I am quite sure I first saw the painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme when I was perhaps four or five years old. The artist’s piece, “The Christian Martyr’s Last Prayer,” was reproduced in black and white on the pages of an early edition of Grolier’s Book of Knowledge.
|“The Christian Martyr’s Last Prayer”|
Jean-Léon Gérôme. 1883.
(Walters Art Museum, Baltimore)
I still remember the black binding of that set of encyclopedia for children. That was when parents intentionally kept things like encyclopedias and dictionaries for rambunctious kids to find. Back then, there were no cell phones or home computers. Neither were there video games. Television sets offered black and white programming, most of which was dull for children. In my house, the volumes populating a modest bookcase became fair game when the weather prohibited outdoor play. Hence, my first exposure to fine art, along with articles on the finer points of kite construction and splint assembly for broken bones.
From the world’s point of view, I was innocent back then. A lot of us seemed to be. Of course, we weren’t really innocent – we were simply ignorant. We were insulated against the realities of life; of the world, and, unless we broke a toy or stuck a fork in the wall outlet, we were happy. And then we grew up.
It should come as no shock that I now see Gérôme’s painting with different eyes. It’s not that I have greater respect for the artist. Rather, what the artist painted now strikes me more deeply.
Now I understand the contrast between my childhood and the contents of Gérôme’s painting. While I haven’t yet been set ablaze in an arena as a kind of human Tiki torch, and even though I haven’t been offered as the main course for animals of prey, my thoughts now lean decidedly closer to the once and future martyrs, what they gained, and what all the saints left behind.
For the martyr’s in the painting, their life of persecution and annoyance is about to get a lot worse before it gets infinitely better. The artist has created high drama in a setting of ancient Rome. One can easily forgive the erroneous location of the hippodrome, as our minds swell with a cacophany of muffled prayers, painful cries and the crowd’s roar. A male lion, given prominence in the composition, lifts a proud head, and that awful, guttural growl cuts to the quick of our imagination.
I could here dive into a litany of complaints and confessions surrounding my life and yours in a vain attempt to compare the earth-bound living with those who now live eternally in heaven. We all know, however, the misery we endure and the crap with which we frost it is a product of the Fall and our own sinful shortcomings, and those in heaven have been finally rid of the same. Some day, those of us who feebly struggle will be in the same boat as those who now shine in glory. Some day.
That the martyrs in Gérôme’s piece counted their lives as of no value in order to finish the race sheds Divine Light on our own course. We look forward to that day when we, too, will shine and when perfection will be fully ours. Then the struggle will be over. Then we shall see Him as He is. Then we shall have days-long conversations, without blinking. And complete joy will be ours.
For now, we give thanks for the saints – both martyrs and otherwise – who have gone before us. We give thanks for their admonitions; for their instruction; for their example. We give thanks to Our Lord and Savior, The Christ Jesus, for putting them in our lives, and for allowing them, through His Grace, to show us how it’s done.