Friday, March 1, 2019

The Second Day

"Avignon Pietà." Enguerrand Quarton. c. 1450.
(The Louvre, Paris)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

In spite of those who think we “should just get over the Crucifixion,” I’m offering today a few visions of the Passion from the masters. More specifically, these paintings take a look at the aftermath of our Lord's crucifixion. They aren’t pretty, and they challenge the whole concept of “Beauty” in artwork. Because death is ugly, we must put aside for the moment pieces such as Michelangelo’s theatrically-tender “Pietà.”

There are oodles of similar pietàs in which Mary, the mother of our Lord, weeps over the dead Christ in her lap. The “Avignon Pietà,” by Enguerrand Quarton, is one of the most striking examples. Christ’s body is bent beyond reclining comfort, and we know that He is dead. Mourners, and their lamentations, become key ingredients in this tableau.

"Lamentation of Christ." Andrea Mantegna. c. 1480.
(Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan, Italy.)

When Christ is taken from the lap of His mother and placed on a slab, however, things change. What is tenderly personal in a pietà becomes almost impersonal. The viewer is forced to look on separation caused by death. Andrea Mantegna’s “Lamentation of Christ,” places the mourners nearly off the canvas, and a foreshortened view of Christ’s body creates an odd sense of a sanitized postmortem.

The one piece, however, that has always forcefully struck me is “The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb,” by Hans Holbein the Younger. No mourners are represented in the painting, and an unsentimental and unsettling body of Christ is laid out. The artist cleverly set up the painting so that the viewer becomes the mourner, and without animated mourners in the painting, the stillness of the painting echoes the stillness of death.

Holbein pulls no punches. The hands, feet, and face of Christ Jesus are beginning to blacken. The eyes beg to be shut. The mouth is agape. It is hard to look on this visage and see any beauty. The ugliness of death, and the hideousness of the sins that put our Lord in that tomb confront us with an honesty that is nearly unbearable.

Those of us who have had to look at loved ones in a similar pose know intimately the harsh and inescapable reality shown here. In looking on the dead Lord, we also face our own death. Thanks be to God, we also recognize this body as the single Kernel, and know that it must first die before springing to new life. And as Christ is the first fruits from the dead, we recognize that we, too, shall rise on the third day, and slough off the corruption of our bodies and the sorrow in this vale of tears.

"The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb." Hans Holbein the Younger. c. 1521. (Kunstmuseum, Basel, Switzerland.)

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