulder, reaches to Jesus with one hand and the hilt of this sword with the other.  This image is ambiguous, as the Gospel accounts mention rough men with clubs and swords, but also that Peter draws a sword to defend Jesus.  Is Jesus turning in shock at the reality of what has begun?  Or, is he instructing Peter to put up his sword?

P1080203Cavalier d’Aprino’s  paintings a wider view of the scene, also at the Borghese Gallery.  Two-thirds of the canvas is filled with twisting bodies and flexed muscles.  Half and fully naked men battle in thrashing skin tones, while Jesus gestures from his red robe and blue cloak, toward Peter, who has wrestled on of the men to the ground had has his arm raised up ready to strike with his blade.  The upper third of the painting is a moon lit night of clouds and shadows from the garden’s trees.

P1080287The Trevi Crucifix alter piece worked in a 14th century style of painting.  The gold background and gold halos dominate the upper regions of the painting.  The silver helmets and brown spears of a group of soldiers punctuates P1080286the gold color.  The characters are stiff, as Judas kisses Jesus.  Rather than Jesus twisting in astonishment, he looks directly at Judas.  Peter already has his knife held up, though the moment of action is alluded to, rather than displayed.

Jesus is taken through a series of trials, first with the high priest, Caiaphas, then with the Roman leaders Pilate and Herod. He presents no defense, other than his prior teachings. The Jewish leaders stir up the crowds, while the Romans are puzzled at the lack of evidence for their accusations. Eventually, Pilate accepts a charge of treason because of Jesus’ refusal to deny that others believe that he is a king.

P1080284Pietro Lorenzetti portrays Jesus meeting with Pilate, from another altar piece in the Vatican.  Again, the gold and cream colors of the architecture and Jesus’ halo dominate the background.  Red robes and Jesus’ blue cloak contrast the decoration.  Jesus and Pilate appear to talk directly, and calmly, while a group of Jewish leaders, and others holding spears stand behind Jesus.

While these trials are occurring, Jesus’ disciples are trying to find out a bit of what is going on. Peter is allowed to come to the high priest’s courtyard. This is where three times people will ask him whether he knows Jesus. And, three times Peter will deny being with Jesus.

P1080325Pensionante del Sarceni shows us one of these encounter, in his painting in the Vatican.  Peter is illuminated from behind, his face barely visible.  The gesture of his left hand, held up in the air, while his right hand touches his chest, expresses his words, “No, I do not know him.”  The servant girl, in contrast, is fully lit, with her mouth open in question, and palms out-stretched toward Peter.  Her eyes lock on his, assessing the astonishment in his eyes.

P1000302A tradition in many churches is to have paintings or sculptures depicting scenes from the Stations of the Cross. Each of these scenes is a meditation on the events of Passion Week. Many scenes show Jesus laboring to carry his cross, falling under its weight, and being helped to reach the hill where he and the two others will be crucified.

P1000304In the legend of Veronica, a women wiped Jesus’ brow to comfort him. Later the image of Jesus with his crown of thorns appeared on her linen veil. Hmmm. No sign of that on recorded by the Evangelists.  Yet, the relic is stored in one of the main pillars of St. Peter’s Basilica.  On the pier in the bascilica that houses the relic is a sculpture by Francesco Mochi showing Veronic holding her veil with Jesus face on it.  Literary liscence?

P1080302Marco Palmezzano’s scene of Jesus carrying the cross is an intimate, reflective portrayal.  Jesus appears more to be holding onto the cross to support him, rather than being weighed down by the timbers.  He looks down, as if absorbed and detached from the moment simultaneously.  The crown of thorns add many drops of blood on his forehead, mixing with his red hair and robe.  The background is black, enhancing the sense that Jesus was alone at this time.

P1080265In contrast, the Passion Cycle in the Oratorio del Gonfalone depicts when Jesus falls and the Roman soldiers assign others to the task of carrying his cross.  Jesus appears crumpled, possibly on some steps, or against a short wall.  those around him hold spears that cross over him, though I cannot figure out where his cross is, unless it is on the ground, underneath the group of people.  There is a lot of activity in this painting, with a men looking out toward us from the bottom left corner.  Other people go about their activities in the upper portion of the picture, as if they were bystanders, uninvolved in the events.  How often do we miss extraordinary events because of our preoccupation with mundane tasks?

P1080282There are almost too many paintings of Jesus’ crucifixion to select which to discuss here. In  School of Rimini altar piece, in the Vatican, Jesus alone is crucified, encircled by six angels.  His mother, Mary, leans on two other women, while Mary Magdalene knees and kiss his feet.  If you go back to the images of the Adoration of the Magi, you will notice that one of the kings is often in a similar position.  Two men stand on either side of the painting, possibly depicting two disciples or saints.  The bottom section of the altar shows Jesus resurrected, with Mary Magdalene reaching out to touch his garments, but we are getting ahead of the sequence.

P1080255Three crosses errected on a hill. Masoline’s fresco in the Barda Castiglioni Chapel in San Clemente shows a criminal scoffing and scorning Jesus for not saving himself. The criminal on the other side repents and asks to be with Jesus. A life wasted, and eternity saved.  You can see that one criminal lowers his head, while the other looks up.  Jesus turn his head toward the one with is head bowed in repentance.

Roman soldiers throw lots to divide Jesus clothes. His mother Mary, a disciple, and Mary Magdalene are on the ground below.  Crowds fill the ground level, some standing, some on horseback.  One challenge for the artists was the location of the wall space they were assigned to paint (also there was usually someone in charge of selecting the themes and making sure that patrons got themselves included in prominent locations).    The box in the lower right hand corner is some architecture feature that the artist had to work around.  You might also note a grey region toward the left.  As is common with frescos this old, either part of the fresco was damaged and filled in, or there was another architecture structure when the fresco was made, but that is now filled in.  Things happened over 400 years  since this was painted.

The account of Jesus being removed from the cross and buried is a conflict between Jewish and Roman traditions. According to the Gospel accounts, the Jewish leaders asked that Jesus and the other two be verified as dead, and lowered from the crosses because they did not want them hanging there through Passover.   Possibly, they may have not wanted Jesus left up because of concerns for rebellion and rioting, which occurred regularly during feast times during this period. Earlier, when Pilate offered to release either Jesus or Barabbas. The crowd chose Barabbas, who was arrested for leading a rebellion.

Rather, Roman legal tradition was that criminal executions should be public as a warning to others to avoid behaviors that lead to such an end. Specifically, crucified bodies were left for weeks until they rotted and vultures or animals had eaten the body. Even after death, torture would continue to consume the remains of the person. Thus, the accounts of Jesus dying, being removed, and buried in one day would have stood out as quite unusual to a Roman.

P1080253The Disposition of Jesus from the cross has provided artists striking compositional material. One of the most compassionate sculptures, Michelangelo’s Pieta in St. Peters Basilica, brings Mary and Jesus together again. Mary no longer holds her infant son, but drapes her adult son across her lap. Her outstretched arms, lowered chin and eyes, carry the pathos of the human connection of mother and son.  Mary appears to have not aged, while Jesus has matured before being struck down.

P1080319Caravaggio showed the group that carries Jesus from Golgotha to the tomb as they labor to gently lower him from the cross.  Our eye is drawn toward the two men who can barely hold onto Jesus’ limp body.  We are nearly ready to fall into a heap with them.  Mary, appearing much like a nun, leans forward in grief.  Another woman reaches up to wipe her tears, while a third raises her hands and wails.  It is not clear which woman is Mary Magdalene in the painting.  An arch curves from the wailing woman’s hand through Mary’s and the man holding Jesus chest, through Jesus’ right arm that hangs down.  A second arch is formed by the loose cloth beneath Jesus.  Are these suggestions of the crescent moon of Mary?  Or of the impending nightfall, before which they must have Jesus sealed in the tomb?

P1080366In Pietro da Cortona’s painting, Mary Magdalene has a more prominent place. She kneels next to Jesus body, lifting his hand. Is she verifying that he is dead (important for a scene coming up later, after he is resurrected)? Does she desire one more touch of the one whom she anointed at the dinner?  Mary stands behind Jesus looking up, as if in prayer or a trance.  The disciple, only identified as the one Jesus loved, supports his torso.  They do not appear to be at the base of the crosses, but at the tomb site.  An older man rests behind a stone sarcophagus.  On it sits a jar, possibly burial spices.

P1080367A man, Nicodemus, who had visited Jesus once, offered his tomb. Jesus’ body is wrapped in cloth, reminiscent of Lazarus, placed in the tomb, which is then sealed with a large stone.   After the tomb was sealed, Mary Magdalene and other women, left to make preparations. The Jewish leaders asked that Roman guard be stationed at the tomb to prevent any of Jesus’ followers from tampering with the body.

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About hermitsdoor

Up here in the mountains, we have a saying, "You can't get there from here", which really means "We wouldn't go the trouble to do that". Another concept is that "If you don't know, we ain't telling." For the rest, you'll have to read between the lines.
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