And he came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives, and the disciples followed him. And when he came to the place, he said to them, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation.” And he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed, saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. And being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground. And when he rose from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping for sorrow, and he said to them, “Why are you sleeping? Rise and pray that you may not enter into temptation.”
—Luke 22:39–46 (emphasis added)
LOOK: Abraham Rattner (American, 1895–1978), Martyr, 1944. Oil on canvas, 32 × 24 in. (81.3 × 61 cm). Private collection.
Jewish artist Abraham Rattner did not specify the identity of the figure in his 1944 painting Martyr, but he painted many images of the passion of Christ during the forties, so it’s likely meant to be a part of that body of work. Because the man’s hands are clasped together, I’m assuming it represents the Agony in the Garden (as opposed to the dead Christ supported by angels).
Luke is the only Gospel writer to mention that in response to Jesus’s anguished pleas in Gethsemane, an angel came down to “strengthen” (enischýō) him. Renaissance artists almost always included an angel in the scene, but at a remove—usually hovering over the mount or peeping out of a cloud, presenting to Jesus the cup of suffering. Often Jesus is shown with a beatific glance upward.
What Rattner gives us, though, is a much more intimate interaction, made all the more so by its being tightly cropped. The angel firmly yet tenderly embraces Jesus’s slumped body, weak with exhaustion and dripping with blood and sweat; the pressure of his grip around arm and torso is palpable. Empathetic, the angel closes his eyes as if trying to absorb Jesus’s pain, to feel it along with him. The two faces appear to merge.
Physical contact between the divinely sent minister and his charge at Gethsemane is not unheard of in the Old Masters; see, for example, Veronese, Giacinto Brandi, Francesco Trevisani, Adriaen van de Velde. But I think Rattner paints it best, capturing a compassionate moment while avoiding mawkishness.
The angel’s simply being there, present to Jesus’s sorrow, doesn’t immediately soften the tension Jesus holds in his body or eliminate his fears. But it does reinvigorate his trust in the Father’s will and prepares him to accept the cup, to drink its bitterness to the dregs.
I wonder how long the angel stayed with Jesus that night. That week. Perhaps the angel strengthened him at other points during his passion too?
LISTEN: “’Tis Midnight, and on Olive’s Brow” | Words by William B. Tappan, 1822
’Tis midnight, and on Olive’s brow
The star is dimmed that lately shone;
’Tis midnight in the garden now,
The suff’ring Savior prays alone.
’Tis midnight, and from all removed,
The Savior wrestles lone with fears—
E’en that disciple whom he loved
Heeds not his Master’s grief and tears.
’Tis midnight, and for others’ guilt
The Man of Sorrows weeps in blood;
Yet he that hath in anguish knelt
Is not forsaken by his God.
’Tis midnight, and from ether plains
Is borne the song that angels know;
Unheard by mortals are the strains
That sweetly soothe the Savior’s woe.
In this hymn the Rev. William B. Tappan of Massachusetts does not indicate the physical presence of an angel with Jesus in Gethsemane but instead imagines a faint waft of angelic song, heard only by Jesus, servicing Jesus’s spirit in his moment of intense need. A fanciful touch, but sure! The repetition of “’tis midnight” at the beginning of each stanza emphasizes the deep darkness—physical, psychological, and spiritual—of that Thursday night when Jesus was forcibly seized from prayer to be put to death on a cross.
I’m not a fan of the traditional tune by William B. Bradbury that’s used in hymnals for this text, though the Green Carpet Players have a fine recording of it. The hymn first came alive to me through a modern retune by The Wilders, sung with a simple banjo accompaniment. Shortly after, I discovered another compelling retune by Hymn Factory, a moody jazz waltz.
>> Music by Eve Sheldon of The Wilders, on On the Wings of a Dove (2002, re-released 2007)
>> Music by Patty Chung of Hymn Factory, on Guide Me: Treasured Hymn Verses in Melodious Pop Songs (2006)
Both these songs appear on the Art & Theology Holy Week Playlist.