South African photographer Justin Dingwall (born 1983) seeks to depict beauty in difference. For his Albus series—Latin for “white” or “bright”—he worked with South African models and activists Thando Hopa and Sanele Junior Xaba, who have albinism. Albinism is a hereditary condition that affects melanin production, resulting in little to no pigmentation in the skin, hair, and eyes. It is more prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa than in the rest of the world, and people with the condition often face marginalization, discrimination, and even deadly violence.
In many ways Dingwall’s Albus series, which comprises several dozen photographs, is about metamorphosing perceptions about albinism, subverting the idea that it’s a curse; “by using butterflies my aim was to influence the viewer’s vision to be transformed, allowing them to view albinism in a new light—as something unique and beautiful,” he said. But the theme of transformation, of death and rebirth, as portrayed in some of the photos of Xaba, also connects with the narrative of Jesus’s passion, death, and resurrection, the model’s poses evoking traditional Christian imagery. (Not to mention how some of the photos of Hopa intentionally reference Mother Mary.)
Rhapsody I, II, and III form a passion triptych of sorts, a sequence of three photos that show a male figure, clothed in a loincloth, falling into darkness—and yet, illuminated from above, he looks up toward the light.
I’m reminded of Jesus speaking to his Father in Gethsemane, and at his crucifixion. Of all the art that shows him stumbling on his way to Calvary (“Jesus falls” makes up three of the fourteen stations of the cross). And especially of his slumped body being lowered from the cross. All the supporting characters, however, are absent, intensifying our focus on this lone Christ figure.
Consider some of the compositional similarities between Dingwall’s three Rhapsody photographs and the following explicitly Christological artworks. (To view the full caption, click on the bottom of the image.)
Suggestive of burial, Embrace by Dingwall shows a man wrapped, cocoon-like, in white linen, lying against a black ground. His face, again, catches the light, and he appears to be at peace. He is resting in this silent, in-between time that precedes the emergence of new life.
More explicitly inspired by Christian visual traditions is Dingwall’s Liberty triptych, which shows our Christ figure risen from death, glowing, and covered in butterflies, symbol of resurrection.
In Liberty II, the man extends his arms at a roughly forty-five-degree angle from his trunk, palms upward, in a beatific gesture. His eyes are closed as he bathes in light. Christ is often shown in this pose in art of the resurrection, emerging triumphant from his tomb and proudly revealing his transfigured wounds. Dingwall’s image, though, is quieter, more interior.
Liberty I is reminiscent of Jesus inviting Thomas to see and touch his wounds, and especially of Bramantino’s The Risen Christ (see tiled gallery below). People have long marveled at the incredible luminosity of Christ in the latter painting—how the light seems to come from within (the setting is nighttime, as the moon in the background indicates).
So in many ways these photographs by Dingwall are continuous with Christian art history, but they are also open enough to be read in a multitude of other ways or applied to different contexts. Though the nature of Jesus’s resurrection and what it accomplished are, Christians believe, unique in history, stories of death and rebirth are universal, traversing all cultures and religious traditions.
As the church continues in this fifty-day season of Eastertide to celebrate the resurrection of Christ, here are some songs I’ve come across for the occasion and really enjoyed. A few are brand-new, while others are new performances.
Good Shepherd New York, a church in Manhattan, has a phenomenal team of in-house musicians and collaborators from coast to coast. They provide music for weekly digital worship services as well as release recordings under the name Good Shepherd Collective. Check out their Easter service from April 4! The songs are listed below.
“Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” by Charles Wesley / “Celebrate Jesus” by Gary Oliver (1:35)
Last year the Fundación la Caixa in Barcelona launched project #YoCanto Aleluya, soliciting professional and amateur singers alike throughout Spain and Portugal to be part of a “virtual choir,” a phenomenon that has exploded since the pandemic has made live musical concerts a health risk. Participants were asked to submit a video of themselves singing Handel’s famous “Hallelujah” chorus. Igor Cortadellas of Igor Studio then developed a concept for digitally merging all 352 submissions by projecting them on the interior architecture of Barcelona’s Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar (or overlaying them in postproduction?), and he directed a small team to execute this vision. What a feat! The final video was released a few months ago at Christmastime.
“Hallelujah” concludes part 2 of 3 of the oratorio, which covers Christ’s passion and death, resurrection, ascension, and the first spreading of the gospel. The words of the chorus are taken from Revelation 19:6, 11:15, and 19:16. For another blog post featuring an excerpt from Handel’s Messiah, see the Artful Devotion “Worthy Is the Lamb.”
“Keep the Feast (Pascha Nostrum)” by Ryan Flanigan: For this new song, Ryan Flanigan of Liturgical Folk adapted the words of the Pascha Nostrum (“Our Passover”), a traditional Christian hymn for Eastertide that, after the Reformation, was preserved in English in the Book of Common Prayer. It is based on 1 Corinthians 5:7–8, Romans 6:9–11, and 1 Corinthians 15:20–22. Flanigan wrote a fun new melody for it, which he demos here.
“Judah’s Lion” | Words by Fulbert of Chartres, ca. 975–1028, and Rick Barnes, 2016 | Music by Rick Barnes, 2016 | Performed by Covenant Presbyterian Virtual Choir and Orchestra, Birmingham, Alabama, 2021
Organized by Mount Tabor Ecumenical Centre for Art and Spirituality:
>> April 10, 11 a.m.–12:30 p.m. EDT: “The Victory of Life (Easter in Renaissance Art)”: “The most important event of New Testament belief, Christ’s Resurrection, is not described in the Scriptures. That has not prevented artists however from imagining it. As we celebrate Eastertide, we invite you to join Monsignor Timothy Verdon as he reflects on a number of works focused on this theme.”
>> April 15, 11:30 a.m.–1 p.m. EDT: “In the Shadow of Your Wings: Musical Bible Study on the Psalms”:Deus Ex Musica presents this interactive event in which participants watch prerecorded live performances of three brand-new vocal settings of Psalm 57, each set to music by a composer representing a different Christian tradition. After viewing the performances, participants will engage in moderated small-group discussions. No musical expertise is required.
Deus Ex Musica is an ecumenical organization of musicians, educators, pastors, and scholars that promotes the use of sacred music as a resource for learning and spiritual growth.
>> April 26, 3–4 p.m. EDT: “Art and the Liturgical Year: Bringing the Church Calendar to Life”: Organized in partnership with the CEEP Network. “This workshop explores ways of engaging artists with churches/congregations using the church calendar. What might inspire artists in engaging with the patterns that underpin the life of many churches, and how might engaging with artists open up understandings of faith in new ways for congregations? Examples of the kind of projects we will explore include initiatives using the visual arts in dialogue with scripture or exhibitions/installations in particular seasons such as Advent or Lent. Fundamentally, though, this workshop seeks explore a range of ideas and approaches and to hear about the benefits both for artists and congregations.”
Janet Broderick, Beverly Hills, California: Rector, All Saints Beverly Hills
Paul-Gordon Chandler, Casper, Wyoming: Bishop, Diocese of Wyoming; and Founding President of CARAVAN Arts (moderator)
Catriona Laing, Brussels: Chaplain, St. Martha & St. Mary’s Anglican Church Leuven; Associate Chaplain, Holy Trinity Brussels
Ben Quash, London: Professor, Christianity and the Arts & Director, Center for Arts and the Sacred, King’s College London; Director, Visual Commentary on Scripture Project
Aaron Rosen, Washington, DC: Professor, Religion and Visual Culture; Director, Henry Luce III Center for the Arts and Religion, Wesley Theological Seminary; Cofounder, Stations of the Cross Public Art Project
>> June 4, 11, 18, 25, 11:30 a.m.–1 p.m. EDT: “Jesus Is Just Alright: What Pop Songs About Jesus Can Teach Christians Today”: Led by composer, musician, and educator Delvyn Case of Deus Ex Musica. “For over fifty years, pop musicians in all genres have explored the meaning and significance of Jesus in their music. The result is a rich collection of songs that consider important spiritual questions like faith, doubt, and prayer in unique and often provocative ways. Through a combination of listening and discussion, this four-part series invites participants to explore a different spiritual topic each week. Join us to listen to great music that asks tough questions about our faith and our lives as Christians.”
>> April 21, 1–2 p.m. EDT: “Exhibiting Faith in the Museum and Beyond”: World-leading experts Ittai Weinryb, Neil MacGregor, and Jennifer Sliwka will discuss the joys and difficulties of introducing to the general public art that builds on a faith tradition. “They will discuss what has become a major concern for teachers, lecturers and museum curators in many countries. How do you encourage a largely secular audience to step inside a work of art, in such a way that its religious meaning is felt and understood, and the artistic experience can become immersive? . . . Among the topics to be explored are:
The opening up of museums and galleries to enhanced audiences during the pandemic.
How certain objects are altered by their move from a sacred space into a museum, yet how they also ‘live on’ beyond the museum plinth or computer screen.
The need to understand secular inhibitions and the loss of interest in Christianity and to find ways in which works of art can readdress this situation.”
>> April 29, 2–3:30 p.m. EDT: “Coventry Cathedral: Icon and Inspiration”: “Join Alexandra Epps [an Accredited Lecturer for The Arts Society and Guide and Lecturer at Tate Modern, Tate Britain and the Guildhall Art Gallery] for the extraordinary story of the rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral as a symbol of peace and reconciliation and its inspiring commitment to the modern. Experience the artistic journey that is the Cathedral discovering the work of many of the world-class artists associated with its many treasures including Jacob Epstein, Elisabeth Frink, John Piper, Graham Sutherland and more.”
>> May 5, 5–6 p.m. EDT: “The Art of Criticism: The People’s Madonna”: “Filmmaker Lucia Senesi grew up in Arezzo, Italy, within walking distance of several Old Master Madonnas. But it wasn’t until she was older—and viewing films by Andrei Tarkovsky and Valerio Zurlini, who were both captivated by the Madonna del Parto in Monterchi—that she saw these paintings with fresh eyes. Her essay in the spring issue of Image describes the fascinating history of a Madonna commissioned by peasants, executed by a Renaissance master, condemned by popes, and preserved through wars and social upheaval. She’ll talk with culture editor Nick Ripatrazone about film, the populism of sacred art, and the scandal of a woman pregnant with God.”
Now is the shining fabric of our day
Torn open, flung apart,
Rent wide by Love.
The tight, enclosing sky,
The blue bowl,
Or the star-illumined tent.
We are laid open to infinity,
For Easter Love
Has burst His tomb and ours.
Now nothing shelters us
From God’s desire—
Not flesh, not sky,
Not stars, not even sin.
Now Glory waits
So He can enter in.
Now does the dance begin.
This poem, written in 1981, is used by permission of the Elizabeth B. Rooney Family Trust, www.brighamfarm.com.
Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and behold, he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him. See, I have told you.” So they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.
LOOK: Ovide Bighetty (Cree, 1969–2014), Hallelujah, Christ Has Risen, 2002. Acrylic on canvas. From the Kisemanito Pakitinasuwin (The Creator’s Sacrifice) cycle, commissioned by the Indian Metis Christian Fellowship.
Ovide Joseph Bighetty was a Cree (Missinippi-Ethiniwak) self-taught artist originally from Pukatawagan First Nation on the Missinippi River in northwestern Manitoba. He was influenced by the Woodland art style of Norval Morrisseau.
In 2002 the Indian Metis Christian Fellowship (now called the Indigenous Christian Fellowship, or ICF) commissioned Bighetty to create a series of paintings on Christ’s death and resurrection. According to their website, “among North American indigenous peoples, there is the story that, before Europeans arrived on Turtle Island, elders had visions about white people coming from the east with a story from the Creator.” One elder even had a vision of “the Creator’s sacrifice” that corresponds to elements of the biblical passion narratives and Easter story.
Bighetty fulfilled the commission in consultation with Pukatawagan elders, making sure he was properly honoring his people’s heritage.
Hallelujah, Christ Has Risen is the sixteenth painting in a sequence of seventeen. The ICF website offers the following description based on Matthew 28:2–4: “Early on the third day, there was a violent earthquake. A spirit sent by the Creator came down from heaven, rolled the stone away and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning and his clothes white as snow. The warriors were so afraid that they trembled and became like dead men.” It looks to me like the angel is playing a flute with one hand, and with the other he gestures toward the sky, indicating Jesus’s impending ascension.
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.
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.
Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And some of the bystanders, hearing it, said, “This man is calling Elijah.” And one of them at once ran and took a sponge, filled it with sour wine, and put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink. But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.” And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit.
—Matthew 27:45–50 (emphasis added; cf. Mark 15:33–37)
According to the ESV Study Bible, “Jesus’s call to God in Aramaic (’Eli, ’Eli) sounds similar to the Hebrew name for Elijah (’Eliyahu), which the bystanders misunderstand as a summons to the prophet.” A minority opinion among scholars is that, instead, the bystanders deliberately twist Jesus’s words to further mock him. It was a common expectation of Jews during Jesus’s time that Elijah would return as a precursor to the great day of the Lord (see Mal. 4:5).
What Jesus was in fact citing was Psalm 22, a lament of David, which opens with this searing cry of dereliction: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” A series of raw and wrenching poetic descriptions of suffering and pleas for deliverance, the psalm is nevertheless punctuated with reflections on God’s holiness, faithfulness, and care. Verse 22 (“I will tell of your name . . .”) marks a clear turn in which the speaker moves into a hope that is triumphant.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest.
Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. In you our fathers trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them. To you they cried and were rescued; in you they trusted and were not put to shame.
But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people. All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads; “He trusts in the LORD; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, for he delights in him!”
Yet you are he who took me from the womb; you made me trust you at my mother’s breasts. On you was I cast from my birth, and from my mother’s womb you have been my God. Be not far from me, for trouble is near, and there is none to help.
Many bulls encompass me; strong bulls of Bashan surround me; they open wide their mouths at me, like a ravening and roaring lion.
I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast; my strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.
For dogs encompass me; a company of evildoers encircles me; they have pierced my hands and feet— I can count all my bones— they stare and gloat over me; they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.
But you, O LORD, do not be far off! O you my help, come quickly to my aid! Deliver my soul from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dog! Save me from the mouth of the lion! You have rescued me from the horns of the wild oxen!
I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you: You who fear the LORD, praise him! All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him, and stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel! For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted, and he has not hidden his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him.
From you comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows I will perform before those who fear him. The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the LORD! May your hearts live forever!
All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you. For kingship belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations.
All the prosperous of the earth eat and worship; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, even the one who could not keep himself alive. Posterity shall serve him; it shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation; they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn, that he has done it.
Ever since the early church, Christians have interpreted this psalm messianically, as there are many clear parallels to Christ’s passion, which the Gospel writers were well aware of.
LOOK: Enrico Pinardi (American, 1934–2021), Crucifixion with Thorns, 2002. Oil on canvas.
I corresponded with the artist of this painting a few years ago after having found a black-and-white photo of it in the book The Crucifixion in American Art by Robert Henkes (2003). He granted me permission to reproduce the image on my blog, said he didn’t have a color photo. (“The image is kinda black, white, and blue,” he clarified.) I’ve never gotten around to posting it until now. I wish I had thought to ask about its location; I’m assuming it’s in a private collection somewhere, probably in the United States. After searching for Pinardi online the other week to see what he’s been up to, I found that he died January 30 due to complications from COVID-19.
Crucifixion with Thorns captures something of the horror of Christ’s felt abandonment on the cross. In the throes of death, he opens his mouth in a primal wail—the “loud voice” Matthew and Mark speak of, the “God, why?” He is becoming frayed, unraveled. A thicket of thorns tears through his body—or perhaps that is the cross-post (Pinardi’s expressionistic style deliberately makes it difficult to distinguish between the two). He is pierced.
He is also blindfolded. Luke 22:64 says that Jesus’s captors blindfolded him prior to his appearance before the Sanhedrin, striking him and asking him mockingly to identify, if he’s the Son of God, who it was who struck him. Though his eyes were not covered while he hung on the cross, the artist’s choice to cover them here amplifies the sense of his being in the dark, cut off, and also serves to identify him with other victims of political torture.
The following text was written by committee (with the input of nine Presbyterian denominations) and first published in Pittsburgh in The Psalter: With Responsive Readings (1912), paired with an older tune by Lowell Mason. It covers two-thirds of Psalm 22, omitting the last nine verses—or rather, if you want to look at it this way, compacting them into four lines, as they contain a lot of repetition. I’ve noted in a separate column which verses of the biblical psalm each line of the song corresponds to.
My God, my God, I cry to Thee;
O why hast Thou forsaken Me?
Afar from Me, Thou dost not heed,
Though day and night for help I plead.
But Thou art holy in Thy ways,
Enthroned upon Thy people’s praise;
Our fathers put their trust in Thee,
Believed, and Thou didst set them free.
They cried and, trusting in Thy Name,
Were saved, and were not put to shame;
But in the dust My honor lies,
While all reproach and all despise.
My words a cause for scorn they make,
The lip they curl, the head they shake,
And, mocking, bid Me trust the Lord
Till He salvation shall afford.
My trust on Thee I learned to rest
When I was on My mother’s breast;
From birth Thou art My God alone,
Thy care My life has ever known.
O let Thy strength and presence cheer,
For trouble and distress are near;
Be Thou not far away from Me,
I have no source of help but Thee.
Unnumbered foes would do Me wrong;
They press about Me, fierce and strong;
Like beasts of prey their rage they vent;
My courage fails, My strength is spent.
Down unto death Thou leadest Me,
Consumed by thirst and agony;
With cruel hate and anger fierce
My helpless hands and feet they pierce.
While on My wasted form they stare,
The garments torn from Me they share,
My shame and sorrow heeding not,
And for My robe they cast the lot.
O Lord, afar no longer stay;
O Thou My helper, haste, I pray;
From death and evil set Me free;
I live, for Thou didst answer Me.
I live and will declare Thy fame
Where brethren gather in Thy Name;
Where all Thy faithful people meet,
I will Thy worthy praise repeat.
One hundred years later, the Rev. Vito Aiuto wrote a new melody for this metrical translation, his only modifications to the text being to substitute out the archaic pronouns (e.g., Thee, Thou) and verb forms (e.g., hast, dost), unless needed to retain the rhyme scheme or meter. He and his wife, Monique, perform the song on their second full-length album along with a team of other musicians, listed here. Sufjan Stevens is among those in the seven-person choir that wails and sings echoes in the first half.
The song opens with a metallic screeching sound, harsh and grating. There are tensions and dissonances in the music, but at verse 5 (around 4:07) a tonal shift happens, as groping in the dark gives way to greater clarity and confidence. The pain is still there, but, like the psalm on which it’s based, it stretches toward hope.
A graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, Aiuto is one of the founders of Resurrection Brooklyn, a church network of five Presbyterian (EPC) congregations serving the borough. He has been the lead pastor of Resurrection Williamsburg since it began in May 2005. I had the pleasure of hearing him preach in person at CIVA’s 2019 conference.
Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole battalion before him. And they stripped him . . .
And when they had crucified him, they divided his garments among them by casting lots.
—Matthew 27:27–28, 35
LOOK: Denis Sarazhin (Ukrainian, 1982–), Pantomime 6, 2015. Oil on canvas, 130 × 150 cm.
LISTEN: “They have stripped me of my garments,” Byzantine hymn in plagal second tone, chanted by Vassilis Hadjinicolaou [HT: Global Christian Worship]
This doxastikon (a type of hymn) is sung during the Orthros (Matins) of Great and Holy Friday, which is prayed on the night of Holy Thursday. Note that because they follow the Julian calendar rather than the Gregorian, Orthodox Christians celebrate Good Friday on April 30 this year (and Easter on May 2).
If you’re wondering where the (for me, uncomfortably) violent image in the last line comes from, it’s from Psalm 2:9 (cf. Rev. 19:15). Its insertion into the episode of Christ’s being mocked seems to me an odd choice, seeing as the whole passion narrative is about God the Son absorbing violence rather than enacting it, and we know from his issuance of forgiveness from the cross that he did not have a vengeful attitude toward his tormenters. I speak from outside the Orthodox tradition, though.
Otherwise I find this hymn very moving. Its first line is what inspired the image I chose—of numerous hands clawing at cloth. Nakedness is one of the many indignities Jesus faced on Good Friday; he was stripped, dressed parodically in purple, reclothed with his personal garments, and then stripped again before being crucified. As he hung dying, exposed to the public, the Roman soldiers gambled for his clothing, souvenirs from the high-profile execution. Again, the soldiers’ bestiality is reflected in Sarazhin’s painting.
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.
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.
When Jesus had finished all these sayings, he said to his disciples, “You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be delivered up to be crucified.”
Then the chief priests and the elders of the people gathered in the palace of the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas, and plotted together in order to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him. But they said, “Not during the feast, lest there be an uproar among the people.” . . .
Then one of the twelve, whose name was Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, “What will you give me if I deliver him over to you?” And they paid him thirty pieces of silver. And from that moment he sought an opportunity to betray him.
—Matthew 26:1–5, 14–16
It was now two days before the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. And the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to arrest [Jesus] by stealth and kill him, for they said, “Not during the feast, lest there be an uproar from the people.” . . .
Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. And when they heard it, they were glad and promised to give him money. And he sought an opportunity to betray him.
—Mark 14:1–2, 10–11
Now the Feast of Unleavened Bread drew near, which is called the Passover. And the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to put [Jesus] to death, for they feared the people.
Then Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot, who was of the number of the twelve. He went away and conferred with the chief priests and officers how he might betray him to them. And they were glad, and agreed to give him money. So he consented and sought an opportunity to betray him to them in the absence of a crowd.
Holy Wednesday is commonly referred to as Spy Wednesday, as it’s the day Judas negotiated with the Sanhedrin (the Jewish ruling council) to betray Jesus. The religious leaders had been had been plotting to get rid of Jesus since the beginning of his ministry, really; for example, Mark the Evangelist notes that after Jesus healed a man on the Sabbath, “the Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him” (Mark 3:6). They didn’t like Jesus’s interpretations of God’s law. And they certainly didn’t like his claiming to be the Son of God—blasphemy.
Their plotting kicks into high gear this week, when they get an insider from Jesus’s traveling band to surreptitiously report on his activity and whereabouts, which will enable them to swoop in for an arrest.
LOOK: Maynard Dixon (American, 1875–1946), Shapes of Fear, 1930–32. Oil on canvas, 40 × 501⁄8 in. (101.5 × 127.3 cm). Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC. [object record]
In this painting by Maynard Dixon, four shadowy figures, cloaked and hooded, stand on a mound of earth. They move clandestinely, at dusk, it appears. One of them faces us directly, but his face is missing, evoking a sense of menace.
I first encountered Shapes of Fear at one of my local museums a few years ago and was transfixed by it. There was no description to contextualize the scene.
I am reminded of the chief priests, scribes, and elders, who acted stealthily to see that this Jesus fellow, so-called Son of God, was done away with. Fear was a big motivator for them. Fear of losing their power, of God’s truth being corrupted, of a changing status quo, of confronting their own hypocrisy. Mark 11:18 states it outright: “And the chief priests and the scribes heard it [Jesus’s rebuke of the money-changers in the temple] and were seeking a way to destroy him, for they feared him, because all the crowd was astonished at his teaching” (emphasis added).
Some churches hold a Tenebrae (Latin for “shadows” or “darkness”) service on Spy Wednesday, which involves a gradual extinguishing of candles along with readings from the passion narratives.
Egyptian Australian musician Joseph Tawadros [previously] is one of the world’s leading oud (fretless lute) players and is credited with expanding the instrument’s notoriety in mainstream Western culture. In this piece he performs alongside his percussionist brother, James Tawadros; drummer Jack DeJohnette; guitarist John Abercrombie; and bassist John Patitucci. The latter three are jazz heavyweights from New York.
Several times in the Gospels, Jesus refers forebodingly to “the hour” in which he will be captured, tortured, and killed. After his triumphal entry into Jerusalem he tells the crowds that followed him that “the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (John 12:23), and he goes on to talk parabolically about his death. In his Farewell Discourse, he tells his disciples that “behold, the hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each to his own home, and will leave me alone” (John 16:32). And a few beats later, in John 17:1, Jesus “lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, ‘Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you . . .’”
In the parallel account of Gethsemane in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus prays that “the hour might pass from him” (Mark 14:35), and when God declines the request, Jesus concedes that “the hour has come. The Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners” (Mark 14:41).