Friday, March 25, 2016

Beauty in an Ugly Death

Copyright © Edward Riojas

It shouldn’t be too surprising that, after 2,000 years or so, we have become a little de-sensitized about the reality of a gruesome death. It used to be horrible. Crucifixions used to be humiliating and embarrassing. It was all about watching a guy die in slow motion. For the first hundred years of the Christian Church, no one even used an image of a cross or equated it with Christianity, and for hundreds of years after the cross finally came into use, it still lacked an image of the dead Christ. It was that bad.
“The Thieves’ Legs Are Broken”
Jacques Joseph Tissot. c. 1890.
(Brooklyn Museum, N.Y.)

But a lot has happened since then. The courts don’t mete out that sort of punishment anymore, and what used to be a terrible reminder for Christians has become an honorable badge of sorts. The image of that death has become such a symbol of who we are that, for the past 1,000 years, we have tasked artisans to fashion little replicas of it so that we may wear it as jewelry. We occasionally craft it out of precious metal, throw in a few diamonds and sapphires, and wow our sense of loyalty and pride. At which point the wheels usually begin to fall off the cart.

No one would be caught dead wearing a pendant of a little naked man, even though nakedness was integral to the crucifixion. Folks wouldn’t wear such a thing in public. That would just be wrong. For Good Friday’s consideration, therefore, I’ve chosen four pieces that take a slightly tangential approach to the crucifixion of Christ and, in doing so, jar us to our senses and force us to forget jewel-encrusted Fabergé crosses. What is common among the artwork I’ve chosen is that they address Scripture’s detail about the legs of the thieves who were crucified with Jesus.
“Christ Between Two Thieves”
Peter Paul Rubens. 1620.
(Koninklijk Museum
Voor Schone Kunsten,
Antwerp, Belgium)

“The Thieves Legs Are Broken” is a little watercolor by one-time student of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Jacques Joseph Tissot. The man was a successful Parisian artist who eventually took on the task during the late 1800s of painting Bible illustrations. When taking the sum of Tissot’s work, this particular piece is decidedly lackluster. It has the appearance of a preparatory sketch that was hurriedly completed. Perhaps it was. Even with its unrefined lines and historical inaccuracies, however, this little painting gives us cause to stop in our tracks. Clubs are raised in readiness to do some ugly business.

Christ’s crucifixion didn’t fit the schedule of the Jews or the Roman rulers, and there was a sense of urgency to carry through on the proceedings and get the job done already. Death by slow motion would have to be put on the fast track, and that meant helping things along by breaking the legs of the crucified so they could neither relieve labored breathing nor prolong inevitable suffocation.

Peter Paul Rubens piece takes a more elegant path than does Tissot, but if the viewer spends any amount of time studying the Rubens painting, the same conclusion is reached. A soldier wields a compact iron batton, while the thief screams in pain and anticipation of what he knows is imminent.
Jan Provoost. c. 1500.
(Groeningemuseum, Belgium)

Northern Renaissance masters Robert Campin and Jan Provoost show after-the-fact ugliness. Jan Provoost’s piece follows conventions of other paintings using robust compositions. A deeply detailed tableau is displayed, showing nearly every element of the event. It is crowded with figures in theatrical poses, and is meant to give a thorough telling of the narrative. One small detail are red slashes on the legs of the thieves, and, given the spear in the side of our Savior, it is hinted that the fellow-crucified have been dealt some excruciating blows to quicken their deaths.

If Provoost gave us a hint regarding the thieves' legs, Robert Campin rubs our faces in it. The legs of the thief in his painting are not only slashed, but the bones are also misaligned in compound fractures. It elicits nearly as much pity from the viewer as does The Christ, whose legs were left unbroken. Which leads us to the point of this gruesome and disgusting, yet significant, detail of Holy Scripture.
“The Crucified Thief”
[Surviving panel of lost triptych]
Robert Campin. 1410.
(Städelsches Kunstinstitut,
Frankfurt, Germany)

Jesus Christ did not have His legs broken because He had already died. He did not prolong His own death by relieving the pain. He gave Himself up to death, and, indeed, charged at death headlong, obeying the Will of His Father. Even Pilate marveled that Jesus had died so quickly. It was not that Christ was lacking in strength or fortitude or manliness or Divine power. It was that He gladly laid down His own life for us; for your sins; for mine – only to take up His life again. This, so that we may do the same, taking up our lives again once we breathe our last.

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