Alena Antonova was born in Czechoslovakia in 1930. From 1949 to 1955 she studied graphic arts at the College of Applied Arts in Prague under the acclaimed Cubist painter Emil Filla. Since then she has specialized in printmaking. The primary technique she uses is drypoint, which involves incising a picture with a needle onto a metal plate, then inking it and pressing it onto paper, but she has also done etchings, woodcuts, and linocuts. The female figure is a common theme in her work.
In 1997 Antonova created a series of very small drypoints based on New Testament episodes. Here is a selection of Passion-themed ones from the Sacred Art Pilgrim Collection.
First, a Madonna and Child. This subject—Mary holding the baby Jesus—is obviously not set during Holy Week, but in her interpretation Antonova alludes to the Crucifixion by giving the infant Christ nail prints in his hands and feet. While it’s not uncommon for artists to foreshadow Jesus’s early death in Madonna and Child images by making him appear corpse-like, the overt display of wounds is something I’ve never seen before. I’ve also never seen Mary kissing baby Jesus on the lips—such a tender expression of mother love; she closes her eyes, as if to shut out the formidable omen Simeon had spoken to her at the temple. I’m not sure whether the cat playing with a ball of yarn in the background has a symbolic significance or serves only to domesticate the scene. I guess you could see it as an allusion to Jesus’s future unraveling in Gethsemane, his coming undone.
Fast-forward to that day, and we’re at the Last Supper. In traditional fashion, Antonova’s print shows Jesus at the head of the table, with John leaning on his shoulder. Judas is on the other end with his head in hand, stressing out about whether to go through with the betrayal; a moneybag is tied to his waist. I’m not sure where the twelfth disciple is in the picture. Maybe he’s getting drink refills.
After eating this Passover meal, Jesus went to the Garden of Gethsemane, where he earnestly beseeched the Father to remove the cup of suffering from him, to provide a different way. Antonova shows Jesus’s disciples—whom he told, despite the late hour, to stay awake and pray—asleep in the foreground. This carelessness is contrasted with the compassion of the dog, which waits up with Jesus and howls at the heavens, as if in intercession. The dog’s presence in the picture reminds me of the myriad Crucifixion paintings of Craigie Aitchison that show a terrier standing alone beside the crucified Christ in an isolated landscape. (Aitchison said in an interview that the dog in his paintings was “in a state about the situation.”)
I’ve not been able to find a Crucifixion image by Antonova, but she did do a Deposition, which shows a small group of loved ones lowering Jesus’s dead body from the cross: Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea support the body on the right; the Virgin Mary turns her head away in grief, unable to look; and Mary Magdalene—traditionally identified by her long, uncovered hair and her position at Jesus’s feet—kisses Jesus’s open wounds. The blood-red puncture in his hand is the only part of the picture that’s tinted, making it the focal point. We are invited, like Mary Magdalene, to (metaphorically) kiss Christ’s wounds in love and gratitude for what he’s done.
Lastly, Antonova executed a Man of Sorrows portrait titled The Crown and the Thorns. This shows Christ after his Crucifixion (the nail prints in his hand help us identify the time as such), his skin bloodied, bruised, and lashed. Again, a dog sidles up to him, licking his wounds, which recalls Jesus’s parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19–31). In this parable, a sick, weak man named Lazarus—not to be confused with the historical Lazarus of Bethany whom Jesus raised from the dead—covered in sores, sits outside the gates of a rich man’s house, begging for food, and while the rich man ignores his pleas, the village dogs approach him with affection and an attempt to bring relief. (For more on the significance of the dogs in this parable, see Kenneth E. Bailey’s Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, pages 384–86.) By linking Lazarus with Jesus, Antonova shows that Jesus identifies with all the poor and the afflicted; he too has endured poverty and pain and human mercilessness.