In his Gospel John records that on the Sunday morning following Jesus’s crucifixion, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and, finding it empty, started to weep, for she thought someone had taken the body. In her worry and frustration, she “turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus . . . supposing him to be the gardener” (John 20:14–15). It isn’t until he says her name that she recognizes him.
Artists—mainly from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries—have latched onto this detail of mistaken identity, representing Jesus carrying gardening tools, like a shovel or a hoe, and sometimes sporting a floppy gardener’s hat. A few artists, such as Lavinia Fontana, Rembrandt, and the illuminators of the book of hours and passional shown below, have even shown Jesus in full-out gardener’s getup. (In her commentary on John, Dr. Jo-Ann A. Brant mentions that the fact that Jesus left his burial clothes in the tomb, coupled with Mary’s confusion, might provoke the “fanciful speculation” that Jesus actually borrowed the gardener’s clothes. Nevertheless, a different understanding is more likely behind the artistic representations; read on.)
Christ bends, protects his groin. Thorns gouge
his forehead, and his legs
are stippled with dried blood. The part of us
that’s Pilate says, Behold the man.
We glare at that bound, lashed,
and bloody part of us that’s Christ. We laugh, we howl,
we shout. Give us Barabbas,
not knowing who Barabbas is, not caring.
A thief? We’ll take him anyway. A drunk?
A murderer? Who cares? It’s better him
Than this pale ravaged thing, this god. Bosch knows.
His humans waver, laugh, then change to demons
as if they’re seized by epilepsy. It spreads
from eye to eye, from laugh to laugh until,
incited by the ease of going mad,
they go. How easy evil is! Dark voices sing, You can be evil or you can be good, but good is dull, my darling, good is dull.
And we’re convinced: How lovely evil is!
How lovely hell must be! Give us Barabbas!
Lord Pilate clears his throat and tries again: I find no fault in this just man.
It’s more than we can bear. In gothic script
our answer floats above our upturned eyes. O crucify, we sing. O crucify him!