I used to sit in front of this picture for lengths of time. It hangs in The Minneapolis Institute of Arts (http://new.artsmia.org). When I was in seminary Tammie and I used to go to this art museum often, typically on an afternoon when she didn’t have to work and I did not have class. On the third floor of the museum is both the Sacred Art wing of the Middle Ages through the Post Reformation period and Impressionist painters of the 19th Century – our favorites. Since we were regulars; it was easy to spend time with one or two pictures. I often chose this one.
I like this portrayal of Jesus very much. I think it shows Jesus’ pain and suffering without being gruesome. I don’t need gratuitous violence to theologically understand what he did on the cross, and I don’t need the forensic science to describe to me what happened to him physically. I can see the pain in his downward look – even though I cannot see his eyes. The savior of this world sits there in despair. In that same morose he will later say, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” He sits with a hand to his face mourning what he already has lost. It is the loss of love; the kind that was almost reciprocated but then slipped away. His body position reveals mercy but not pity. It reveals disappointment but not judgment. It reveals passion but not one that is blind to what is happening. This Jesus is melancholy.
Many portraits of Jesus depict his body hanging on the cross, or coming down once he is dead. Often, a spear is depicted piercing his side quite literally pours out his blood for the sake of the world. Tying it into John’s account when “water and blood came out,” some artists from this time period make the sacramental connection – the water fills the baptismal font; while the blood fills a chalice. That imagery appears gross to our hygienic sensibilities, and seems to really play on medieval themes and understanding of sacrifice; but bear in mind that pictures such as these were used to teach theology to a population that could barely read. El Divino doesn’t teach the faith that way. Jesus sits in sorrow; with the crown of thorns is upon his brow. His body does not hang from a cross but slouches. It is the look where all has gone wrong. He exhales a deep long sigh. It will not be his last breath, but is a reminder that he must still go on, and there is still much to endure.
This body position speaks to me. How do we look as we suffer? How much pain can we bear? How heavy a burden can we carry for others that does not lighten the load, but only suffers alongside them too? We act as Christ’s hands and feet for others but we don’t literally die for the sake of the world. We exhale deep sighs in our own sorrow. Sometimes that sigh is accompanied by tears. Other times we have cried so much there are no tears left. This is the Jesus sitting there. We sit there too.
The broom (or what is left of it) appears out of place. There is no handle. To me it represents an opportunity lost. John the Baptist came proclaiming that one was coming who will clear out the threshing floor; “Repent and believe the good news,” he said. But John is now dead. Soon Jesus will be too. The Kingdom he promised has not come. His followers have all run away. His sentence was handed to him after a mockery of a trial. A broken dream. A broken broom. A broken body. No wonder this painting is called Man of Sorrows.
Cross and Pedestal
Jesus could be sitting anywhere – but he sits on a darkened platform. To me it looks like the stand or pedestal where his cross will soon be erected. The place of death is for now a place of rest, a place to unload the burden he is about to bear. To his right (our left) rests the crossbeam from which he will soon hang. Jesus is the opposite of the mythic Atlas who carries the world on his shoulders. He is about to be crushed by the sheer weight of his responsibility entrusted to him by his Father as well as the sheer weight of rejection by the humanity he came to save. Now he waits for the inevitable.
Hammer, Nails and Spear
While sparing us the brutality of seeing his hands and feet pieced by the nails and his side pierced by the spear beside him, we see them lying in the ground. At first they look out-of-place; until we realize what they are. Whether it was intentional or not, El Divino places one nail under or slightly next to Jesus’ toe and we immediate make the connection. My eyes are drawn to his hands and feet. Jesus sits slouching with his legs crossed – one last moment of trying to get comfortable while he awaits his doom.
His left arm supports his face; while his right arm is featured prominently in front of us. His hand is relaxed. It will be the same hand that will reach out to Thomas exclaiming, “Put your finger here” revealing to him and to us that the Jesus of Easter is indeed the same Jesus of Good Friday. We must first wait here in sadness.
When his sentence is carried out; he will be stripped. The soldiers will gamble for his clothing. For now his garment provides comfort and warmth and it shields us from seeing too much. It’s blue. Often in art, Mary is depicted in blue. While not part of this scene – my mind jumps to her. What is she thinking right now? If this is the Man of Sorrows what state must she be in? But even this Man of Sorrows will comfort her. He will turn to the one disciple who has not abandoned him, “Behold your mother” and he will ask of her “Behold your son.” They are to care for one another now. We are to care for one another now; that is what the cross asks of us.
LIGHT AND DARKNESS
Artists are good at playing with illumination to make a statement. El Divino does this well. The light seems to shine from Jesus himself. He is after all, “the light of the world.” So often in crucifixion scenes the unwritten subtext is that it should be us hanging there. There is no substitution with this Jesus. He simply shines; revealing a window into his soul and psyche. Sitting there slouched, he bears the weight of the world. He suffers alongside us. He is deep within our pain. He has seen Mary and Martha Lazarus’s death and, “he wept.” What El Divino captures in this moment is that Jesus weeps still. He weeps for you and for me for this broken world we live in today. His vision of God’s Kingdom in this moment is far from realized. And although we know that the promise is sure, the Jesus portrayed in this painting is not quite convinced. How much more sorrow can he bear? How sorrowful must it have been to be the Son of God and yet feel as if he is a failure? How can he carry on?
Behind Jesus is the darkness. It pervades everything. It looms. The shadows are cast upon him, and threaten to envelop his whole body. It appears that darkness will prevail. Yet we recall the promise, “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it.” If this is true – if we can hang on to the light even when it is threatened to be extinguished — then perhaps there is hope after all.
CHRIST BESIDE US
Man of Sorrows serves as a reminder to me that when I have felt like an utter failure, when I feel lost and alone, when I’m afraid, when I sit slouched and in despair, when I feel the darkness encroaching upon me, or I find myself sitting once more in an art museum looking into one of my favorite inspirations – the Man of Sorrows – Jesus the Christ, sits there beside me, and the darkness will not overcome me. I invite you to sit here beside me and “behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”