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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.”)
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.
VISUAL MEDITATION: “At the Whipping Post” by Victoria Emily Jones: Last year the Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP) ran a major retrospective on Djanira da Motta e Silva, “a central artist in Brazilian mid-century modernism” (Rodrigo Moura). ArtWay’s editor asked me to choose a painting of hers to write about—I chose the one she submitted to the 1955 “Christ of Color” contest, showing Jesus as an enslaved African being scourged in the historic center of Salvador de Bahia, the first colonial capital of Brazil.
LECTURE: “Is Christianity a White Man’s Religion?” by Dr. Vince L. Bantu: I first encountered Vince Bantu in a Conversing (Fuller Studio) podcast episode on African American identity and the church. (He joined the Fuller faculty last year as assistant professor of church history and Black church studies.) In this video from January 2018, he returns to his alma mater, Wheaton College, to discuss the history of Christianity in Africa—which some people are surprised to learn predates colonialism. “To study ancient African history is to study Christianity. They go together,” he says. “If you want to study Ethiopian literature, . . . you’re going to be reading a whole bunch of Christian literature. Same thing in Nubian. Same thing in Coptic.” While the Anglo-Saxons were still worshipping Odin and Thor, Bantu says, Black Africans were building churches, establishing seminaries, and writing Christian theological treatises!
The talk starts at 11:34 and really kicks into gear at around 24:00. Q&A starts at 52:40 and includes discussion of a three-point spectrum of approaches to culture, mission as “cultural sanctification,” and internalized theological racism. Take note of Bantu’s response, at 1:09:35, to the question “What do we do with this information?”
“Christianity is and always has been a global religion,” Bantu reminds us. Unfortunately, people tend to associate it most with western Europe. That’s because Rome, the dominant culture for some time, essentially said, “Christianity belongs to us,” instituting a theological hegemony. The West proclaimed itself the guardian of the Christian faith, declaring heretical churches in other regions that didn’t express theology the same way they did, with no regard for differences in language and philosophical frameworks.
I appreciate how Bantu teaches Christian history in part through art and architecture, which are material witnesses to the faith and sometimes even modes of theology. He shows photos of churches and monasteries and their interior decoration. Most fascinating to me is a tenth-century wall painting he photographed at the Great Monastery of Saint Anthony in Old Dongola (present-day Sudan), a Nativity scene that shows Africans wearing animal crest masks and worshipping Christ with traditional instruments. (You can view some photos here. See also The Wall Paintings from the Monastery on Kom H in Dongolaby Malgorzata Martens-Czarnecka, or the freely accessible essay by the same author, “The Christian Nubia and the Arabs.”)
Great is your name, Lord Jesus Christ Praise to your name, Lord Jesus Christ Power to your name, Lord Jesus Christ Praise to your name, exalted Jesus Christ
Hallelujah, hallelujah Hallelujah, hallelujah Hallelujah, hallelujah Praise to your name, exalted Jesus
“I Am Thine (Plague Hymn)”: Made especially timely by the current COVID-19 pandemic, this hymn text was written in 1519 by Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli while convalescing from the bubonic plague, having caught it ministering to others. This year Zac Hicks wrote a new melody for it, and it’s sung here by Leif Bondarenko. Released by Advent Birmingham.
BIBLICAL ART DATABASE: Visual Midrash: “Visual Midrash is an online bilingual (Hebrew and English) collection of Bible art and commentary, sponsored by the TALI Education Fund in Israel. At present, the site contains more than 1100 art images relating to 33 different subjects from all three divisions of the Hebrew Bible – including such figures as Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, the women of the Book of Judges, the scrolls of Ruth and Esther and much more. Among the images are objects from the Ancient Near East; frescoes from the ancient synagogue of Dura Europos; medieval illuminated manuscripts; paintings, sculptures, lithographs, and nearly 100 other art media from Michelangelo to Rembrandt to Chagall to contemporary artists.” I’ve had fun browsing! Below is just a small sampling of images from the site.
A significant portion of Denver-based artist Jaime Molina’s output comprises small heads carved in found wood, with hair and beards formed by hammered nails of various sizes. Molina calls these figures “Cuttys.”
When asked about his Cuttys in a Juxtapoz interview, Molina replied, “I always like them to be a bit mysterious. . . . I like the narrative that the viewer creates when they are left to determine why he looks the way he looks. I’ve been told a lot that they look sad . . .”
To me these little bearded men are reminiscent of Christ in his passion—suffering silently, embracing his fate. In this reading the nails not only add dimension and tactilicity but, as arma Christi (instruments of Christ’s death), exert a threat, foreshadowing Jesus’s pounded, torn flesh.
The Cuttys resonate visually with several traditional religious subjects from art history: the Agony in the Garden, Ecce Homo, Christ Crowned with Thorns, Christ on the Cold Stone, and Man of Sorrows.
In most of the sculptures the eyes are closed as if the figure is riding out a wave of pain, and in one the mouth is open, emitting a grievous cry. Others in the series form a hinged container out of which a menacing force emerges—a skull, or a fanged beast, representative of death and Satan, respectively; the one is a cup he must drink, while the other seeks to tempt him off his chosen path. One of the Cutty containers bears a cactus, intensifying the impression of being pierced. (Although the plant is depicted without spines, our minds make the automatic association.)
To view more of Molina’s sculptures as well as some of his murals and other paintings, visit his Instagram page @cuttyup.