Lent, Day 37 (Blood and Tears)

Anyone who cries at night, the stars and the constellations cry with him.

Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 104b

LOOK: Blood and Tears by Hélène Mugot

Mugot, Hélène_Blood and Tears
Hélène Mugot (French, 1953–), Du sang et des larmes (Blood and Tears), 2004. Triptych of 300 crystal drops and 200 red glass drops, 350 × 900 cm. Exhibition view from Icare encore at the Mandet Museum, Riom, France, October 22, 2011–January 22, 2012. (Foreground: Pour la gloire… [For the Glory…], 2011.)

Mugot, Hélène_Blood and Tears

When Jesus went out to the garden of Gethsemane to pray the night of his arrest, he pled with the Father to let the cup of suffering pass. Luke says he sweated drops of blood (22:44). He was in agony. He probably dreaded the physical torture he knew was coming, and maybe even more his disciples’ abandoning him. Perhaps he wept for the mother and friends he would leave behind in this next phase of ministry—or, with a mixture of grief and frustration, for the world’s failure to see who he truly was.

Hélène Mugot’s Du sang et des larmes, which translates to Blood and Tears, is an installation of glass pieces made to look like bodily fluids. They hang on the wall in the shape of a three-paneled altarpiece—blood in the center, tears on the wings. The globular forms catch the light from the room and shine.

When Du sang et des larmes was exhibited at the Mandet Museum in 2011, it was part of a larger show of Mugot’s work. On the floor in front of it was her Pour la gloire… (For the Glory…), a menacingly large braided wreath of thick, knotted, blackened vines whose stumps are dotted with red wax of the type used to seal wine bottles—both bandage and wound here, Mugot says. The piece is meant to evoke Jesus’s crown of thorns.

Mugot, Helene_For the Glory
Hélène Mugot (French, 1953–), Pour la gloire… (For the Glory…), 2011. Old vines and red sealing wax, outside diameter 275 cm, height 50 cm. Exhibited at the Mandet Museum, Riom, France, 2011. Photo: Patrick André.

In 2013 Du sang et des larmes joined the collection of the Musée du Hiéron in Paray-le-Monial, France, a museum of Christian art from the Middle Ages to today. There it is staged as the backsplash to a seventeenth-century Virgin and Child statuette carved in wood, thus prompting us to read Christ’s infancy in light of his passion, and vice versa—the Incarnation as a total event, spanning birth to death. (Cue Simeon’s “A sword will pierce your soul . . .”)

Mugot, Hélène_Blood and Tears (with Virgin and Child)
Virgin and Child, 17th century; Du sang et des larmes by Hélène Mugot. Collection of the Musée du Hiéron, Paray-le-Monial, France. Photo: Jean-Pierre Gobillot.

To fit the space, the number of droplets and overall size changed slightly from the piece’s first few installations: at the Hiéron there are 311 crystal drops and 267 red glass drops, and the dimensions are 420 × 650 cm.

LISTEN: “Flow, My Tears” by Toivo Tulev, 2007 | Text based on a 1600 air by John Dowland and the Improperia (aka, the Reproaches), a series of antiphons and responses expressing the remonstrance of Jesus Christ with his people | Performed by the Latvian Radio Choir, dir. Kaspars Putniņš, on Tulev: Magnificat, 2018

Flow, my tears,
fall from your springs,
flow my tears, fall from your . . .
Flow my tears,
fall from your springs,
fall, fall, fall,
flow, flow, my tears, flow.

Down, vain lights,
shine no more,
no nights are dark enough,
no lights,
shine no more,
flow no more,
no more.
Flow down, vain lights,
shine no more,
shine you no more.

I led you in a pillar of cloud
but you led me to . . .
I gave you saving water,
but you gave me gall
and you gave vinegar.
My people, what have I done to you?
What have I done to you? Answer me.
How have I offended you, you, you?
I opened the sea before you,
I opened the sea,
but you opened my side with a spear.

Flow, flow, flow down.
Rain, drop down,
cover the ground,
drop down, my blood,
flow, flow down,
drop down,
drop down, drop,
flow, flow, flow,
shine, flow, flow, shine!
Flow, my blood, flow,
flow, drop, flow down.

My blood spills from your wounds,
drop, drop, drop,
your wounds,
flow, flow, flow down,
flow, shine, drop, flow.
Flow my tears, fall from your springs,
flow, my blood.
My blood, my blood spills from your wounds,
my wounds,
my blood,
flow, blood, flow, flow,
shine!
Spills from your wounds
my blood, shine!
My wounds, my wounds,
drop down, shine!
From your, from my wounds,
shine!
Flow, drop down,
shine!
Flow, shine!
My, your blood,
shine!

My blood,
flow, shine, flow,
shine! shine!
Fall, shine, fall, shine,
fall from your . . .
flow, fall . . .
Shine!
Shine! [source]

Toivo Tulev is an Estonian composer born in 1958. In this choral composition for twelve solo voices, he has combined words from a secular Renaissance lute song and the Christian Holy Week liturgy. It’s ponderous and grating, capturing well Jesus’s psychological affliction.

While in the first half the speaker, Jesus, wishes for light to “shine no more” so that he be left alone in darkness, that imperative eventually evolves into the affirmative: “Shine!” Blood: shine! Tears: shine! Tulev’s clever manipulation of his lyrical source material creates allusions to the glory, the illumination, that is to come. Paradoxically, when the sun is eclipsed from noon to three on the day of crucifixion, God’s love shines brighter than ever.

One line that stands out to me is “My blood spills from your wounds.” Who is the “your”? Earlier Jesus is talking to his people, but I interpret a shift here to God the Father as the addressee. Even though he sees through to the other side, he, too, is tremendously pained by what is unfolding—his only Son, killed. It’s as if Jesus’s wounds are his own (much like any parent would tell you, when their child is suffering). The unity of these two persons of the Godhead in the poetry of this song is really beautiful. Their heart is one.

Lent, Day 33

But he was wounded for our transgressions,
    crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
    and by his bruises we are healed.

—Isaiah 53:5

LOOK: Cuts by Johannes Phokela

Phokela, Johannes_Cuts
Johannes Phokela (South African, 1966–), Cuts, 1990. Acrylic and string on canvas, 83 1/16 × 83 1/16 in. (211 × 211 cm). Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, Washington, DC.

For this gruesome artwork, Johannes Phokela slashed a canvas in many spots with a razor, then stitched up the gashes with heavy string. He then painted over the gashes from the back with crimson paint until it bled through, forming a deep red along the seams and a flesh-pink further out, evocative of scar tissue. Then, as if to memorialize the wounds, he painted twenty gold frames over them in rows of five across and four down.

Phokela often uses painted frames or grids as a compositional device in his work. “The grid gives another dimension to the work; it is a device to challenge the viewer’s perception of the image and form beneath,” he said in a 2002 interview with Bruce Haines. “It is intended to have an effect like an ornamental frame surrounding a mirror, or a glass pane mounting a picture. . . . You have to regard it as part of the work, just like the traditional frame of a painting. . . . It gives the work a sort of focal point that can stimulate the viewer’s reaction.”

I was simultaneously drawn to and repulsed by this painting when I saw it exhibited as part of Conversations: African and African American Artworks in Dialogue at the Smithsonian in 2014. It is large—almost seven square feet. From a distance the image looks rather rose-like, a concentric arrangement of short red lines slightly curled like petals. It wasn’t until I got closer that I saw it portrays the vulnerability of human flesh, savagely torn.

When I’m at an art museum I like to look at each artwork before reading its label so that I can register my initial impressions and begin to form an interpretation before I receive the curator’s. (I hope you do the same when you encounter artworks on this website!) When I saw this one, I thought of how Christ was wounded for our transgressions, but those wounds became his glory—and ours. In art history Jesus is sometimes shown with light emanating from the holes in his hands, especially in images where he is exalted in heaven. For me, the gold in Cuts suggests a redemptive framework—like it’s asking us to view the horrors of the cross through the lens of glory. In addition, the gold frames within the picture plane seem to emphasize that these wounds are something worthy of being looked at, even meditated upon, as frames show us what’s important, directing our gaze.

Well, here’s what the label said:

On a trip home to South Africa in 1989, Phokela was distressed to see the state of violence that existed as a result of political rivalry and unrest. Disturbed by the bandaged and scarred faces and bodies of his fellow citizens and by the fact that everyone seemed to accept the situation as normal, the artist created a canvas of cuts overlaid with gold frames to distance himself from the violence.

So, Phokela, a Black South African who was born and raised in Soweto but had been living in London since 1987, painted this as a response to the violence of apartheid in his home country. Whomever wrote this text sees the frames as putting us at further remove from the cuts that are represented, as they form an intervening layer between us and them. A legitimate reading, though I haven’t found any statements from Phokela that express this intent. What I did find from him regarding his use of frames in general, I quoted above.

Having learned the particular context out of which this painting arose, I then considered what Jesus’s crucifixion has to say to human suffering today. What relevance has a Galilean man’s torture and execution two thousand years ago to present-day men and women who are beaten and abused?—in this case, because of their race.

Jesus’s death exposed and put to shame the powers of evil, those which assault God and God’s image-bearers. Surely there was much more going on with his death than just that (whole volumes, whole series of volumes, have been written to articulate a theology of the cross). But bringing to light the crimes of humanity—and at the same time, God’s supreme love—is one aspect. Opening up pathways of transformation, healing, reconciliation, and liberation is another.

LISTEN: “By His Wounds” by Bifrost Arts, feat. DM Stith, on He Will Not Cry Out, 2013 | Words by Isaac Wardell, 2011 | Music by Philip Hayes, 1786

By his wounds, his wounds, will we be healed
And for our transgressions, his passion has made us well
Let us come again and feed on him, our Lord Emmanuel

This melody was originally written in the eighteenth century by English composer, organist, singer, and conductor Philip Hayes (1738–1797), who published it in The Muses’ Delight: Catches, Glees, Canzonets, and Canons as a round setting of Psalm 137:1–2 (“By the waters of Babylon . . .”). The song became widely popular after Don McLean recorded it on his 1971 album American Pie and even more so in 2007, when it was used in a memorable montage in the TV series Mad Men.

Isaac Wardell, cofounder of the Bifrost Arts music collective and now director of The Porter’s Gate, put different words to Hayes’s melody in 2011, retaining the canon form. The first two lines reference the well-known Suffering Servant passage from Isaiah 53, and the last is an invitation to come to the Lord’s table—to take in unto ourselves the body and blood of Christ.

“Christ’s Bloody Sweat” by Robert Southwell

Boeve, Edgar G._Phoenix, Death
Edgar G. Boevé (American, 1929–2019), Phoenix, Death, ca. 1980. Oil and acrylic on tea chest paper. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones, at the Center Art Gallery, Calvin University, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2015.

Fat soil, full spring, sweet olive, grape of bliss,
That yields, that streams, that pours, that doth distill;
Untilled, undrawn, unstamped, untouched of press,
Dear fruit, clear brooks, fair oil, sweet wine at will!
Thus Christ prevents, unforced, in shedding blood,
The whips, the thorns, the nails, the spear, and rood.

He pelican’s, he phoenix’, fate doth prove,
Whom flames consume, whom streams enforce to die:
How burneth blood, how bleedeth burning love?
Can one in flame and stream both bathe and fry?
How could he join a phoenix’ fiery pains,
In fainting pelican’s still bleeding veins?

Elias once, to prove God’s sovereign power,
By prayer procured a fire of wondrous force
That blood and wood and water did devour,
Yea stones and dust beyond all nature’s course:
Such fire is love, that, fed with gory blood,
Doth burn no less than in the driest wood.

O sacred fire! come, show thy force on me,
That sacrifice to Christ I may return:
If withered wood for fuel fittest be,
If stones and dust, if flesh and blood will burn,
I withered am, and stony to all good,
A sack of dust, a mass of flesh and blood.

Note: I modernized the spellings of this poem for readability, but there is a beauty to the early modern English; see the original here.

Robert Southwell (ca. 1561–1595) was an English Catholic priest and poet living during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Educated at Jesuit colleges in France and Italy, he returned to his native England as a missionary in 1586. But he suffered persecution under the country’s Protestant regime, and had to conduct his ministry in concealment. In his early thirties he was caught celebrating the Mass and was subsequently imprisoned, tortured, and hanged for treason. None of his English poems was published in his lifetime, but many of them circulated as manuscripts. He probably wrote this one sometime during his three years in the Tower of London, awaiting execution.

“Christ’s Bloody Sweat” opens with a reflection on Christ’s agony in the garden of Gethsemane the night before the Crucifixion, when “in his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground” (Luke 22:44). This bloody sweat may be a figure of speech Luke uses to convey the intensity of the moment, or it may be an actual condition called hematidrosis, in which capillary blood vessels that feed the sweat glands rupture, causing them to exude blood—something that can occur in rare cases when a person is under extreme physical or emotional stress.

In the first stanza of the poem, “Southwell introduces various fluids that represent the creative effusions of Christ’s love, with an extravagant reiteration of images that emphasises the extravagance of that love,” writes the Rev. Patrick Comerford in his commentary on the poem.

Fat soil, full spring, sweet olive, grape of bliss,
That yields, that streams, that pours, that doth distill;
Untilled, undrawn, unstamped, untouched of press,
Dear fruit, clear brooks, fair oil, sweet wine at will!
Thus Christ prevents, unforced, in shedding blood,
The whips, the thorns, the nails, the spear, and rood.

Southwell describes Christ as rich, fertile soil that yields sweet fruit; a spring of living water; an olive from which consecrated oil is distilled (for the anointing of the newly baptized and newly ordained); and a grape that yields fine wine. It may help you to read each phrase vertically down the first four lines: “Fat soil that yields, untilled, dear fruit”; “full spring that streams, undrawn, clear brooks”; “sweet olive that pours, unstamped, fair oil”; “grape of bliss that doth distill, untouched of press, sweet wine at will!”

“Prevent” in this context means to go before. In other words, even before Jesus is captured by the Roman soldiers, tortured, and led to Calvary to be crucified, he sheds his blood in Gethsemane. Without any physical forces acting upon him. “Rood” is an archaic word for the cross.

Stanza 2 references two birds of lore that were popular symbols of Christ: the pelican and the phoenix.

He pelican’s, he phoenix’, fate doth prove,
Whom flames consume, whom streams enforce to die:
How burneth blood, how bleedeth burning love?
Can one in flame and stream both bathe and fry?
How could he join a phoenix’ fiery pains,
In fainting pelican’s still bleeding veins?

The pelican was said (by Epiphanius, Augustine, and other church fathers) to revive or feed her young with her own blood; she would peck at her breast until she died so that her little ones might have life. The phoenix is a fantastical bird from classical mythology that burns itself to ashes on a funeral pyre ignited by the sun but then rises up out of those ashes, renewed.

Southwell ponders how Christ can be both pelican and phoenix. Did he bleed to death (losing streams of blood), or did he die by burning? The image in line 10 is quite gruesome: Christ simultaneously is “bathe[d]” in blood and fries in flames. The fire is, of course, metaphoric. But it becomes here, along with the blood, an emblem of divine love. A love that bleeds and burns, and that is all-consuming.

The fire and blood imagery continues in stanza 3, where Southwell refers to the famous contest on Mount Carmel between Elijah (a prophet of Yahweh) and the prophets of Baal (see 1 Kings 18).

Elias once, to prove God’s sovereign power,
By prayer procured a fire of wondrous force
That blood and wood and water did devour,
Yea stones and dust beyond all nature’s course:
Such fire is love, that, fed with gory blood,
Doth burn no less than in the driest wood.

To prove the supremacy of the God of Israel over Baal, Elijah issues a challenge. He and Baal’s prophets would each prepare a bull for sacrifice and lay it on a stone altar but light no fire. They would then pray each to their own god and see which god answers by sending fire from heaven to consume their sacrifice. The prophets of Baal accept the challenge, but no fire comes to light their altar, despite their most fervent entreaties. Elijah, to increase the stakes, even soaks his bull and the wood it lies on in water, three times over—and still fire comes from above, devouring, as Southwell writes, “blood and wood and water . . . [and] stones and dust beyond all nature’s course.”

God’s love is like that fire, Southwell says. The implication, I think, is that on the cross, the love of the Son (who gives himself as a sacrifice) and the love of the Father (who accepts the sacrifice) meet. (I know there are varying interpretations of the nature of the atonement and the role of the Father in the Crucifixion, but I’m simply trying to interpret Southwell here.)

In the poem’s final stanza, Southwell considers how he ought to respond to divine love as expressed in Christ’s passion.

O sacred fire! come, show thy force on me,
That sacrifice to Christ I may return:
If withered wood for fuel fittest be,
If stones and dust, if flesh and blood will burn,
I withered am, and stony to all good,
A sack of dust, a mass of flesh and blood.

He calls on God to accept, in return, his sacrifice—of praise and thanksgiving and obedience (Heb. 13:15–16; Ps. 50:23) and of his very self (Rom. 12:1–2). He probably had his martyrdom in mind. He acknowledges that he is but a withered, soggy, stony-hearted “sack of dust” but prays that God would make him fit to receive and broadcast the fire of love from on high.

Lent, Day 23

LOOK: Mola from the San Blas Islands

Christ on the Cross (mola)
Christ Nailed to the Cross, mola (reverse appliqué panel) from the San Blas Islands, late 20th century. Bowden Collections.

The Kuna (also spelled Guna or Cuna) Indians live on the San Blas archipelago off the east coast of Panama, a cluster of some 378 islands in the Caribbean Sea. They are politically autonomous, and much of their traditional culture is intact.

Since the late nineteenth century, Kuna women have been making what are called molas, reverse appliqué panels made in pairs for the front and back of women’s blouses. As mola collector Jane Gruver describes, “several layers of cloth are stacked together and the design is made by cutting through the different layers of fabric to expose the desired color. Once the specific shape is achieved, the area is stitched around. Sometimes embroidery and applique are also used to add detail.” This colorful, wearable textile art is an integral part of Kuna culture.

The earliest molas featured geometric designs, which the Kunas translated from their customary body painting designs, but now a vast variety of representational subjects are common, including animals, plants, domestic scenes, political satire, dragons, mermaids, superheroes, spacecraft—and biblical stories!

The first Christian missionary to the San Blas Islands was Annie Coope, a single woman from the United States who arrived in the first decade of the 1900s and established a school on the island of Nirgana in 1913. A significant number of the Kuna embraced Christianity, such that there are now churches on thirty of the islands, as well as eighteen Kuna churches in and around Panama City, according to Wycliffe. A Kuna translation of the New Testament was published in 1995, at the behest of Kuna pastor Lino Smith Arango, and a Kuna Old Testament was completed in 2014.

The mola above shows two men hammering nails into Christ’s palms as two mourning figures—presumably John and Mary—stand behind. This piece is from the collection of Sandra and Bob Bowden in Chatham, Massachusetts, who are among today’s major collectors of modern biblical art. It is one of forty molas in the traveling exhibition Eden to Eternity: Molas from the San Blas Islands, available for rental for a nominal fee.

LISTEN: “Nailed” by Nicholas Andrew Barber, on Stations (2020)

They nailed you to your cross
Yes, they nailed you to your cross
Like you said they would
Like you said they would

And they drove those nails through your hands
And they drove those nails through your feet
Like a criminal
Like a criminal

O the pain you must have felt
O the pain you must have felt
O the agony
O the agony

Behold the precious Lamb of God
Behold the precious Lamb of God
Nailed to the cross
Nailed to the cross

Lent, Day 17

LOOK: Head of Christ by Fernando Botero

Botero, Fernando_Head of Christ
Fernando Botero (Colombian, 1932–), Cabeza de Cristo (Head of Christ), 1976. Oil on canvas, 185 × 179 cm. Museo de Antioquia, Medellín, Colombia.

Colombian painter and sculptor Fernando Botero is South America’s best-known artist. He is influenced by the Old Masters, which he studied in his twenties in Madrid, Paris, and Florence, and by the Mexican muralists. But his style—marked by plump, often childlike figures—is distinctively his own and has even been given the name “Boterismo.”

Throughout his career he has remained adamant that he does not paint “fat people” or “chubbies.” What he paints, he insists, is exaggerated volumes that highlight the body’s natural shape and the “sensuality of form.” In addition to religious subjects, he also paints Latin American street scenes, domestic life, nudes, and political portraits.

At age eighty-nine, Botero continues to be active as an artist, living and working between Paris, New York, and Tuscany.

LISTEN: “Legend (The Crown of Roses),” Op. 54, No. 5, by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, 1883/89 | Based on a text by Richard Henry Stoddard, 1856 | Performed by the University of Pretoria Camerata, dir. Michael Barrett, on Written in the Stars, 2021

When Jesus Christ was yet a child
He had a garden small and wild,
Wherein he cherished roses fair,
And wove them into garlands there.

Now once, as summer-time drew nigh,
There came a troop of children by,
And seeing roses on the tree,
With shouts they plucked them merrily.

“Do you bind roses in your hair?”
They cried, in scorn, to Jesus there.
The Boy said humbly: “Take, I pray,
All but the naked thorns away.”

Then of the thorns they made a crown,
And with rough fingers pressed it down.
Till on his forehead fair and young
Red drops of blood like roses sprung.

In 1877 Tchaikovsky found a Russian poem by Aleksey Pleshcheyev published in a journal; it was a translation of the English-language poem “Roses and Thorns” (1856) by American poet Richard Henry Stoddard, an allegory of the Crucifixion. It’s about the boy Jesus who tends a rose garden and dreamily weaves together crowns from the branches’ yield. One day a bunch of rowdy children comes by and carelessly yanks the flowers off the trees, scoffing at Jesus for being soft, a flower lover. In a spirit of gentleness, he tells them they may have the flowers, but to leave the thorns. Continuing their derision, the children bend the bare, thorny stems into a crown and press it into Jesus’s head. From his flesh then bloom “roses” of blood.

Tchaikovsky first set the Russian poem to music in 1883, arranging it for solo voice and piano and publishing it as part of his Sixteen Songs for Children, Opus 54. In 1884 he arranged it for solo voice and orchestra, and in 1889 for unaccompanied choir.

When English-language choirs sing the song, instead of using Stoddard’s original text, they typically use a 1913 adaptation by British poet Geoffrey Dearmer—which I believe is the superior version. See a side-by-side presentation of the song’s textual history.

“Passion” by Gertrud von Le Fort (excerpt)

Duman-Skop, Tetiana_Christ in Blossoming Crown of Thorns
Tetiana Duman-Skop (Ukrainian, 1981–2020), Христос в розквітлому терновому вінку (Christ in a Blossoming Crown of Thorns), 2012. Encaustic on board, 70 × 50 cm.

Your voice speaks to my soul:

Be not afraid of my golden garments, have no fear of the rays of my candles,
For they are all but veils of my love, they are all but as tender hands covering my secret.
I will draw them away, weeping soul, that you may see I am no stranger to you.
How should a mother not resemble her child?
All your sorrows are in me.
I am born out of suffering, I have bloomed out of five holy wounds.
I grew on the tree of humiliation, I found strength in the bitter wine of tears.
I am a white rose in a chalice full of blood.
I live on suffering, I am the strength out of suffering, I am glory out of suffering:
Come to my soul and find your home.

This is section I of the poem “Passion” by Gertrud von Le Fort (1876–1971), translated from the German by Margaret Chanler and published in Hymns to the Church (Sheed and Ward, 1953). The icon is by Tetiana Duman-Skop, who died last year of brain cancer at age thirty-nine.

Christ figure in Justin Dingwall’s Albus series

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.

Dingwall, Justin_Rhapshody triptych
Justin Dingwall, Rhapsody I, II, III, 2015

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.

Justin Dingwall, Rhapsody I
Justin Dingwall, Rhapsody II
Justin Dingwall, Rhapsody III

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.

Justin Dingwall, Embrace
Justin Dingwall, Embrace, 2015

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.

Justin Dingwall, Liberty (triptych)
Justin Dingwall, Liberty I, II, III, 2015

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.

Justin Dingwall, Liberty II

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).

Justin Dingwall, Liberty I

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.

View additional photos from the Albus series at https://www.justindingwall.com/albus.

Good Friday, Part 1: Stripped

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.

Sarazhin, Denis_Pantomime 6

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.

For more songs for Holy Week, see the Art & Theology Holy Week Playlist.

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.

Thorns and resurrection with Paul van Dongen

Thistles, seaweed, ivy, and other plants and flowers appear often in the work of Dutch artist Paul van Dongen [previously], whose creative output includes a series of etchings titled Crown of Thorns. Made in 2004–5, shortly after his return to the Christian faith, each of these pieces portrays a ring of twining briars that evoke the headpiece forced mockingly on Jesus prior to his execution.

Dongen, Paul van_Crown of Thorns (2)
Paul van Dongen (Dutch, 1958–), Crown of Thorns (2), 2004. Etching, 25 × 37 cm. All photos courtesy of artist.

Dongen, Paul van_Crown of Thorns (3)
Paul van Dongen (Dutch, 1958–), Crown of Thorns (3), 2004. Etching, 28 × 40 cm.

Dongen, Paul van_Crown of Thorns (4)
Paul van Dongen (Dutch, 1958–), Crown of Thorns (4), 2004. Etching, 25 × 37 cm.

Dongen, Paul van_Crown of Thorns (5)
Paul van Dongen (Dutch, 1958–), Crown of Thorns (5), 2005. Etching, 25 × 37 cm.

“I think all nature is not just botanical,” the artist told me in an email when I inquired about the series. “It’s also a sign—a signal, if you please—of something or Someone supernatural.” Some items found in nature, like these thorn branches, even have a Christological association, thorns having been an instrument of Christ’s passion.

Etching is a printmaking process in which a metal plate (in van Dongen’s case, zinc) is first coated in an acid-resistant ground of wax. The artist then draws a picture or design into the plate with an etching needle, exposing the bare metal so that when the plate is dipped into an acid bath, the acid bites into the exposed areas to create recesses that can retain ink. Next the artist removes the wax ground, inks the plate (letting the ink settle into the etched grooves), wipes clean the surface, and finally rolls the plate through a press with a sheet of paper, to which the reverse image adheres. Voila!

Van Dongen collects organic materials from his surroundings in Tilburg, bringing them back to his studio. His drawings on the plate are done directly from life, with no sketches beforehand or photographs. “Everything has to be present before me,” he says.

For his Crown of Thorns etchings, he gathered thorny twigs and branches from bramble bushes and bent and wove them into circular forms—“a painful job”! One of these crowns he keeps on the wall of his studio, next to a seventeenth- or eighteenth-century Portuguese corpus (body of Christ) that his aunt gifted to him.

Paul van Dongen studio with crown of thorns

Continuous in some ways with this somber series and yet visually and thematically distinct is van Dongen’s vibrant Verrijzenis (Resurrection) etching, made with colored inks and, using a process of his own making, printed watercolor. I and the Daily Prayer Project team chose this image for the cover of our Easter 2021 periodical, which is available for purchase in print or digital format. (As a side note, I contributed a written piece to this edition, “Praying with the Eyes.”)

van Dongen, Paul_Resurrection
Paul van Dongen (Dutch, 1958–), Verrijzenis (Resurrection), 2006. Watercolor etching, 70 × 33 cm.

I appreciate how van Dongen finds a unique way into the subject of Jesus’s resurrection, taking a nonfigural, conceptual approach that invites contemplation. His etching shows a thorny stem with a few withered shoots bisecting a crown of thorns, breaking it in two, evoking the breaking of Jesus’s body on the cross and, moreover, the breaking of the curse of sin and death, of which thorns are a symbol (Gen. 3:17–19). Consider, too, the covenant of the pieces that God made with Abraham (Gen. 15:1–15), wherein God, manifest as fire, passed between the animal sacrifices Abraham had cut in half, ratifying the promise of a land flowing with milk and honey for all his descendants.

The spherical forms in the background are skulls, an allusion to human mortality and to Golgotha, the “Place of the Skull.” (Van Dongen has worked with this vanitas motif par excellence several times, and even participated in the Skull Show at the ACEC in Apeldoorn in 2019–20; see, e.g., here and here.) But the skulls are dissolving. They and the other organic matter are rendered in red, yellow, green, blue, violet—colors of the rainbow, that ancient sign of God’s promise. The brokenness of creation is being transformed into new life, and even the orientation of the artwork invites us into that “upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14), its strong verticality lifting our eyes in a rising motion.

“For me there is no fundamental difference between my explicitly religious works and my more profane, earthly works of art,” van Dongen says. “Nature with its cycle of growing, flowering, dying, and sprouting out again is symbolic to me of Christ and his resurrection. And the other way around.”

Each of the etchings on this page, excluding Resurrection, is from an edition of 15. There are still a few impressions left; contact the artist using the contact form on his website, www.paulvandongen.com, if you wish to inquire about a purchase. Follow him on Instagram @paulvan.dongen.