Holy Thursday: Mount of Olives

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.

Rattner, Abraham_Martyr

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.

Social critique in two Victorian Nativity paintings

Sometimes we rush to judgment of artworks that at first glance seem dull and conventional. We assume they have nothing to show us. But if we were to look more closely, we might find something unexpected. Even subtly subversive.

Such is the case with The Nativity and its companion piece, The King and the Shepherd, which were commissioned from the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Coley Burne-Jones in 1887 for the chancel of Saint John’s Church in Torquay, England. Seven by ten feet each, they hung on the north and south walls for just over a hundred years before being sold by the church in 1989 to pay for a new roof. (Copies were hung in their places.) Musical theater composer—and Victorian art collector!—Andrew Lloyd Webber bought them and, in 1997, donated them to the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. That’s where I saw them earlier this year.

Burne-Jones, Edward_Nativity
Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones (British, 1833–1898), The Nativity, 1888. Oil on canvas, 81 × 124 1/2 in. (205.7 × 316.2 cm). Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Burne-Jones, Edward_The King and the Shepherd
Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones (British, 1833–1898), The King and the Shepherd, 1888. Oil on canvas, 81 1/4 × 124 1/2 in. (206.4 × 316.2 cm). Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

The Nativity shows Mary reclining outdoors on a rustic bed that resembles a bier with her newborn son, Jesus, both wrapped in shroud-like garments. Her partner, Joseph, who has his cloaked back to the viewer, sits on the ground reading a manuscript in Gothic script; the text is indiscernible, but I presume it’s meant to be the scriptures that prophesy the birth of a savior or his sacrificial death. Three angels stand to the side holding symbols of the passion: a crown of thorns, a chalice, and a jar of myrrh, a traditional burial spice. The painting, therefore, links the entrance of Jesus onto the world stage to his ultimate saving act on the cross.

(Related post: “Birth and death in Lavinia Fontana’s Holy Family painting”)

Burne-Jones, Edward_Nativity (pastel)
Pastel sketch for The Nativity by Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, 1887. The New Art Gallery Walsall, England.

Burne-Jones, Edward_Nativity (detail, angels)

This foreshadowing approach was not new in Nativity art. But in addition to gesturing toward the redemption from sin that Jesus would bring, the painting also quotes from a community lament psalm in which God’s people cry out for deliverance from those in authority who lie and manipulate. Propter miseriam inopum et gemitum pauperis nunc exsurgam dicit Dominus, the Latin inscription reads, which translates, “Because of the misery of the poor and the groaning of the needy, now will I arise, saith the LORD” (Psalm 12:5a). When God’s people are oppressed, God is aroused to action, and Burne-Jones’s choice of this atypical scripture text for a Nativity painting reminds us of the sociopolitical context of Jesus’s birth, which involved Roman occupation of Israel and a despotic ruler so obsessed with power that he mandated the extermination of Jewish male babies in Bethlehem, thinking he would quash the threat of usurpation. This is the reality into which Jesus was born. And though he didn’t deliver Israel from Rome during his lifetime, he did launch a new “kingdom” and declare a jubilee (Luke 4:16–21).

The biblical inscription speaks not only to Jesus’s day but also to contemporary times, which were marked by high unemployment and great hardship among London’s working class. It’s “a subtle allusion to the social miseries of Victorian Britain,” says Louise Lippincott, curator for the Carnegie at the time of acquisition. She speculates that Burne-Jones intended the painting “as his public statement, albeit a muted one, on 19th-century social horrors. . . . It is quite likely that he was thinking of reports of the bestial living conditions of the London poor that were appearing in the press in the early 1880s.” In 1886, 1887, and 1888, as Burne-Jones was planning and executing the painting, violent strikes and riots were going on in London to protest economic inequality. As people starved, those in power continued to fatten themselves with apparent disregard. The incorporation into this humble scene of a divine vow from the Psalms, where God states his commitment to the poor, expresses hope that God will again arise to deliver from affliction those who trust in him.

The King and the Shepherd extends this critique of the wealth gap by showing the two titular figures—one rich, the other poor—approaching the Christ child as equals. As was and still is common, Burne-Jones combines Matthew’s account of the magi with Luke’s account of the shepherds, showing both as welcome participants in the same event, but uniquely, he chooses only one figure to represent each group. (Traditionally, three magi attend the birth, along with a nonstandard number of shepherds.) An angel leads each traveler by the hand, reminding them to keep their voices low so as not to wake the sleeping infant.

Burne-Jones, Edward_The King and the Shepherd (detail, king)
Burne-Jones, Edward_The King and the Shepherd (detail, shepherd)

“The pairings visually suggest the equality, in the face of divinity, between the wealthy king and the humble peasant,” reads the museum wall text. “In the context of the enormous social inequalities rife in Victorian England, this message smacked of social and political radicalism.” The Latin inscription—Transeamus usque Bethleem et videamus hoc verbum quod factum est quod fecit Dominus [et ostendit nobis]—comes from the New Testament description of the journey of the shepherds. “Let us now go even unto Bethlehem,” they say, “and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us” (Luke 2:15b).

God chose to reveal his Son’s birth not only to bookish scholars or, as tradition has it, royalty, but also to a bunch of blue-collar laborers. The shepherds’ and kings’ mutual presence at Christ’s bedside was only the beginning of the reconciliation across lines of division that Christ came to enact.

For further reflection on the inclusion of rich and poor in the biblical narratives of Jesus’s birth, see “Shepherds vs. Magi: Dynamics of Privilege within the Nativity Story” by Tony Kriz.

All photos, except for the pastel sketch, are by Victoria Emily Jones / ArtandTheology.org.

The Dead Christ Supported by Angels: A Thematic Survey

A type of “Man of Sorrows” image, the Dead Christ Supported by Angels is a devotional trope originating in the late Middle Ages. It typically shows a naked, half-length Christ standing up in a sarcophagus, his wounds prominently displayed so as to invite meditation on his suffering. One or more angels tend to him—they may embrace him, mourn his passing, unwrap his burial shroud (to give viewers a better look), display instruments of the passion, keep him propped up in the tomb, or, as we will see below, prepare to welcome him back to life.

(Related post: “Bill Viola’s Emergence as a Picture of the Resurrected Christ and the New Birth of Believers”)

One of the earliest examples of this imagery is the marble relief at the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin. Originally a lectern adornment for the pulpit in Pisa’s cathedral, it shows two angels unveiling Christ’s body, presenting it to us like a eucharistic host. Their raised arms and slanted legs form a mandorla-like frame around him.

Angel Pieta by Giovanni Pisano
Giovanni Pisano (Italian, 1245/48–1314), Angel Pietà, 1300. Marble relief, 44 × 45 × 36 cm. Gemäldegalerie, Staatlichen Museen, Berlin, Germany.

Dead Christ Supported by Angel (ivory)
Pendant: Imago pietatis. Elephant ivory. Musée du Louvre, Paris. Photo: Jean-Gilles Berizzi/RMN-Grand Palais.

The fifteenth-century alabaster sculpture shown below was formerly partially painted, and the angels formerly wore diadems on their foreheads (one survives). “This is an immensely virtuoso carving for such a small scale,” writes art historian Kim W. Woods—notice the texture of the angels’ wings and hair, the lining of Christ’s ecclesiastical robe, and the plants at Christ’s feet. Notice, too, the intricately carved emblem on Christ’s brooch: a pelican pecking at her breast. Reputed to have fed her young with own blood, the pelican was a common medieval symbol of Christ’s sacrificial love.

Christ as Man of Sorrows (alabaster)
Christ as a Man of Sorrows, mid-15th century. Alabaster, 40 cm high. Museum Mayer van den Bergh, Antwerp, Belgium. Photo: Jean-Luc Elias/KIK-IRPA, Brussels.

In the Leipzig Man of Sorrows by Master Francke, Christ and three angels stand in a shallow space in front of the cross. It’s unclear whether Christ is on the edge of death or has already crossed over. In his left hand he holds the scourge—or tries to (his hand is either weak and cramped with pain, if alive, or if dead, afflicted rigor mortis). His other hand gestures to his side wound, still wet with blood, as if, like Thomas, he’s about to probe it. Peeking up over Christ’s shoulder is a full-size angel, who tenderly drapes him with a diaphanous veil. At the bottom of the painting two smaller angels kneel on either side, the one holding the birch, the lance, and the sponge-topped reed, the other holding the pillar of flagellation; they both struggle to support the dead weight of Christ’s arms.

Man of Sorrows by Master Francke
Master Francke (German, 1380–1435), Man of Sorrows, ca. 1430. Tempera on oak, 42.5 × 31.3 cm. Museum der Bildenden Künste, Leipzig, Germany.

The angels at Christ’s waist in Master Francke’s Hamburg Man of Sorrows, instead of holding instruments of torture, hold a lily and a sword, symbols of the Last Judgment. (In visualizations of that event, Christ is often shown with a lily coming out of his right ear, signifying an “innocent” verdict for the faithful, and a sword coming out of his left ear, declaring guilty those who did not know him.) Three angels at the top remove the cheap, mock kingly garment the Romans had thrown on him to replace it with his due: a finely embroidered robe befitting a true king.

Man of Sorrows by Master Francke
Master Francke (German, ca. 1380–ca. 1435/40), Man of Sorrows, ca. 1435. Tempera on oakwood, 92 × 67 cm. Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany.

Continue reading “The Dead Christ Supported by Angels: A Thematic Survey”