Holy Saturday: Keening

All four canonical Gospel accounts of the retrieval of Jesus’s body from the cross and its entombment are very matter-of-fact. There is no mention of grieving. The focus is on the roles of Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, though Matthew and Mark mention two Marys being present (Matt. 27:61; Mark 15:47), and Luke refers generically to “the women who had come with him from Galilee” (Luke 23:55). Mark and Luke also mention the women preparing and, after the Sabbath, returning with burial spices (Mark 16:1; Luke 23:56–24:1).

Leave it to the artists, poets, and composers to inject some emotion into these undeniably wrenching moments! Of carrying the corpse of a loved one, cleaning it, dressing it, and saying goodbye as it’s put into the earth. There is an enormous number of paintings, sculptures, music, and literary texts composed over the centuries to aid Christians in meditating on the dead Christ and vicariously lamenting with those present, especially the Virgin Mary.

After Mary and the others laid Jesus to rest on Friday, their mourning continued, I’m sure, into Saturday. They were utterly bereft.

LOOK: Peter Paul Rubens (Flemish, 1577–1640), The Entombment, ca. 1612. Oil on canvas, 51 5/8 × 51 1/4 in. (131.1 × 130.2 cm). J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

The Flemish Baroque artist Peter Paul Rubens painted scenes of the lamentation of Christ many times. I saw this one in person at the Getty a few years ago, and it really drew me in. It shows Saint John and the Virgin Mary supporting Jesus’s body as they lay him down onto a stone slab. Mary Magdalene weeps from behind, and another, older Mary, the mother of James the Younger and Joseph (Matt. 27:56; Mark 15:40), gingerly lifts his wounded hand, fixing her sorrow there.

Rubens does not shy away from the ugliness of death, showing Jesus’s eyes rolled back in his head, his lips blue, and blood caked in his hair and dried up around the gaping laceration in his side. His whole body is pale with death, his skin green-tinged, in contrast to John’s ruddy complexion; his mother wears the same deathly pallor. Her eyes are red and puffy, and she looks up to the heavens as if to question why, or to petition God for strength.

The wheat that Jesus lies on alludes to the straw he was bedded in as a newborn and to the bread of the Eucharist on the altar. Christ’s body is given as a holy offering for the sins of the world.

LISTEN: “Song of Keening” by Áine Minogue, on Celtic Lamentations: Healing Music for Twelve Months and a Day (2005)

Áine Minogue is an award-winning Irish harpist, singer, arranger, and composer, now living in the Boston area. She plays and sings a mix of traditional tunes and original songs, most with Gaelic lyrics. “Song of Keening” wasn’t written explicitly for Holy Week, but it is a funeral lament that uses non-word utterances to express grief. Minogue writes,

In old Ireland, the practice of keening provided a physical and emotional release for those who grieved. Sometimes, keening was a direct emotional response to loss, practiced by both men and women, though particularly by women who had lost young children—a common occurrence in the past, when child mortality rates were significantly higher.

However, often a professional keener was hired by a family as a way of honoring the dead. These professional mourners were always women, and their keening was more stylized, taking the form of an improvisation based on particular structures and handed-down phrases. Though practiced in diverse cultures from Ireland to Greece, keening was generally frowned upon by church authorities, and treated with disdain by those who embraced the trappings of modernity. The practice now has virtually died out.

This piece is improvised in the old style, using old structures and vocables.

Professional mourners (moirologists) were used in ancient Israel too, at least by those wealthy enough to afford them. There’s no indication that any were present at the death of Jesus. In art history the chief mourners at Jesus’s crucifixion and burial are his mother, Mary; John, to whose care Mary was entrusted; Mary Magdalene; and Jesus’s other female followers.

This song appears on the Art & Theology Holy Week Playlist.

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