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.

Holy Week Playlist

There are hundreds of thousands of musical works, from a range of genres, inspired by Christ’s passion, especially his death on the cross, which, along with the resurrection, is the centerpiece of the Christian faith. I’ve curated just a sampling of these on Spotify, from across time periods and countries, to serve as an aural guide through the final week of Jesus’s life. The drama begins with Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem on a donkey, where he’s hailed with hosannas, and then continues with a last supper shared with his disciples, an agonized prayer in Gethsemane followed by betrayal and arrest, then, all in one day, multiple trials (religious and civil), conviction by mob, a public execution, and burial. Many of the playlist selections are narrative in character, while some have a more theological bent. My hope is that these pieces aid you in observing this most holy of weeks, walking with Christ through the shadows, taking in how “he himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds [we] have been healed” (1 Pet. 2:24).

To add the playlist to your account, open the Art & Theology Holy Week Playlist link, then click on the More (…) icon and select “Save to Library.”

Art & Theology Holy Week playlist (art by Odilon Redon)

[Playlist cover art: Odilon Redon, Christ, ca. 1895, charcoal, chalk, pastel, and pencil on paper, Museum of Modern Art, New York]

The playlist is a mixture of classical and popular (indie-folk, gospel) music. In this post I want to provide a little context for some of the pieces, by which I mainly mean translations of all the non-English lyrics. Because of what you see here, you might get the wrong impression that the list is almost entirely classical; actually, it’s only about half.

The opening track, “Herr, unser Herrscher” (Lord, Our Ruler), is a unique arrangement of the opening chorus from Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. John Passion, a Good Friday oratorio in German.

Herr, unser Herrscher, dessen Ruhm
In allen Landen herrlich ist!
  Zeig uns durch deine Passion,
  Daß du, der wahre Gottessohn,
  Zu aller Zeit,
  Auch in der größten Niedrigkeit,
  Verherrlicht worden bist!
Lord, our ruler, whose fame
In every land is glorious!
  Show us, through your passion,
  That you, the true Son of God,
  Through all time,
  Even in the greatest humiliation,
  Have become transfigured! [source]

Unique, because the Baroque choir and orchestra are accompanied by an ensemble of Gabonese musicians who contribute their own rhythmic profile, along with solo percussionists Sami Ateba from Cameroon and Naná Vasconcelos from Brazil. The recording, rereleased on the compilation album Babel (2008), is originally from Lambarena: Bach to Africa (1995), a collaboration between French composer and producer Hughes de Courson and Gabonese composer and guitarist Pierre Akendengué, synthesizing two disparate sound worlds. (“Bombé / Ruht wohl, ruht wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine” is another highlight from the album. For weeks I debated whether to include it on this playlist—adding it, taking it off, adding it back again—ultimately deciding to leave it off, the reason being that it overlays Bach’s choral rondo with music and invocations to the dead from a Bwiti religious ritual. Though sonically compelling and worth listening to, I felt that it might impede some Christians’ ability to engage this list in a devotional way; so I opted for a traditional Western classical recording instead.)

Other selections from Bach’s St. John Passion are:

>> “Christus, der uns selig macht”

Christus, der uns selig macht,
Kein Bös’ hat begangen,
Der ward für uns in der Nacht
Als ein Dieb gefangen,
Geführt für gottlose Leut
Und fälschlich verklaget,
Verlacht, verhöhnt und verspeit,
Wie denn die Schrift saget.
Christ, who makes us blessed,
committed no evil deed,
for us he was taken in the night
like a thief,
led before godless people
and falsely accused,
scorned, shamed, and spat upon,
as the scripture says. [source]

>> “Petrus, der nicht denkt zurück”

Petrus, der nicht denkt zurück,
Seinen Gott verneinet,
Der doch auf ein' ernsten Blick
Bitterlichen weinet.
Jesu, blicke mich auch an,
Wenn ich nicht will büßen;
Wenn ich Böses hab getan,
Rühre mein Gewissen!
Peter, who did not recollect,
denied his God,
who yet after a serious glance
wept bitterly.
Jesus, look upon me also,
when I will not repent;
when I have done evil,
stir my conscience! [source]

>> “O große Lieb”

O große Lieb, O Lieb ohn alle Maße,
Die dich gebracht auf diese Marterstraße!
Ich lebte mit der Welt in Lust und Freuden,
Und du mußt leiden.
O great love, O love beyond measure,
that brought you to this path of martyrdom!
I lived with the world in delight and joy,
and you had to suffer. [source]

>> “Ruht wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine”

Ruht wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine,
Die ich nun weiter nicht beweine,
Ruht wohl und bringt auch mich zur Ruh!
Das Grab, so euch bestimmet ist
Und ferner keine Not umschließt,
Macht mir den Himmel auf und schließt die Hölle zu.
Rest well, you blessed limbs;
now I will no longer mourn you.
Rest well and bring me also to peace!
The grave that is allotted to you
and encloses no further suffering
opens heaven for me and closes off hell. [source]

For Bach’s St. Matthew Passion—one of the most celebrated works of classical sacred music ever written, right up there with Handel’s Messiah—I’ve drawn from the abridged English version (rather than the original German), translated by the Rev. Dr. John Troutbeck and performed in 1962 by the New York Philharmonic and Collegiate Chorale under the direction of Leonard Bernstein. I chose just a few pieces from it, not wishing to replicate the whole thing; as you can see, I tend to favor chorales over arias.

Continue reading “Holy Week Playlist”

Holy Saturday (Artful Devotion)

Entombment of Christ (Armenia)
“The Entombment of Christ,” from an Armenian Gospel-book, 1437. MS Or. 2668, fol. 5v, British Library, London.

When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who also was a disciple of Jesus. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. And Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen shroud and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had cut in the rock. And he rolled a great stone to the entrance of the tomb and went away. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.

—Matthew 27:57–61

After these things Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus, and Pilate gave him permission. So he came and took away his body. Nicodemus also, who earlier had come to Jesus by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds in weight. So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews. Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid. So because of the Jewish day of Preparation, since the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there.

—John 19:38–42

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MUSIC: “Tagh for the Funeral of the Lord” by Tigran Mansurian, 1998–2004 | Performed by Kim Kashkashian (viola) and Robyn Schulkowsky (percussion), on Neharo’t, 2009

The tagh is an ancient genre of Armenian monodic music—that is, lamentation over another’s death. “The characteristics of the tagh are its expansiveness of form and volume, its free melodic style, the existence of instrumental passages and richness of rhythm” [source].

“Tagh for the Funeral of the Lord” is the second piece in contemporary Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian’s suite “Three Medieval Taghs for Viola and Percussion” (the other two are for the Crucifixion and for the Resurrection). On YouTube you can find a January 27, 2019, performance by violist Kim Kashkashian and (different from the earlier album recording) percussionist Jonathan Hepfer as part of the Lark Musical Society’s Dilijan Chamber Music Series is Los Angeles. The funeral tagh starts at 4:23:

Note: Sometimes this piece is called Tagh “to” or “of” the Funeral of the Lord.

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The Entombment painting above is from a fifteenth-century Gospel-book copied and illuminated at the Monastery of St. George in Armenia by the priest Awetik. At the center, Christ’s body lies with his head tilted toward the viewer but wrapped, like the rest of him, in a white shroud. Joseph of Arimathea cradles Christ’s head and Nicodemus straightens his legs as the two situate his body in the grave. Two of the Marys stand by, grieving.

The vast swatch of dark blue across the top half of the painting indicates the deep darkness of the cave and accentuates the feeling of emptiness and loss. The figures form a middle band, below which are two more large color fields: brown and green, the colors of the earth.

The inertness is striking, as is the complete hiddenness of God the Son under his burial clothes.


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Holy Saturday, cycle A, click here.

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”