Wednesday, 7 April 2021

 Easter Reflection: Rembrandt

This Rembrandt is from the Queen’s collection at Buckingham Palace. Here is Mary in the very act of realisation – it really isn’t the gardener! Her hands are still getting ready to anoint a dead body. Her face, full of shock, awe and wonder realises she is in fact dealing with a live Jesus – very much alive! There’s her little pot of spices to anoint him on one side of her, and there’s the reason why it is completely unnecessary on the other. A shaft of dawn light from the left illuminates Jesus in his glorious white robe, but it also illuminates Mary’s face, lit up with this new dawn!

In the cave there are the two angels from the story, sprawled a little nonchalantly over the grave where so recently the body of Jesus lay so very still and dead. One of them raises his eyes in the time honoured gesture that says, “She’s got it at last!”

The picture uses Rembrandt’s favourite chiaroscuro technique, literally lightdark. So many of his paintings have deep pools of darkness so areas of light stand out much more strongly by contrast. Here we have a dark cave contrasting with a bright Easter dawn. A great big pillar separates the two and splits the picture in half: darkness on one side, light on the other. Jesus is the bridge between the two, standing in the light and turned towards it. He is the way out of darkness into light: he is the Resurrection and the Life.

Also caught in the morning sun are the gleaming towers of Jerusalem. But is this a more than earthly splendour? Is this actually the New Jerusalem? For the New Jerusalem is God’s goal and destiny for us, through the resurrection of his Son.

In the picture, Jesus has actually dressed up as the gardener Mary mistakes him for. He has the hat, the pruning knife tucked into his belt, and the spade of a gardener. He’s relaxed, hand on hip, as he says the single word that changes everything – “Mary!”  Rembrandt’s portrayed this holiest of moments as a sort of practical joke! And just possibly the resurrection is the most wonderful cosmic joke: a joke surely on us. All our strivings, ambitions, anxieties, achievements, wealth, self-importance, pride and glory, suddenly swallowed up by overwhelming life and joy! Could we really have taken our doings so very seriously? We tied ourselves up with all these irrelevant things, but now they are as gloriously useless as Mary’s pot of burial spices. Here is the life we were really meant for in all its fulness! And our own futile efforts to achieve it completely by-passed.

And finally there’s the gaze of Mary into Jesus’ eyes, and his into hers. The relationship between Mary and Jesus cuts diagonally across that huge dividing line down the middle of the picture. It is our relationship with Jesus, or His with us, that brings us out of darkness into marvellous light.

Reflection 3: Giotto – Lamentation

The last in a series of three reflections from St Andrew's Church Wraysbury on Good Friday 2021

It’s dark again! This time because it’s evening. There’s been an unseemly rush to dispose of the bodies of Jesus and the two criminals crucified with him before sunset, which marks the start of the new day in Hebrew chronology. The next day would be the Passover Sabbath, the holiest of days, which could not be profaned by touching a dead body.

·       Tenderly holding Jesus’ feet we find Mary Magdalene again, as she was found at the feet of Jesus only days before when she anointed them.

·       All around are the other disciples. Some are saints and have haloes, others are just ordinary people who love Jesus and want to be near Him even in death. Look how the women in particular take his hands in theirs, cradle his head, gaze incredulously into His unseeing eyes wondering how it could even be possible that the Lord of life could have died. Every face is contorted with grief at that particular stage where you just can’t believe it could possibly have happened…

·       This is a picture for everyone who has ever been bereaved, telling us with enormous eloquence that God understands, He has been there, for God too is present grieving over His Beloved Son.

·         The angels above them, with their contorted faces and postures are grieving too. There is a sort of paroxysm going on following the death of Jesus which affects the whole cosmos, human, natural and divine.

·       For nature too is grieving. Look at this bleak, lifeless, almost formless landscape. It calls to mind the beginning of Genesis when it tells us the earth was “waste and void.” This is highly significant for it indicates that the pattern of Jesus’ time since he entered Jerusalem a few days before has been following the way of the Creator of Genesis. He enters Jerusalem on the first day and sets about the work of ministry, as God does the work of creation over five days. On the sixth day God creates humanity: on the sixth day Jesus the Son of Man is destroyed. On the seventh day God the Creator rests, and thus calls into being Shabbat: on Shabbat Jesus rests in the tomb, his terrible work completed. But after that rest, Jesus rises and with him the world is re-created.

·       The rockiness of the landscape also calls to mind the rocky cave where the body of Jesus spend that epoch-changing Shabbat.

·       Finally, there are two more figures, bottom left, in green and white, with their backs turned towards us. Their positioning is odd because they block our full view of Jesus. They are like actors who upstage the main action by standing in the wrong place. They are ordinary people, they have no haloes… What are they doing there? Surely they are there because they represent us. In them, Giotto invites us to come and be part of this picture, to sit with Jesus and grieve, to share in the experience of His death - so that we may also share in His coming resurrection.


Reflection 2: Grünewald – Isenheim altar piece

 This is the second of three reflections used at St Andrew’s Church Wraysbury on Good Friday 2021

·         It’s dark again! This is because of the Gospel writers’ statement that “At the sixth hour darkness came over the whole land.”

·       So who are these various figures standing around? They are not the mob of Bosch’s painting, nor the Roman soldiers and the Pharisees of the Gospel accounts. Even the two thieves crucified with Jesus have been stripped out. Grünewald wants us to focus firstly and fundamentally on Jesus himself, and then on just a handful of figures in the way they react to his crucifixion.

·       On the left is Mary Magdalen, always identifiable in Christian iconography by her beautiful flowing golden hair – a prostitute redeemed by Jesus. By her side is an alabaster jar, a reminder of the costly ointment she poured on Jesus’ feet just a few days before: but also of the jar of spices she would later bring to anoint Jesus’ body on the day of resurrection. She gazes despairingly into the stricken face of Jesus…

·       Mary the mother of Jesus is uncharacteristically dressed in white – she is normally shown in a blue robe. Is this a shroud she is wearing? She identifies deeply with Jesus in his suffering and death. As Simeon prophesied long before when she brought Jesus as a baby to be dedicated in the Temple, “And a sword shall pierce your own heart also.”

·         Tenderly cradling Mary is John the beloved disciple. This is in reference to the words of Jesus from the cross, thinking not of himself but of other, in the same way that he says, “Father forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing,” so he also says to John, “Behold your mother,” and to Mary, “Behold your son.” Among the many other meanings of the cross is the message that we should show compassion to one another as God shows compassion in Christ to us.

·       On the right is John the Baptist. What’s he doing here? He’s supposed to have been beheaded perhaps a year before. Grünewald knows this and shows John in red, for the blood of the martyrs. It’s because John prophesied, saying of Jesus, “behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” And there is a lamb by John’s feet. There is blood coming from its side and falling into a chalice – the blood of Christ shed for us. John is there to remind us that the cross is the fulfilment of prophecies such as Isaiah 53 or Psalm 22, and also the fulfilment of the Passover Feast with the central act of the slaughtered lamb and its saving blood from Exodus.

·       It is Jesus himself though who is absolutely central. He is larger than the other characters and totally dominates the picture. This is a desperately confrontational painting. Jesus and his agony are right in our faces, demanding to know how we will respond to such graphic suffering. It is personal, it matters what we decided about him.

·       Jesus’ body is twisted in the throes of his last agony. His skin pocked with the savage marks created by scourging with Roman whips, which had pieces of metal embedded in their thongs to inflict maximum pain. Take a look in close up. His mouth sags open, his head is hanging down in utter exhaustion. Unlike the polite tricklings of some artists, there is much blood, from head, hands, side and feet. And just look at those hands, cruelly contorted, beseeching the darkness. Here is the cruellest crown of thorns in any depiction of the cross.

·       This then is crucified servant of Isaiah 53, who was “marred and disfigured beyond human likeness…” This is the agony of Psalm 22 - “I can count all my bones… they pierced my hands and feet…” – in which Jesus cries, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

·       Grünewald has portrayed Jesus as the one who has spent himself utterly for you, who has given everything in love until nothing is left. Now how are you going to respond to him?

 Reflection 1: Hieronymous Bosch – Jesus carrying the cross

This is the first of three reflections used at St Andrew’s Church Wraysbury on Good Friday 2021

Darkness! Bosch’s background is inky black, a reflection on the darkness of the cross, spiritual as well as physical.

Faces! Every kind of face, but with a few exceptions, most of them twisted to reflect moral deformity of various kinds: cruel, arrogant, sneering, angry, malicious, pompous, hypocritical, greedy, fearful, snarling, gloating faces. Are these possibly the seven deadly sins? Are they possibly us – those for whom Christ died? For Jesus is being led out to die, not for the righteous, but for sinners…

The face of Jesus is right in the middle. At first he seems just one among the seething hubbub, lost in this dark eddy of humanity. But then look at his expression, so different:  Patient, humble, submitted to the task He must carry out, calm in the midst of rage. 

Jesus’ face is picked out by the beam of the cross, a great diagonal scything through the mob. Somehow a light seems to be shining along it, gently illuminating his serene expression. The cross that brings such darkness to Him will nonetheless bring light to us.

Simon of Cyrene is above and behind Jesus, his hand and chin lifted in the act of taking up the cross. Cyrene was in Libya, and as an African Bosch as depicted him as a black man. Jesus commanded His followers to take up their cross – the first person literally to do this was black. 

Two other black faces either side of Jesus may be Simon’s sons, Alexander and Rufus, who are named in Mark’s Gospel. The reason for naming them must be that they were known to Mark’s readers. Bosch is referring to the eye witness dimension of the Gospel’s account.

St Veronica is positioned bottom left – you can see she is holding a cloth with yet another face printed on it. This is the legend that Veronica saw Jesus stumble as he was carrying the cross and came to him to wipe his bleeding and sweating face. Though not described in the Gospels, the story echoes a Gospel truth, that we are all called to bear the image of Christ, to grow into his likeness, and that we cannot do so unless we walk in the way of His cross. Bosch indicates this by showing her face in the same posture and with the same calm, inward expression as Jesus’ face: and a similar light falls on her face as his.

The two thieves crucified with Jesus are shown at bottom right and top right. Both are being taunted, one snarls back at his tormentors, but the one at top right is grey with fear at the ordeal he is to undergo. He becomes the penitent thief, the one who turns to Jesus at the last extremity: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom:” “Today you will be with me in prardise.”