Crucifixion, Harrowing, and Transfiguration

Piers Plowman is a fourteenth-century allegorical narrative poem in Middle English by William Langland, considered one of the greatest works of medieval literature. Unfolding as a series of dream-visions, it follows the narrator Will’s quest for the true Christian life.

Lines 491–95 of Passus V (as counted in the Norton Critical Edition, which uses the B-text) are among the poem’s most striking:

The sonne for sorwe therof les syghte for a tyme,
Aboute midday whan moste lighte is and meletyme of seintes;
Feddest with thi fresche blode owre forfadres in derknesse.
  Populus qui ambulabat in tenebris vidit lucem magnum.
The lighte that lepe oute of the, Lucifer [it] blent,
And blewe alle thi blissed into the blisse of Paradise.

The sun for sorrow [at the Crucifixion] lost sight for a time,
About midday, when most light is, and mealtime of saints;
Thou feddest with Thy fresh blood our forefathers in darkness.
  Populus qui ambulabat in tenebris vidit lucem magnum.
The light that leapt out of Thee, Lucifer it blinded,
And blew all Thy blessed into the bliss of Paradise.

All three Synoptic Gospels tell us that from noon to three on Good Friday, “there was darkness over all the land” (Matt. 27:45; Mark 15:33; Luke 23:44–45). Medieval writers and artists sometimes imagined this in personified terms, as the sun veiling its face in mourning over the death of Christ. At what should be the brightest hour of day, the speaker remarks, the sky went black. And while people were eating their midday meal, Christ was preparing for his people a feast of his own flesh and blood.

This latter image is multifaceted, referring in context to the idea that Christ’s blood flowed into hell to rescue the patriarchs and prophets who died before his coming, but also to the legend of the pelican who wounded her breast to feed her children with her blood. The Eucharist is an obvious corollary.

Every line of Piers Plowman has three alliterative stresses, which in V.494–95 in particular create such a beautiful musicality: light, leapt, Lucifer, blinded, blew, blessed, bliss.

In the immense darkness of the Crucifixion, there shone, on a spiritual level, a glory so bright it blinded Lucifer and swept the Old Testament saints into God’s presence. Langland quotes, in Latin, the prophecy from Isaiah 9:2: “People that walked in darkness have seen a great light.” With the atonement accomplished, our foremothers and fathers could finally inherit the promise they had clung to in faith for so long. The conflation of light and breath as a propulsive force or a vehicle of transport is so unique and vivid—how the saints, expelled from their prison, ride a strong wind or a ray of light into paradise. I see them joyfully tumbling to their new home!

This passage anticipates the triumph of Passus XVIII, which centers on the harrowing of hell. Reiterating the unusual verb choice of “blew,” the poet says it is Christ’s breath that breaks down the hellgate. Here is Christ (“the light”) on Holy Saturday, addressing the fiends of hell:

Again the light bade them unlock, and Lucifer answered,
  “Who is that?
What lord are you?” said Lucifer. The light at once replied,
  “The King of Glory.
The Lord of might and of main and all manner of powers:
  The Lord of Powers.
Dukes of this dim place, at once undo these gates
That Christ may come in, the Heaven-King’s son.”
And with that breath hell broke along with Belial’s bars;
For any warrior or watchman the gates wide opened.
Patriarchs and prophets, populus in tenebris,
Sang Saint John’s song, Ecce agnus Dei.
Lucifer could not look, the light so blinded him.
And those that our Lord loved his light caught away.

(XVIII.316–26, modern English translation by E. Talbot Donaldson)

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Lesko, Greta_Crucifixion with Transfiguration
Greta Leśko (Polish, 1979–), Crucifixion with Transfiguration, 2019. Tempera on gessoed wood board.

This multitiered icon by Greta Leśko is not a direct response to the Piers Plowman passages, but boy does it resonate! I love how she has rendered the paradoxical nature of the cross as a site of simultaneous darkness and light by integrating a scene of the Transfiguration beneath.

Earlier in his ministry, Jesus went up to Mount Tabor with his disciples Peter, James, and John, where he revealed to them, in dazzling light, his true glory. Pierced by these rays, they are literally knocked off their feet! As is traditional, Leśko shows the transfigured Christ holding a scroll in his left hand (signifying that he is the Word of God) and making a blessing gesture with the other.

The Transfiguration was a prefiguration of the Resurrection, and indeed in Leśko’s minimalist conception, this tableau could be read secondarily as Christ risen from the grave. The dark orb that encircles him is like the mouth of his tomb, and the three splayed men evoke the Roman guards who were sent reeling as their dead charge emerged from it alive and in full health.

The top half of Leśko’s icon portrays the Crucifixion. Christ spreads wide his arms across the orange beam, which seems to have no end but, rather, melds into the all-encompassing border of light. To his right is what appears to be an open window or doorway—a displacement, perhaps, of his side wound, which we are invited to enter and take shelter in. At the base of the cross, in a darkened recess, sits a skull, representing the death of Adam.

Adam also appears, with Eve, in the roundel at the cross’s upper terminal. This is a scene of the Anastasis (Greek for “Resurrection”), which is the primary icon of Pascha (Easter). It shows Christ descending into Hades, breaking down its doors (which lie in a heap at his feet) and liberating all the Old Testament saints. Known in the West as the harrowing of hell, this event is referenced in the ancient Apostles’ Creed, which states that Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried, and he descended into hell . . .” Medievals loved this part of the story, with all its drama and redeemer-heroism. (It’s the climax of Piers Plowman!) In the Orthodox Church it is a central doctrine.

It’s notable that Leśko has chosen to place the underworld action at the top of the composition and the mountaintop action at the bottom. From the depths of the universe to its heights, God’s radiance is ablaze, yes, but is there a significance to their being transposed? The old world order being overturned, perhaps? Maybe it’s simply to give the Transfiguration more prominence, making it an equal counterweight to the Crucifixion—with the Anastasis, small as it is, merely hinted at. In any case, visually and narratively, it means we read the icon from bottom to top.

By sandwiching the cross between two unambiguous manifestations of Christ’s glory, Leśko helps us see the fuller picture of the Crucifixion, where human evil and God’s goodness met and salvation was born. Or, as William Langland put it: where light leapt out and “blew all [God’s] blessed into the bliss of Paradise.”

Contemporary icons of the Baptism of Christ

Today, January 6, is the feast of Epiphany (“manifestation,” “revelation,” “shining forth”)—also referred to as Theophany (“revelation of God”), or the Feast of Lights. While the Western church commemorates the visit of the Magi on this day, focusing on God’s revelation to the world through the birth of Christ, the Eastern church commemorates Jesus’s baptism, focusing on the Father and Spirit’s affirmation of the Son’s divinity at the beginning of his public ministry. Matthew 3:13–17 gives us the account:

Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

Below is a selection of contemporary Theophany icons from Ukraine, Russia, Poland, Greece, and Romania. All but one of them bear a semicircle at the top, which signifies the “opening of the heavens” and the voice of God reaching down; in Ioan and Camelia Popa’s, God’s hand is even visible. (Representation of the Father is forbidden by tradition, though a hand is generally acceptable because the Bible itself uses anthropomorphic expressions like “God’s hand” and “God’s mighty arm.”) A dove descends from this aperture, a literalization of the Gospel writers’ simile.

On the shores of the Jordan stand one or more angels at the service of their Lord. Their hands are covered by their own cloaks as a sign of reverence—or in some representations, they hold garments to drape over Christ when he emerges from the water. (Early icons of Jesus’s baptism show him completely naked, emphasizing his self-emptying; now, however, it’s more common to see him in a loincloth.)

In Lyuba Yatskiv’s and the Popas’ icons—the most traditional of this bunch—there is an allegorical figure in the river by Christ’s feet, pouring out water from a jug. This man is a personification of the Jordan River, which miraculously dried up, temporarily, to allow the ancient Israelites to cross over into the Promised Land (Joshua 3:15–17). Some icons, though none pictured here, include a second allegorical figure, (Red) Sea, who is turning away, parting (see Psalm 114:3).

In George Kordis’s icon, instead of Jordan at Christ’s feet, there’s a serpent being crushed, a reference to Psalm 74:13: “You divided the sea by your might; you broke the heads of the sea monsters on the waters.” Visually, this recalls the Eastern church’s Resurrection icon, which depicts Christ breaking down the doors of hell, flattening Satan.

Back to Yatskiv and Popa. In these two there is an axe lying next to a tree, alluding to the sermon by John the Baptist that immediately preceded this episode, in which he proclaimed, “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:10).

Epiphany calls us to worshipfully behold the shining forth of Jesus as messiah and as the second person of the Trinity. To orient yourself to the Orthodox celebration of today’s feast, here are two liturgical hymns, the Troparion and the Kontakion, that will be sung congregationally:

When Thou, O Lord, wast baptized in the Jordan, worship of the Trinity wast made manifest; for the voice of the Father bore witness to Thee, calling Thee His beloved Son. And the Spirit in the form of a dove confirmed the truth of His word. O Christ our God, Who hath appeared and enlightened the world, glory to Thee.

. . .

On this day Thou hast appeared unto the whole world, and Thy light, O Sovereign Lord, is signed on us who sing Thy praise and chant with knowledge: Thou hast now come, Thou hast appeared, O Thou Light unappproachable.

They offer a perfect lens through which to view the following icons.

Baptism of Christ by Jerzy Nowosielski
Jerzy Nowosielski (Polish, 1923–2011), The Baptism of Jesus Christ in the Jordan, 1964. Oil on canvas, 100 × 80 cm.

Baptism of Christ by Greta Leśko
Greta Leśko (Polish, 1979–), Baptism of Christ. Oil on board, 40 × 30 cm. Private collection.

Baptism of Christ by Greta Lesko
Greta Leśko (Polish, 1979–), Baptism of Christ, 2014. Oil on board, 40 × 40 cm.

Baptism of Christ by Greta Lesko
Two-sided processional cross and ripidions by Greta Leśko (Polish, 1979–), 2011. Mixed media on wood. Cross: 90 cm tall (without shaft); ripidions: 13 cm diameter. Church of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross in Górowo Iławeckie, Warmian-Masurian Voivodeship, Poland. (See reverse)

Baptism of Christ by Lyuba Yatskiv
Icon by Lyuba Yatskiv (Ukrainian, 1977–)

Baptism of Christ by Ulyana Tomkeyvch
Icon by Ulyana Tomkevych (Ukrainian, 1981–)

Baptism of Christ by Ivanka Demchuk
Ivanka Demchuk (Ukrainian, 1990–), Baptism of Christ, 2015. Mixed media on board on canvas, 30 × 40 cm.

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